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Participation in high school sports has dropped for the first time in 30 years – here’s what that means


The world of sports is consistently fueled by the development of younger generations. Without talented youth honing their skills from a young age, the future of all sports would be in danger.

Over the past three decades, there has been a steady increase in the number of high school athletes from a participation standpoint. Part of the reason for the rise consistent rise in numbers has to do with the rise in population, simply leading to more youth in schools, who are pushing to improve their athletic abilities.

Participation in high school sports has dropped for the first time in 30 years – here’s what that means

But in 2018, we saw the number of high school athletes drop for the first time in 30 years. Despite roughly 8 million student athletes being recorded across the country, this number actually dropped by 43,000 from 2017. So what is leading to this decline, and is there reason for concern that this could become a trend?

The first thing that needs to be considered is the tendencies of an even younger age group. The number of children participating in sports from the ages of 6 to 12, has been in decline for many years now. A part of this has to do with the fact that certain sports simply cannot support the demand for all the children who are interested in playing. Another reason is the rising cost of playing certain sports, which not all families can handle from a purely financial standpoint.

This trend leads to another major concern. Is the drop in younger kids playing sports finally catching up to the high school age group? While there is no confirmation in this matter at this point, it is certainly something to follow, as more kids reach the high school level, and perhaps selected other avenues of focus, away from the athletic world.

One trend that has had much more evidence backing it up, is the shift of many young athletes away from football. Football has long been the dominant sport that has had the most high school students participation. But the recent growing awareness regarding the risks of playing the sport have led many parents to refrain from allowing their children from playing. The overall decrease in high school athlete participation is mainly attributed to a drop in football enrollment. In fact, 70 percent of this decline are in football alone.

Participation in high school sports has dropped for the first time in 30 years – here’s what that means

Aside from the various injury risks to extremities, there has been a lot of research that supports the correlation between playing football and concussions. The essence of the sport is extremely physical in nature, and the risk versus reward factor is becoming increasingly difficult to justify.

But the bigger picture could be totally different than the numbers suggest. First, using the numbers from a single year as conclusive evidence of a trend would be a mistake. Additionally, it’s important to consider how the numbers are measured. Any student athlete who was playing multiple sports would be counted several times. If he or she was playing two sports, and then decided to play just one, it would reflect in the drop of athlete participation.

Another factor to consider is that there has been a development of recreation leagues, as well as competitive sports that take place outside the confines of high schools across the nation. Some youth athletes have made the lateral move to play their favorite sports in this way, which would also lead to a perceived drop in the numbers.

In order to know for sure, more data is clearly necessary to reach an accurate assessment of the state of high school sports. If the 2019 numbers indicate an increase in athlete participation, there won’t be too much concern here. But another consecutive year or two showing a drop in the number of young athletes could be more indicative of a new trend in the realm of high school sports.