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Football not the only sport declining in popularity

The North Carolina High School Athletic Association called the declines "concerning" and as a result, the commissioner is now making an appeal to students and parents.

As more and more kids sign up to play high school sports, state high school athletic records showed several sports experienced significant declines in participation over the last decade and not just football.

The numbers show track, lacrosse, men's soccer, swimming, cross country, and volleyball are becoming more attractive while football, wrestling, men's golf, softball and men's tennis need to bounce back.

The North Carolina High School Athletic Association called the declines "concerning" and as a result, the commissioner is now making an appeal to students and parents.

"The numbers in football and several other sports declining is concerning, as we believe we are seeing some impact from increased specialization by students, cutting their participation in other sports to focus on training for a single-sport year-round, and in some cases, there may be other concerns," Commissioner Que Tucker said. 

"We're also experiencing a rise in the prominence of non-school programs, such as club sports, which may be contributing to the specialization and fall in participation numbers for some sports. We believe, and the research on the matter is continuing to emerge, that multi-sport participation is ultimately best for the student-athlete over the course of time. 

"Multi-sport participation helps prevent overuse injuries, burnout and provides new relationships with different friends and coaches that provide an excellent foundation for student flourishing."

Former NFL player Eugene Robinson coaches both football and wrestling. With concussions and hard hits in the forefront of people's minds, he said he understands why some are quitting contact sports.

"It's so much contact and some people can't take that," he said. "Think about your parents watching in the stands and you come up and you get smacked in the face real hard, picked up and dumped on the ground and you have to get back and they don't know if you'll get back up."

Robinson also coaches track, which has experienced some of the most growth in the last ten years, especially for women. That sport allows students with a variety of skills to tailor their athletic experience.

"You get the people who you might think might be the nerdiest people or the people that might be the most introverted or extroverted, once they get on the team they're all as one," he said. "As a track coach, I see more bonding and more growth than I see in wrestling and football."

It's not just contact sports seeing a decline. The numbers show participation in men's golf, softball and especially men's tennis are dwindling. According to scholarshipstats.com, students who play those sports have lower odds of securing college scholarships. UNC Charlotte lecturer Jeff Barto thinks that's a factor.

"Parents might be looking for more advantageous places for them to go to so that they can participate in a safer sport and still get a scholarship," he said.

Barto also noticed many of the sports that are growing in popularity are individual sports.

"When you're doing an individual sport, you're doing more repetitions," he said. "When you do a team sport, you have to do that dance with teammates."

Still, some team sports are thriving too. More and more high school athletes are also playing lacrosse and men's soccer in North Carolina. The sport is even growing with toddlers.

"We have grown from a few hundred to, in 2018, we had around 15,000 children come through our program just here in Mecklenburg County," Soccer Shots Executive Director Matt Uher said.

The parents whose two and three-year-olds participate told us they've already started discussing which sports they'll let them play when they grow up.

"We want him to be able to do something he can maybe have some success with," Brittany Henning said. "Don't want to do contact sports. No hockey. No football."

"Soccer and baseball were some of the sports that we've talked about," Sally Schroeder said. "I think the only one that we're a little nervous about is maybe the thought of football."

"He's pretty much going to be allowed to play anything he wants to," Tina Blundell said of her son. "Maybe (not) football. We'll see. That might be a no, no."

"We wanted him to start sports as early as possible," Natalie Simmons said of her son. "We pretty much said we'd let him play any sport he'd want."

While high school football is still by far the most popular sport in North Carolina, the numbers show more than 2,000 fewer players are suiting up today compared to 2008, the result of a 7.5 percent decrease in participation, according to NCHSAA data. 

South Carolina experienced a slightly smaller decrease in football participation over the last decade, losing more than 800 players, which is the equivalent of a 4.5 percent decrease, according to statistics from the South Carolina High School League.

NCHSAA reports some smaller schools have stopped playing football altogether due to low participation, including Cape Hatteras and Mattamuskeet on the Outer Banks. In addition, there are several programs that did not field varsity programs in an effort to rebuild their numbers.

"Last year, South Davidson canceled the varsity season midway through the year and East Chapel Hill played only JV a season ago," Assistant Commissioner James Alverson said. "This year, Cedar Ridge, Chapel Hill and Central Academy all made that decision."

NCHSAA hopes overall participation will continue to grow, but at the same time, is optimistic students will move away from specialized sports and back to playing multiple sports.

"We desire what is best for each student and recognize that there are different factors involved in each unique case," Tucker said. "However, it is our hope that students and parents alike will consider the benefits of participating in more than one of our programs, as well as the toll that sport specialization may have on the individual, while they are making their decisions about how to engage with education-based athletic programs in our schools."