High school sports participation dips again in New Jersey
New Jersey has more high school athletes than most other states, but the total number in the Garden State has declined for the second straight year.
Participation nationwide, meanwhile, experienced its first decline in 30 years.
According to a participation survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations, 281,058 New Jersey students played a high school sport during the 2018-19 academic year. That's slightly down from the year prior, and significantly down from the 283,655 high school student-athletes counted in 2016-17.
Over the two years, the four major sports — baseball, basketball, football and soccer — saw a decline in participation among New Jersey males. Participation declines were also registered for girls basketball, field hockey and soccer.
"Kids nowadays, they want to do different things, so I think to keep high school sports going, we have to think outside the box," said Ken Mason, director of athletics for West-Windsor-Plainsboro Public Schools.
His district's two high schools joined forces for football starting in 2018, due to poor participation at both schools.
More than three-quarters of the local population is Asian-American, Mason noted. That's likely playing into participation shortages, he said.
"I'm getting requests to look at cricket as a sport. It seems like the whole Route 1 corridor has an interest in that sport," Mason said. "It seems like we're going more towards non-traditional sports as opposed to traditional sports."
Mason said the district has an athletic task force in place, to build better communication with lower-level leagues and get youth involved in sports at a younger age.
Travel, or club, teams are taking some of the blame from New Jersey athletic directors. These teams come with an expense, but also the opportunity for students to compete at an elite level and to better hone their skills to perhaps succeed in a sport beyond high school.
"In some respects, high school is becoming more like recreation, and the travel teams are becoming more like the high school used to be. So it's an unfortunate trend," said Rich Carroll, director of athletics for Middletown Township Public Schools.
Carroll's district bucks the statewide trend of declining participation, but he does see a decline in the number of multi-sport athletes.
Parents today, Carroll added, are more fearful of what could happen to their child if they participate in a contact sport such as football or soccer.
Nationwide, the 2018-19 total of 7.94 million participants represented a decline of 43,395 from the year prior. Still, the 2018-19 total was the third-highest ever.
"We knew 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 written 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 as well."
New Jersey had the ninth highest number of participants in the country.