Youth Sports Participation Rates

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Children's soccer team huddled on a field with their coach


According to a survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), the academic school year of 1971-1972 saw 3,960,932 high school students participate in athletic activities. In 43 years, America witnessed a 97.1 percent increase in participation rates as the number of high school students active in athletics grew to 7,807,047 in the 2014-2015 school year. Even though the number of participants nearly doubled since the 1970’s, the rate of growth has declined over the years.

It is easier to see the slower growth in youth participation rates when the data is monitored and compared on smaller scales. Observing the enthusiasm for athletics — a staple of youthful life and activity —is worrisome due to the life lessons learned during athletics and the foundation of a healthy lifestyle that is built. Youth sports participation rates are still up, but decreased annual growth is cause for concern. Looking at the rates and today’s influences has identified obstacles to overcome as well as solutions to implement.

A Look at Participation Numbers

Until recently, public health agencies have not utilized a comprehensive surveillance system to account for youth sports trends, making it difficult to establish a primary set of data. Fortunately, there are organizations and programs like the NFHS that have provided correlating data accumulated from surveys and memberships.

Looking further at the survey conducted by NFHS, participation rates have fluctuated over the past 40 years. From ’71-’82 to ’81-’82, there was a 31.8 percent increase in participation, mostly due to the introduction and adoption of Title IX, an important federal law requiring equal opportunity for both males and females in interscholastic sports.

However, the following two decades would see less growth. 1981-1991 claims an increase in athletic participation of only 2.9 percent, but 1991-2001 witnesses a 26 percent boom in participation. While there are myriad factors that influence participation (population, socioeconomic factors, survey participation, etc.), they do show one constant: participation rates haven’t climbed higher than 31 percent since the 1970s.

Factors of Youth Sports Participation

The National Council of Youth Sports (NCYS) conducted a 10-year comparison study consisting of its members in 2008 to reveal further analysis of youth participation. According to their study, the overall number of young athletes has increased, but the percentage that participated stayed the same between boys and girls. On average, athletics is split 66 percent boys and 34 percent girls. So Title IX has increased female participation and helped introduce sports to girls at the same time as boys, but a ceiling was reached.

One of the most used data sources for youth sports participation rates is the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). The SFIA data support that girls still are less active than boys, but further identifies other hindrances: disinterest and family income. 37.1 percent of children were inactive within athletics, and 81.6 million people spanning all school age groups were inactive during 2015. These numbers reflect an expanding sedentary culture and a trend toward obesity. This can be neutralized by a resurgence of participation in athletics. However, a key factor in the decline stems from the cost of participation.

In 2015, the SFIA report said 43 percent of parents have seen an increase in sports fees for clubs and interscholastic sports. Furthermore, family income is now seen as a direct correlation to decreasing growth rates of participation. Homes with less than $25,000 of income and children 13-17 years old are only 27.5 percent active in youth sports, whereas homes with up to and over $100,000 of income and the same age range of children are 45.5 percent active in youth sports. As the statistics continue to reflect and verify, it is becoming more concrete that inactivity rates increase as household income levels decrease.

The Aspen Institute created a movement called Project Play, dedicated to improving youth athletic participation rates through education and reform. Some ideas to stimulate an increase in participation include understanding what kids want and why they are refraining from physical sports. Social media and video games have stunted sports participation by decreasing the free time originally spent on athletics.

A possible solution is to listen to youths and discover what they are interested in, and potentially modify existing sports programs to regain their interests. Input from youth will help them feel involved, and it may include refocusing athletics to emphasize more fun. Placing emphasis on low-pressure athletics that are meant for pleasure, exercise, and socialization could potentially reach youths who don’t show interest in current athletic programs.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Athletic Administration Degree

Ohio University’s online MAA program is designed to teach professionals how to manage the many changes in interscholastic sports. The university launched the nation’s first academic program in sports administration in 1966 and continues to be a leader in sports business education.

Ohio University’s online MAA program is housed within the university’s College of Business, underscoring the university’s dedication to providing world-class sports business education.

The program works in collaboration with the National Intercollegiate Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) to prepare graduates for certification and is accredited by the Commission on Sport Management Accreditation (COSMA). For more information, contact an enrollment advisor at Ohio University.

Aspen Project Play
Phit America