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November 30, 2015 •

Prep sports hits 7.8 million athletes

Five Takeaways from the Latest NFHS Participation Survey

Participation in high school athletics increased for a 26th consecutive year during the 2014-15 season, a sign that interest in prep sports is growing despite concerns that injuries and cost of participation might scare off young students.

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The National Federation of State High School Associations’ latest annual participation survey revealed that there are now more than 7.8 million student-athletes nationwide — an increase of 11,389 from the previous year. Those gains are almost a direct result of growing interest in girls sports, where schools reported an increase of 20,071 student-athletes from the 2013-14 school year. Participation in boys sports dipped by more than 8,600.

Football, the nation’s most popular sport amongst boys, decreased by 9,767 players.

“Overall, we are pleased with this year’s participation reported indicating an increase for a 26th consecutive year,” NFHS Executive Director Bob Gardner said in a statement. “And while football participation dropped this past year, the decrease is not that significant when you consider more than 1.1 million boys and girls are involved in the sport and the high school level.

“Despite other out-of-school opportunities that exist in some sports, this year’s survey is yet another confirmation that our model of education-based sports within the high school setting is the No. 1 choice for boys and girls nationwide. We applaud the more than 19,000 high school across the country for continuing to provide these important programs despite the funding challenges that exist in some areas.”

While overall participation is important when gauging the health of high school athletics, the annual NFHS survey also offers insight on growth within individual sports and where states are seeing the biggest increases.

Here are the five things coaches and athletic administrators should know about the latest survey.

1. Football down, but not out. Last year was considered by many to be the changing of the tide. After five straights years of decline, participation in high school football finally started moving in the opposite direction, gaining nearly 6,800 players. But that didn’t last long.

Football lost nearly 10,000 athletes in 2014-15, a drop that coaches attribute to parental concerns over concussions and other serious injuries. Since the 2008-09 school year, football has lost 27,880 young athletes, but that still represents just a fraction of its overall participation numbers.

It’s fair to say injuries have kept some athletes away, but so has cost of participation and competition from other fall sports. All factors considered, football is still America’s top high school sport for boys, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

Organizations like USA Football are making the game safer, and efforts to put experienced athletic trainers on the sidelines will continue to alleviate concerns about whether schools can properly treat injured athletes. The sport may continue to lose or gain thousands of athletes each year, but that volatility exists within any game that has more than one million participants.

The bottom line: Football will be just fine.

2. Girls sports momentum continues. Participation in girls sports has increased by 3.6 percent since the 2010-11 school year, compared to just 0.6 percent on the boys side. The difference is largely the number of opportunities that now exist for girls.

Title IX has been in place for more than 40 years, but schools must continuously make adjustments in their athletic programs to accommodate the girls in their institution. There’s also the growth of individual sports and the sanctioning of new ones, like competitive spirit squad, which are beginning to take off.

Competitive spirit squad added 5,170 new members last year, and 439 more schools reported offering it to students. Volleyball added a few thousand new participants, passing basketball as the No. 2 most popular sport amongst girls. Track and field remains at No. 1.

Given the gains girls sports has made over the last two decades, it’s hard to believe participation will slow in the coming years.

3. Lacrosse growth will continue. Few sports have grown like lacrosse over the last five years, and that’s a fact that might still be true a decade from now.

Ohio, ranked fifth in the nation in participation, is joining those that have sanctioned lacrosse as an official high school sport, beginning with the 2016-17 school year. It’s quite possible that other states will fall in line, and that will continue to boost numbers, consequently lowering participation in other sports during the same season.

Two years ago 223 schools added lacrosse, and last year another 252 offered it. Participation during the 2014-15 school year alone grew by 4,546 athletes, and only half of states are reporting lacrosse numbers.

4. Program cuts continue. Budget cuts wreaked havoc on athletic programs over the last eight years. While finances have begun to stabilize, and in some cases rebound, the effects are still being felt by the programs that lack the funding to keep all of their teams afloat.

Some schools implemented pay-to-play policies to offset costs, but for those that opted not to charge students for participation, dropping costly programs was a viable solution. Those decisions are partly made based on participation and travel costs, which have climbed over the last decade. Schools must also maintain a balance to satisfy Title IX requirements, and tighter budgets make it easier to cut teams than add new ones.

Roughly 100 fewer schools reported offering girls fast-pitch softball last year, and 50 boys bowling programs were dropped. Football, one of an athletic department’s biggest expenses, was cut by 108 schools nationwide, while 155 fewer schools reported offering boys and girls basketball.

There are a number of reasons schools cut programs — adequate coaching, facilities, etc. — but it’s no secret that budgetary constraints have forced athletic administrators to make difficult decisions. As budgets begin to improve, athletic directors may choose to bring those teams back or use the money to support teams that are underfunded.

5. The ‘club effect’ is nonexistent. Some coaches fear that club programs and their promises of exposure to college recruiters hurt high school participation, but there’s virtually no evidence to support that claim.

As a sample, take volleyball and basketball, two of the nation’s biggest club sports. Last year, participation in girls and boys basketball decreased by just 3,400 athletes, while high school volleyball welcomed nearly 4,800 new members. Volleyball has added more than 40,000 high school athletes to its numbers since the 2007-08 school year, so it’s difficult to build a case that club programs are draining resources from high schools.

Club coaches often argue that their programs actually help high schools by hooking athletes at a young age or improving the skills of those already playing prep sports. That’s debatable, but the claim that club teams diminish scholastic participation is a tougher case to make based on the record number of kids playing high school sports.


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