H.S. sports participation drop has Twin States wary

  • Lebanon High athletic director Mike Stone

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/5/2019 9:59:51 PM
Modified: 10/5/2019 9:59:49 PM

Mike Stone isn’t shocked, but he is unsettled.

The longtime Hartford High football coach turned Lebanon High athletic director has been involved in high school sports for most of his life. It has a direct correlation with his well-being. He’s seen how high school athletics work in both New Hampshire and Vermont.

Stone wasn’t surprised to see the National Federation of State High School Associations report last month that stated, for the first time in 30 years, participation in high school sports declined.

Coming off an all-time high of 7.98 million athletes in 2017-2018, the annual survey showed involvement dropped slightly to 7.94 million. Football and basketball, two sports many think make up the fabric of U.S. athletics, had the sharpest declines nationally.

For Stone, the unsettling part was hearing that Vermont ranked last in the country for participation, behind places such as Alaska and the District of Columbia. New Hampshire? Fortieth, barely holding off Rhode Island and Hawaii.

New Hampshire and Vermont aren’t in crisis mode yet. Both the New Hampshire High School Athletic Association and Vermont Principals Association are aware of the ongoing struggle of participation in the 21st century. While efforts to stop the slide are being undertaken, the numbers prove that tougher times may be ahead.

“It’s one of those things where when you go to meetings, everybody’s talking about it,” Stone said. “But for me, it boils down to what does it mean in my area? What does it mean in my school, not so much the state, but what it means to the kids that I serve? How can we be better? I don’t know.”


The numbers representing both states’ participation numbers come from the NFHS reports and its website, and they reflect the participation rate. An individual who played two sports is counted twice; three sports, three times. The numbers are reported by schools and the state associations.

The last decline in sports participation numbers occurred during the 1988-89 school year. This year’s total — the third-highest ever — consisted of 4,534,758 boys and 3,402,733 girls, according to figures obtained from the 51-member state high school associations, which includes the District of Columbia.

Combined basketball participation was down by 23,944 (13,340 girls and 10,604 boys), and the girls basketball total of 399,067 is the lowest since the 1992-93 school year.

Overall, New Hampshire had 42,673 participants last year, and Vermont had 13,185. While the numbers may seem fitting to the states, the long-term picture shows that both states’ numbers have significantly dropped since 2009-10. Then, New Hampshire had 46,944 and Vermont 17,498 active student-athletes.

Numbers for New Hampshire haven’t always been at the 42,000 mark. In the 2003-04 survey, 41,571 athletes represented the Granite State, good for 38th in the country. That’s not the case for Vermont, however. The 2003-04 survey had Vermont at 47th in the country with 23,473 athletes that year.

Over a 15-year period, Vermont’s total number of participants dropped by 10,288.

New Hampshire

In the 2010 football season, 56 schools field varsity teams in the Granite State, accounting for 3,755 players. Since that season, football has been on the decline.

In 2002, a varsity football team in New Hampshire averaged 71.80 players per roster. This past season, an average roster featured 53.79 participants. That can be the difference between having a depth chart filled with experienced athletes and starters playing both ways.

The same pattern has followed in many sports. Girls basketball hasn’t had 2,000 participants statewide since 2012-13. This past year marked the all-time low in participation for both baseball and softball. While those sports still have enough to survive, boys ice hockey’s down to 993 athletes, the lowest number since 2005-06.

“We used to have 60 kids at tryouts; now we don’t even have to cut kids,” Lebanon boys basketball coach Kieth Matte said. “Kids have so many other things to do now; being the 12th man on a team isn’t as appealing. Kids are busier as ever, and they see the writing on the wall with playing time. They’d rather play town-team basketball than ride the bench. Still, we can field a freshman junior varsity and varsity team at Lebanon.”

Boys and girls outdoor track, indoor track and cross country participation numbers have declined as well.

Some believe that new sports, such as lacrosse, will save high school athletics. But in New Hampshire, lacrosse had its first down year in terms of total number of athletes ever recorded. The sport was first introduced in 1988-89.

There are also glimpses of hope, such as the steady growth of boys and girls soccer .

“I think it’s probably a number of different factors,” said NHIAA executive director Jeff Collins about the decline of baseball and softball. “It may have also have to do with sports specialization, kids specializing in one sport rather than playing two or three different sports during the year.”


The 2017-18 school year (9,658) was one of the worst years in Vermont history, which resulted in 2018-19 (13,185) looking like a positive year. It’s actually on par.

Football numbers are inching back up with 993 student-athletes participating. Girls volleyball has grown tremendously since the early 2000s, but boys and girls basketball have declined since 2013-14.

Sports such as ice hockey and field hockey haven’t touched above 600 athletes since 2013-14.

“I think things are trendy, like anything, like a pool of athletes,” said Hartford field hockey coach Heather Scudder, who’s in her 31st season. “So when a group of girls pick soccer, then that class tends to be a soccer class, and so their numbers are high. Then another class on a little, maybe because they have an older sister playing field hockey, then that class seems to be a field hockey class.

