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Prep sports involvement falls; 1st time in 30 years

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Led by a decline in football for the fifth straight year, participation in high school sports dropped in 2018-19 for the first time in 30 years, according to an annual survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The 2018-19 total of 7,937,491 participants was a decline of 43,395 from the 2017-18 school year, when the number of participants in high school sports reached a record high of 7,980,886.

The last decline in sports participation numbers occurred during the 1988-89 school year.

The group said 11-man football dropped by 30,829 to 1,006,013, the lowest mark since the 1999-2000 school year. It was the fifth consecutive year of declining football participation.

"We know from recent surveys that the number of kids involved in youth sports has been declining, and a decline in the number of public school students has been predicted for a number of years, so we knew our 'streak' might end someday,'' Dr. Karissa Niehoff, NFHS executive director, said in a statement. "The data from this year's survey serves as a reminder that we have to work even harder in the coming years to involve more students in these vital programs -- not only athletics but performing arts programs as well.''

Although the number of participants in boys' 11-player football dropped, the number of schools offering the sport remained steady. The survey indicated that 14,247 schools offer 11-player football, an increase of 168 from last year. A comparison of the figures from the past two years indicates that the average number of boys involved in 11-player football on a per-school basis dropped from 73 to 70, which includes varsity and lower-level teams.

While participation in boys' 11-player football dropped in all but seven states, participation in six-, eight- and nine-player football gained 156 schools and 1,594 participants nationwide, with the largest increase in boys' eight-player football from 19,554 to 20,954. In addition, in the past 10 years, participation by girls in 11-player football has doubled, from 1,249 in the 2009-10 school year to 2,404 last year.

"The survey certainly confirms that schools are not dropping the sport of football, which is great news,'' Niehoff said. "Certainly, we are concerned about the reduction in the number of boys involved in the 11-player game but are thrilled that states are finding other options by starting six-player or eight-player football in situations where the numbers have declined.

"While we recognize that the decline in football participation is due, in part, to concerns about the risk of injury, we continue to work with our member state associations, the nation's high schools and other groups to make the sport as safe as possible. Every state has enacted rules that limit the amount of contact before the season and during practices, and every state has concussion protocols and laws in place, so we continue to believe that the sport is as safe as it has ever been. We also are working with groups such as USA Football to reduce contact and teach proper tackling skills at the youth levels to increase the interest level as kids reach junior high school and high school.''

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