For the first time in 30 years, the National Federation of State High School Associations has reported an overall decline in high school sports participation.
But Massachusetts remains among the top states for overall participation, ranking 11th in 2018-19 with 227,267 total athletes, a slight increase of 221 from the previous school year, according to the NFHS’s latest participation survey, which was released Monday.
“It’s great that our overall numbers are up,” said Dennis-Yarmouth principal Paul Funk, who was formerly the school’s athletic director and varsity football coach. “That speaks for all the parents deciding that athletics is crucial to their child’s education and we are one of the most highly educated states in the nation.”
Several Massachusetts schools have actually increased the number of sports they offer. Braintree, for example, is one of five Massachusetts high schools to offer boys’ gymnastics and has 76 sports teams across all levels.
“Sports are no longer extracurricular, they’re co-curricular, and everyone needs to have that mind-set,” said Braintree athletic director Mike Denise. “There’s a lot of emphasis on wellness for students, and much of that improvement is through athletics.”
Nationwide during the 2018-19 school year, 7,937,491 high school athletes participated in a sport — a decline of 43,395 from a record high in the 2017-18 school year.
The biggest declines were in 11-player football and girls’ basketball.
A total of 168 schools added 11-player football in 2018, yet participation still dipped by 30,829 athletes to 1,006,013 — the lowest mark since the 1999-2000 school year.
In Massachusetts, football suffered the most significant decline, with the number of participants falling by 913 (907 boys and six girls).
Cape Cod has been among the hardest-hit areas, although Funk cited a drop in enrollment as one of the reasons.
“You talk to all our communities down the Cape, the drop in enrollment has skewed some of those participation numbers,” Funk said. “Economically, there’s more jobs off the Cape right now, and it can be a challenge for some families to live down here year-round.”
Funk believes it is safer to play football now than ever before.
“There’s been more training done by athletes, coaches, parents, and athletic trainers on head injuries than ever before,” said Funk. “It’s much safer now and football is the greatest sport to teach you how to be a good teammate.”
Rugby participation went up considerably in Massachusetts, with additional programs leading to 172 more athletes playing last year.
Basketball participation in the United States was down 23,944 (13,340 girls and 10,604 boys). Much of the drop in girls’ basketball was in Texas, where the number dipped by more than 25,000 the last two years, including around 10,000 in 2018-19.
Participation increased in Texas for girls’ soccer by nearly 2,000, girls’ volleyball by 3,000, and girls’ tennis by 1,000, with another 500 each participating in team tennis and wrestling.
In Texas, the girls’ basketball season stretches from tryouts on Oct. 23 to the state finals on March 7, which overlaps the end of volleyball season (Nov. 23) and the start of softball season (Jan. 24).
In Sealy, Texas, a town 50 miles west of Houston, girls’ varsity basketball coach Anthony Branch has seen a rise in popularity for softball take away from sports such as basketball.
“I think the biggest thing is that kids are becoming more specialized and the idea of wanting to get a [college] scholarship,” Branch said. “I think kids are missing opportunities in not playing multiple sports because you get to be coached by someone else, you never know what you could learn from another coach.”
The basketball numbers in Massachusetts also decreased slightly — down 292. Girls’ basketball dropped by 248, while the boys lost just 44 from last year.
Denise, who oversees one of the most successful girls’ basketball programs in the state in Braintree, offered a couple of reasons.
“We have one of the largest youth programs around,” said Denise. “But from middle school to high school, there’s a progression where our numbers have been dropping and our girls make a decision based on numbers above them at the varsity level.
“There’s a couple of factors like sports specialization, there’s not as many multisport athletes, and there’s been a rise in club sports participation in the offseason as well.”
Girls’ lacrosse is one of those sports that has trended positively in Massachusetts, along with boys’ and girls’ volleyball, and boys’ ice hockey. Both girls’ and boys’ outdoor track account for much of the growth in numbers in the state.
Most popular sports
Listed by total participation numbers
1. Football (11-player), 1,006,013
2. Outdoor track and field, 605,354
3. Basketball, 540,769
4. Baseball, 482,740
5. Soccer, 459,077
6. Cross country, 269,295
7. Wrestling, 247,441
8. Tennis, 159,314
9. Golf, 143,200
10. Swimming and diving, 136,638
1. Outdoor track and field, 488,267
2. Volleyball, 452,808
3. Basketball, 399,067
4. Soccer, 394,105
5. Softball, 362,038
6. Cross country, 219,345
7. Tennis 189,436
8. Swimming and diving, 173,088
9. Competitive spirit, 161,358
10. Lacrosse, 99,750