National high school athletics numbers decreased during the 2018-19 school year, marking the first time those numbers dropped from the year before in 30 years. Wyoming matched that national trend, although state officials aren’t overtly worried.
Wyoming High School Activities Association commissioner Ron Laird told the Star-Tribune on Tuesday that the new numbers, as released by the National Federation of State High School Associations, didn’t come as a surprise as there’s been a documented drop in youth sports nationally.
Basketball saw a significant drop in participation nationally to 540,769, down from 551,373 just a year before. Laird offered a personal opinion regarding that drop, which has matched some professional athletes in the past month.
“With travel teams now, it’s kind of a double-edged sword,” Laird said. “You hope they improve their skill but a lot of those kids who can’t afford it think they won’t make it and just quit the sport. You watch the Little League World Series and all these famous athletes are getting kids excited to be out and play again.
“They talked to pro sport athletes during the Little League World Series and every one of them talked about being a multi-sport athlete.”
Wyoming’s overall numbers decreased from 19,821 to 19,553. The slight gains in boys participation (10,968 up to 11,147) was offset by a drop in girls’ numbers (8,853 down to 8,406).
A promising sign, Laird offered the Star-Tribune, is that Wyoming’s overall activity numbers increased. The WHSAA’s goal is to get 65 percent of students statewide involved in activities or athletics and numbers for the 2018-19 academic year showed over 66 percent involved. Those numbers had dipped for several years, falling as low as 58 percent in 2010-11.
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“We’ve encouraged kids getting involved in at least one thing,” Laird explained. “I think the schools have done a really good job of that.”
The encroaching arrival of high school softball offers a possible counter to the drop in girls participation numbers. Now that the required eight schools have voted in favor of adding fast-pitch softball, it will be introduced at district meetings that begin in mid-September. What comes out of those district meetings will be returned to the WHSAA Board of Directors for their October meeting. The WHSAA has already begun scheduling preliminary meetings with the eight schools that voted in favor, as well as a few districts who are close to holding a vote.
The most concerning aspect of Wyoming’s numbers in the latest participation survey: football. Numbers in 11-man football dropped from 2,616 to 2,426 (about 7 percent). Participation in six-man even saw a slight drop from 227 to 218. Those numbers include teams that cancelled any portion of their seasons due to low participation numbers. Laird is hopeful that the introduction of a nine-man football classification next season will help.
“We were down a couple hundred from the past few years,” Laird said. “That’s something we’re definitely keeping an eye on.”
On top of that, total enrollment inside Wyoming has leveled off to between 24,000-and-25,000. Laird told the Star-Tribune that one concerning aspect is that, despite Wyoming’s overall enrollment leveling, enrollment in smaller schools continues to shrink.
“I’m not sure we can do anything about that,” he said, “but you’re seeing schools lose teams they had just because they don’t have the numbers.”
Those numbers will be monitored carefully, as Laird stated the WHSAA’s belief that competing in activities is Wyoming’s best drop-out prevention. That sentiment isn’t only matched by national figures tying participation to graduation, but matches Wyoming more so than other states because of its more isolated, rural populations where the high school is still the centerpiece of the community.