“So it seems like every two or three years, there is a small class. But every two, two to three years, there is a larger class, sustaining a lot of field hockey programs.”

In Vermont, much is the same as New Hampshire, but there are others factors of participation to take into consideration, too.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Vermont in 2018 was 626,299 compared to New Hampshire’s 1.4 million. But unlike New Hampshire, whose population has continued to grow over the last 15 years, Vermont’s growth has been minimal. In 2005, the population was 618,797, leaving an increase of just 7,502 people over 14 years.

The population numbers are important because they explain why Vermont’s last in the country in high school sports participation in a straight numbers sense. At one point, it wasn’t 51st nationally, but 49th in 2010-11 then 50th in 2011-12. Washington, D.C., passed Vermont, however, in 2017-18.

While no movement is in sight — the latest NFHS report showed that Vermont trailed D.C. by 1,395, with population growth is on the upswing in Washington — certain sports show promise.


Rutland High football has been a consistent winner during coach Mike Norman’s 25 seasons.

He’s overseen eight state-championship campaigns. But as times have changed, parents more frequently find themselves on the fence about their children playing sports such as football. Norman believes a lot of the reason can be attributed to the media’s portrayal of chronic traumatic encephalopathy and injuries.

While Norman, who sits on the NFHS football committee, makes sure his players are safe and taking head injuries seriously, he believes that parents only listen to what’s being put in the mainstream media and aren’t taking a hard look at the facts in the particular situations, specifically in the Green Mountain state.

Vermont is one of only two states to mandate all of its coaches to partake in USA Football’s “Heads Up” program. The program teaches concussion recognition and response, heat preparedness and hydration, sudden cardiac arrest, proper equipment fitting, shoulder tackling and blocking.

At first he was skeptical of its benefits, but Norman’s now on board. He thinks it needs to be mandated in more states, although he understands how tough that could be.

“At the end of the day, I want the kids to be safe,” he said. “I want the game to be healthy and to continue to grow and prosper. I certainly don’t want to be the coach, or a part of the whole thing, when football goes away, because it’s been too good to me and my family.”

In 44 of 51 states counted, 11-player football numbers have dropped. The NFHS report showed that interest is now turning towards six-, eight- and nine-player football. Additionally, girls 11-player football has doubled over the past 10 years.

“The survey certainly confirms that schools are not dropping the sport of football, which is great news,” NFHS executive director Karissa Niehoff said in a statement. “We know 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.

“The date 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. ... Our ultimate goal is to involve as many students as possible in the high school sports.”

Both Collins and VPA executive director Bob Johnson agree that the infatuation of specializing in a sport has affected participation numbers, too. Instead of an athlete playing soccer, basketball and baseball, it’s become more popular to only focus on a sport the athlete sees a future in.

Thus, if the athlete only plays soccer, the numbers of the basketball and baseball teams drop.

“I think the message that is coming out more and more, not only from the VPA, but from about every professional organization you can find, is that you should not specialize,” Johnson said. “It leads to more injuries than anything else. And actually, college coaches love kids who come in who play three different sports. That’s a message that we try to get out all the time. Some people hear it; others don’t.”

Fighting off the decline

Johnson and Collins are always searching for new participation initiatives because that’s their job.

The NHIAA and VPA have taken different stances on how they will fix declining participation in their states. While the NHIAA has put much focus toward unified sports, the union of high school students with special needs students, the VPA has continued to add new sports and pushed hard for member-to-member opportunities.

Sports added in Vermont include dance, snowboarding and Ultimate. Twenty teams formed cooperatives for the 2019-20 academic year, while many others will add a few players through the VPA’s member-to-member participation program.

Football teams in the Upper Valley, such as Oxbow and Woodstock, take part of member-to-member. It can be the difference between fielding a team or not, a critical aspect of participation.

The first full season of unified sports under the NHIAA’s watch came in 2011, and since then there’s been a correlation with the growth of the sport and participation.

In four sanctioned unified sports (soccer, basketball, volleyball and outdoor track), teams must have unified student partners who are not playing the sport at the varsity level. This means that students who may not want to play a varsity-intensive sport can join unified.

While Johnson and Collins may be fixing their state’s declining participation numbers differently, they share many of the same views. For now, time can only tell what the future holds.

“The reality is the life lessons are the reasons why you’re (coaching) it,” Lebanon’s Stone said. “The other part, the winning piece, learning how to win and learn how to lose and learning how to compete. The courage to put something out there with no guarantee of success. Really teaching kids to have the courage to do that.

“And if you fail, this is how you go about getting back up on the horse, you know? That’s really what this whole thing is about. That’s part of the educational process, that you may not get quite as much in the classroom than you can have as an experience outside of it.”

Pete Nakos can be reached at pnakos@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.

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