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Girls lead in scholastic sports participation despite dip in football

While the total number of boys and girls playing high school sports increased nationally for the 28th straight year, the participation numbers for football are slightly down, according to a survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The total number of athletes playing sports in all 50 states and the District of Columbia reached an all-time high of 7,963,535. That's an increase of nearly 95,000 participants from 2015-16, thanks to the rise in the number of females playing sports for their respective high schools.

While seven of the top 10 boys sports experienced a rise in participants, with soccer leading the charge, football declined by an average of 1.8 players per team across the country. Concussion concerns among parents could be a reason, according to Section VI Executive Director Timm Slade.

It may not be the only one, as Section VI Football Chairman Ken Stoldt is not surprised football participation numbers dropped a little.

"I'm not ready to say it's completely due to concussions," Stoldt said. "I also think it has a lot to do, over the last 10 years the demands for football have become more and more. If you want to be successful at football you have to do it year-round. ... You have to be weightlifting throughout the year. You have to be doing 7-on-7 (passing camps). ... I think you're seeing less and less of those kids who come out for a few months (to play) and that's it. That tied with what we're hearing in the media with concussions are what are causing a decrease in football."

The study reported that those playing 11-man football fell by a total of 25,901 participants. On the flip side, the number of players in six- and eight-man football increased.

The study concluded that the total number of participants in football last year was 1,086,749 – down from the 1,112,251 of the previous year. However, it also stated that while the total number of participants in 11-man football may have declined, the number of schools offering the sport increased.

In Western New York, there are 71 teams with 14 programs merged with at least one other school. Section VI only offers 11-man football, as Stoldt said no one seems interested in the eight-on-eight version when the subject comes up in local meetings.

Four Section III teams in the Syracuse area that struggled with participation numbers, however, will be trying their hand at eight-man football – the first time in more than four decades that will happen in New York State.

“While we are concerned when any sport experiences a decline in participation, the numbers do not substantiate that schools are dropping the sport of football,” said Bob Gardner, NFHS executive director, in a statement. “The NFHS and its member state high school associations have worked hard to reduce the risk of injury in high school football, and we are pleased at the continued strength of the sport across the country.”

The National Federation of High School Sports conducted its annual survey, which says that football participation is down by nearly 2 players per team nationally. (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo).

Among boys, football remains nearly 500,000 more participants ahead of the second most popular sport, track and field. Basketball, baseball and soccer round out the top five boys sports by participants.

Girls becoming more involved in scholastic sports accounted for the increase in overall participation numbers, per the study. The number of females playing sports reached an all-time high last year (3,400,297), an increase of nearly 76,000 from 2015-16. Track and field, volleyball, soccer and lacrosse all experienced an influx of more participants.

“As we celebrate the 45th anniversary of Title IX this year … it is great to see an ever-increasing number of girls taking advantage of that opportunity to compete in high school sports,” Gardner said.

Slade said the state's move to recognize cheerleading as a competitive sport also contributed to the rise in the number of female athletes.

"We're probably a leader in participation rates in all sports," Slade said of the state.

He's on the mark: New York remains third overall in total number of student-athletes nationally with 367,849. Texas (834,558) and California (800,364) rank first and second, respectively.

This is the 46th year the NFHS has conducted its participation survey. More than 60 sports, including nontraditional ones like archery, badminton and fencing, are offered by NFHS' member associations.

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