For the first time in three decades, participation in high school sports is down. The annual survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) showed a decline of close to 45,000 students participating in sports. The real question, however, is how closely the travel sports industry is involved. And the answer is: very closely.
The biggest contributors to the decline were the two longstanding and popular sports of football and basketball. And while it’s easy (and justified) to say football participation is down because of parental concerns over concussion, the lack of participation in high school hoops can be directly linked to the rise of travel programs.
According to an article in Complex.com, programs offered by the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union), for example, are now considered preferable to varsity basketball because of the cache of being involved on a more elite level.
“AAU is killing high school basketball,” Marcus Stout told Complex. Stout, a former standout at Fordham University who briefly played overseas, now teaches basketball fundamentals to youth. “Kids don’t have any loyalty to their high school anymore. We live in a microwave society where players and coaches are focused on short-term success rather than building something bigger.” In essence, he notes, AAU programs are stacked all-star teams built to compete with other stacked all-star teams across the country.
One draw of AAU and other travel programs is the level of competition they provide. According to the experts, as more competitive players gravitate to those programs, high school teams develop a reputation as having mediocre competition.
It’s an across-the-board phenomenon. Little League is suffering as more baseball players join elite programs.
“People started doing this travel ball thing, and that’s sort of led to the slow death of the rec league,” Adam Osborne, baseball coach at Clarke Central High School in Athens, Georgia, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in May.
According to the NFHS survey, the number of high schools offering programs has remained unchanged – the number of youth signing up for programs has gone down. And that, say the experts, is a massive indicator of the draw of travel sports.
Another factor of travel sports – and perhaps an even bigger reason for the decline at the high school level – is the potential for exposure to college coaches and scouts. Earlier this year, SDM covered the fact that parents are putting increasing amounts of money into their children’s sports programs in the hope of obtaining a college scholarship. In other words, a free ride to higher ed is the desired ROI for registration, equipment and travel fees for their kids.
“Many parents believe investing in their children’s athletics will pay off in the form of a college scholarship,” explained Dara Luber, senior manager of retirement at TD Ameritrade.
But, said CBS News in 2012, only about two percent of high school athletes win sports scholarships every year at NCAA colleges and universities. And the average scholarship isn’t that much – about $11,000 – which leaves a lot of money to be made up by parents. There are only six sports where all the scholarships are full ride. These so-called head-count sports are football, men and women's basketball, and women's gymnastics, volleyball and tennis. In these Division I sports, athletes receive a full ride or no ride. And the TD Ameritrade report found that from 2016 to 2019, the number of sports parents’ children who secured an athletic scholarship has declined by more than half (24 percent in 2016; 11 percent in 2019).
It hasn’t stopped parents from trying, however. In addition, the bragging rights that come from having a successful youth athlete seem to be stronger when that athlete is succeeding at an elite level – and having the potential of a career after high school.
“The prospect of having one’s child ‘make it’ in a sport is of course a huge temptation,” noted blogger Casey Chalk in The American Conservative.
It stands to reason: in a social media-heavy world, parents love to post to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, publicly checking into cities far from home and
bragging noting they are there to support their children as their teams perform in regional and national competitions, then posting pictures, updates and results as they are given.
Another part of the demographic that is left to participate on the high school team: children from lower income families. The cost of elite and travel programs is often too much to afford for parents of limited means and high school sports are a far less expensive alternative. With state championships being the limit of most high school sports, the cost to play is far less and generally does not include tournament after tournament after tournament. And as sports travel goes up in price, this may be a mitigating factor for losses in high school participation in years to come; in fact, it may drive more middle-class students back into high school sports.
One thing that doesn’t seem to be catching the blame for high school sports’ decline (though it is often deemed a convenient scapegoat) is esports. The NFHS report does not have a category for esports team participation; however, NFHS earlier announced a partnership with PlayVS to begin the rollout of high school esports competitions nationwide. Additionally, the High School Esports League also offers schools the ability to have teams compete at a national level. And with the rise of college scholarships in esports programs, it’s likely that enrollment in these programs will increase.
"I think it’s only a matter of time," said Mark Koski, CEO of the NFHS Network and Director of Marketing. "The only reason it isn’t included this year is that esports is still fairly new. But NFHS tracks 12 million students participating in a variety of activities nationwide. This is another one that will help us get to the 13 million mark." Currently, he notes, 13 states host championships in esports. The number is expected to rise to at least 20 states by October.
The NFHS survey also recorded some sports that are rising in popularity, with sharp gains noted particularly across a seven-year period. Participation in girls’ lacrosse and boys’ lacrosse has increased 19 percent with a combined 213,452 participants in 2018-19. Soccer in both genders gained 70,668 participants since 2012 (a nine percent increase) and enrollment in boys’ and girls’ volleyball has also gone up. Among girls’ sports, competitive spirit has increased 38 percent since 2012.
For their part, NFHS does not make a strong connection between travel sports and the lower numbers of high school athletes.
“In most cases, out-of-school programs are an additional activity in which kids are involved,” noted Dr. Karissa Niehoff, NFHS executive director. “While there may be a few athletes who have discontinued school-based sports to devote full-time to a club sport, we do not believe this was a major contributor to the decline in overall participation this past year. Outside of the decline in football participation, there are a number of sports that continue to trend upward in participation, such as volleyball, soccer and lacrosse. We remain hopeful that football numbers will stabilize, and overall numbers will begin to trend upward again.”
With all these sports – lacrosse, soccer, volleyball and competitive spirit – also growing at the elite, all-star and travel level, industry analysts will be watching closely to see whether participation rates at the high school level will also drop.