In the greater picture of the COVID-19 pandemic, the loss of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) participation survey ranks pretty low.
But it won’t be coming this year, the organization’s executive director, Karissa Niehoff, said in her weekly column for NFHS.org.
“With spring sports unable to even get off the ground, state associations could not compile comprehensive surveys of sports participation for the 2019-20 school year,” Niehoff wrote. “As a result, for the first time in the 50-year history of the survey, the NFHS is unable to release its annual summary of high school sports participation.”
Overall participation dropped in 2018-19 for the first time in 30 years. Niehoff wrote that the NFHS “anticipated a quick turnaround in 2019-20 because of the continued strength of education-based high school athletics programs across the country.”
The CIAC publishes in its yearly handbooks the participation data for sports it sponsors in Connecticut, and overall state participation also dropped from 2017-18 to the next season, from 106,396 participants in all sports to 105,150. The CIAC did include participation data for 2019-20 in this year’s handbook, but it’s obviously missing spring: The organization’s last athletic events were winter-sport playoff games on March 9.
Niehoff became the executive director of the CIAC in 2011 and of the NFHS seven years later.
Her column highlighted football, where, after three straight years of five-figure drops in national participation, the number for 2019 dropped by 2,489 (0.2 percent). That was the smallest decline in a decade, Niehoff wrote. Total football participation was 1,003,524 last fall.
“These numbers suggest to us that parents are appreciative of the risk minimization efforts that have been put in place. Every state has enacted rules that limit the amount of contact before the season and during practice, and every state has established concussion protocols and laws,” Niehoff wrote.
In Connecticut, the CIAC reported 144 football programs last year with 8,863 athletes, down 2.2 percent from 2018’s 9,059 in 145 programs. That itself was down 2.0 percent from 9,241 in 146 programs in 2017.
Girls volleyball also grew 2.2 percent nationally, Niehoff reported, becoming the No. 2 sport among girls for participation behind track and field. The sport grew a half a percent to 4,969 participants in the CIAC.
Those two sports happen to be the two least likely to take place in Connecticut this fall. The state Department of Public Health has recommended that teams not compete in contact football or unmodified indoor volleyball. CIAC guidelines allow all fall teams right now to take part in conditioning and non-contact skill practice in small groups, though not every school that might be taking part in a normal year is on the field.
Four other sports posted overall participation gains according to the CIAC handbooks, though for gymnastics and hockey, they were one participant and four participants. Wrestling led the way, picking up 90 athletes (3.7 percent growth). Indoor track gained 80 athletes (0.8 percent).
The NFHS hopes to compile more fall and winter participation data from the 2019-20 season, Niehoff reported.
“Judging from the early returns,” she wrote, “it appears the past year’s participation numbers would have started the NFHS on a new streak of record participation if spring sports had not been cancelled.”