Participation in high school sports in Maine declined 4.5 percent during the 2018-19 school year, dropping below 50,000 athletes for the first time in 22 years.

The drop in Maine continued a two-year decline and coincided with the first decrease in high school sports participation nationally in 30 years, according to results of the National Federation of State High School Associations’ annual participation survey.

The biggest contributors to the declines were football and basketball, according to data collected by NFHS. Participation in boys’ 11-member football teams dropped by nearly 31,000 athletes, but the survey also found that schools are not dropping football. The national organization attributed the drop to increased concerns about the risk of concussions or other football injuries.

The Scarborough boys hockey team stretches out at the start of practice at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland in December 2018. After two years of practicing and having home games in Lewiston, the Scarborough ice hockey teams can practice and host games at the Cross Insurance Arena, Troubh Ice Arena or at USM in Gorham.

In Maine, the number of athletes playing high school sports dropped from 51,849 during the 2017-2018 school year to 49,519 during the 2018-19 school year, which ended in June.

The NFHS reported that Maine had 47,916 athletes participating in high school sports in 1996-97, the last time the number dipped below 50,000. Maine had its highest level of participation in 2006-07, when there were 56,933 athletes.

In Maine, several factors contributed to last year’s 4.5 percent decrease, said Gerry Durgin, executive director of the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association.

“No. 1, there’s a direct correlation with the decreasing enrollment in our state,” Durgin said. “… The other thing playing a significant role is sport specialization. Kids have their one sport and now they’re playing that one sport year-round.”

Durgin believes that the growth in travel teams for ever-younger age groups also drives down participation even before kids get to high school.

“At age 10, you’re already on a travel team and finding out if you’re good enough to make it or not,” said Durgin, who doubts that athletic participation fees, which have become increasingly common, are a significant deterrent to participation.

From 2018 to 2019, girls in Maine stopped playing sports at a faster rate than boys. Girls’ participation fell 5.7 percent, while boys’ participation was down 3.4 percent.

From 2009-10 to 2015-2016, Maine’s total participation decreased by 8.9 percent, with 5,026 fewer participants. That came during a period of decreased enrollment overall in Maine’s public high schools which has continued.

Chloe Edwards runs to field a ball during practice. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Participation rebounded in 2016-17 for Maine with the addition of 1,113 participants. In 2017-18, participation decreased compared to the previous year, but the 51,849 participants was consistent with a five-year average from 2013-14 through 2017-18 of 51,902 participants.

Participation decreased in nearly all of Maine’s team sports.

In boys’ sports, football had a steep 6.9 percent drop in participation last year, with 237 fewer players. That came on the heels of a 10-year, 17 percent drop from 2007-08 to 2016-17. Participation also waned in baseball (1.7 percent), basketball (3.2 percent), ice hockey (7.1 percent), and lacrosse (3.9 percent). Track and field saw a small rise in indoor participants and a slight dip in the outdoor season, while wrestling also had a small increase in participation.

In girls’ sports, lacrosse and volleyball, had increased participation, partly attributed to more schools offering the sports over the past few years.

But three girls’ sports saw a season-over season participation decline greater than 10 percent: field hockey (10.4), indoor track (10.1) and outdoor track (14.6). Basketball (5.4 percent decrease),  soccer (3.5 percent) and softball (3.9 percent) each lost more than 100 participants compared to 2017-18.

Maine’s level of athletic participation has remained relatively stable since 1996 and 1997. Since then, the number of student athletes has always exceeded 50,000 with highest level attained in the 2006-2007 school year when there were 56,933 high school athletes.

Nationally, the 2018-19 total of 7,937,491 participants was a decrease of 43,395, or 0.5 percent, compared with 2017-18’s all-time high and was still the third highest total of participants recorded since the survey began in 1969-70.

Across the country, 11-man football had 30,829 fewer players last year, even as 168 more schools offered the sport.

Reduced-player football, which includes eight-man football that Maine will have for the first time this fall with a 10-team league, added 1,594 players.

Portland High School seems to be bucking the trend.

“We’re definitely not seeing this at Portland High School,” said Rob O’Leary, the school’s athletic director.

In addition to welcoming the largest freshman class he has seen since he became athletic director six years ago, O’Leary said the number of student athletes seems to be surging with more than 100 boys signing up to play soccer.

The high school football team has 45 players and 24 students have signed up to run cross country. There are so many girls who signed up to play field hockey that Portland and Deering High School had to form three teams.

“We’re booming everywhere,” O’Leary said, adding that the fear of suffering a concussion or other serious injury has led to a decline in the numbers of high school football players in Maine and nationally.

O’Leary said declining enrollments, which may be linked to Maine’s declining population, also have been contributing to the statewide decrease.

The number of public school students in Maine has declined 2.3 percent over the past decade — according to the Maine Department of Education — from 186,824 during the 2008-2009 school year to 182,495 in 2018-2019.

Dean Plante, Old Orchard Beach High School’s athletic director, agreed that declining enrollments have contributed to the state’s decrease in high school athletics participation.

Plante echoed Durgin’s belief that the decrease is tied to more students athletes specializing in just one sport, a trend he says that has been set in motion by their desire to gain entrance to the college and the sport of their choice.

“It’s not like back in the day when we had three-sport athletes,” Plante said. “They’ve become a dying breed.”

At Old Orchard Beach High School, officials encourage student participation in athletics with a goal of getting between 50 and 60 percent of the student body to participate in at least one sport.

James Coffey is the athletic director at Falmouth High School and Falmouth Middle School.

About three years ago, six girls signed up to be play high school softball. Coffey took it upon himself to actively encourage more girls to play at the middle school level, a rebuilding project that has resulted in more interest at the high school level. But Coffey said convincing students to play sports is proving to be more challenging than ever.

“There are more opportunities for kids outside the realm of athletics. There is band, robotics and art, and a lot of stuff we never had in high school,” he said.

 

 

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