High school sports participation drops for first time in 30 years, including in Maryland, led by fall in football

A new survey from the National Federation of State High School Associations shows the first national drop in high school sports participation since 1988-89, led by decreases in football and basketball.

Coming off an all-time high of 7.98 million in 2017-2018, the annual High School Athletics Participation Survey showed involvement dripped slightly to 7.94 million.


The trend was mirrored in Maryland, where boys’ participation in 2018-2019 fell by nearly 2 percent to 65,903. Girls’ participation grew by about 1.2%, to 51,234, spread across a number of sports.

Maryland’s participation ranked 23rd in the country for the fifth consecutive year.


“When you look at the actual numbers, it’s pretty minimal,” Carroll County supervisor of athletics Michael Duffy said. "But I understand; our population continues to grow, so people continue to think numbers will continue to increase. But when you break down where the numbers fell, I don’t think anything is a real surprise.”

Lacrosse, the high school sport with its identity deeply rooted in Maryland, lost some interest with boys but not with girls in 2019, with 6,296 boys — 82 fewer than the previous season — and 5,591 girls, a 119-player increase.

Overall, boys and girls lacrosse has flourished, gaining participation annually. Since the 2003-04 academic year, the last time national lacrosse numbers were under 100,000, the sport has gained 116,917 new players nationwide.

Nationally, football sank to its lowest total since 1999-2000, with numbers shrinking for the fifth year in a row. This year, 1,008,417 participants will take to the gridiron this fall — a 30,662-person drop from the previous season.

“I know that there’s obviously concern for risk of injury,” Duffy said. "Concussions is an issue — long-term health of the students — and parents are putting their sons and daughters into playing football, so I know that’s an area of concern. I can’t say unequivocally that’s why, but I would expect that’s a factor in the reduction in football.”

The risk of injuries and concussions is present in all sports, but Chris Boone, the National Federation of State High School Associations’ assistant director of publications and communications, said he believes public perception might be hindering football’s numbers more than other sports, such as soccer and lacrosse.

“A lot of it is the national discussion, the image that football is a violent contact sport,” he said. “It gets a little more emphasis on it because of the nature of the popularity of it. When that helps drive the narrative, that’s what people see and they don’t see it as much in those other sports.”

Boone said this year’s drop shouldn’t raise any alarm bells.

“If you look at the dip in football, it’s equivalent of taking three players off of a 73-man roster per school,” he said. “Are those three players getting a lot of playing time? Are they going to find something else to do? With any sport with over a million players, any drop is noticeable, but we’re not sure it means the sport is collapsing in any way.”

The federation maintains that the sum of schools participating in football remained stable, actually experiencing slight growth, with 14,247 schools offering 11-on-11 football, an uptick of 168.

The same trend can be found in Maryland. Boys participation fell by 782 players to 12,146, though two more schools began offering the sport.

Howard County’s Centennial High couldn’t field a team in 2017 because of lack of turnout. Head coach Billy Martin said the program had more than 65 players sign up for tryouts this year.


“We have 25 more kids than we started with last year, and we have almost double than what we ended with last season,” he said.

Edmondson benefited from a rise in freshman turnout specifically this year, with 40 coming out to tryouts. However, for a varsity squad of 31, this hasn’t been the norm in the past couple years. Coach Corey Johnson cites an influx of charter schools drawing student-athletes away as well as social media and video games for the curbed interest.

“I know some private schools offer boys volleyball. With traumatic brain injuries, I know a lot of parents are opting for a safer sport," Johnson said. “Social media plays a big part. A lot of times, kids came out to sports teams to connect. That was being social. Nowadays, you don’t have to. Kids are on social media and that’s their social life.”

Several states are finding alternatives to 11-on-11 football to breathe new life into the sport. Nationwide, 6-on-6, 8-on-8 and 9-on-9 football saw a 1,630-player, 156-school uptrend.

The number of girls playing football is also on the rise. Over the past decade, that figure has more than tripled from 759 in 2008-09 to 2,404 last season. Last year, 24 girls are reported to have played football in Maryland.

Basketball suffered the second-biggest losses this season, losing 23,944 participants across boys (10,604) and girls (13,340). However, the decline in girls participation has little to do with Maryland and more to do with Texas, where 25,000 girls have stopped playing basketball over two years.

In Maryland, boys basketball dropped from 5,650 participants to 5,341 — a 309-player decline. Girls basketball also saw a slight downturn, falling from 4,368 in 2017-18 to 4,163 last year.

Veteran coach Mike Glick now coaches the boys at Anne Arundel County’s Meade High but has coached basketball for several decades across the state, with stops including Gwynn Park, Archbishop Spalding and St. Vincent Pallotti.

He’s one of few basketball coaches in Maryland that could bear witness to a gradual trend of decay, but said there isn’t one to be found.

“Our area is known for its basketball. We’re the mecca of basketball; between D.C. and Baltimore, there’s so many kids that play,” Glick said. “Any drop in basketball, I’ve not heard one person say that. Maybe we’re a little immune to it because we’re such a basketball area.”

Across the nation, soccer has enjoyed a healthy influx of more than 70,000 new players in seven years, and Maryland hasn’t bucked the trend. Girls soccer remained stable in the state, gaining one player to tally 5,840 in 2018-19. Boys soccer saw significantly more come out to play, with an increase of 179 last year.

On the boys side, track and field, wrestling and tennis all made additions nationally in 2018-19. Indoor and outdoor track numbers remained stable in Maryland while there were 42 more tennis players and 142 fewer wrestlers.

Volleyball saw the biggest gains on the girls side on the national scale, but saw little change in Maryland.

In Anne Arundel County, participation is largely unchanged across the board, according to county coordinator of athletics Clayton Culp. There are some drops, but some of that has less to do with a lack of interest or worries about safety, and more to do with the culture around a specific sport in the moment.

In line with the national trend is indoor track, which sustained a 163-person dip over two years in Anne Arundel County. At the same time, unified bowling, also a winter sport, increased by 152 participants over the same span just as participation has increased nationally.


“Recently, we’ve really tried to drum up support for females playing golf,” Culp said. “When we did that, our golf numbers went up. But what that might do is pull girls from cross country or volleyball.”

Anne Arundel County does not divide its golf totals by gender, but in the past two years, the sport added 19 players, helping national numbers increase. The county is also focused on drawing female involvement in wrestling as earlier this year, the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association approved a girls wrestling state championship for 2019-20 year.

“We’re really trying to get the word out about that, and I would anticipate those numbers are going to keep going up,” Culp said.

Reporters Tim Schwartz and Jacob Calvin Meyer contributed to this article.

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