High school sports participation in 2018 dropped for the first time in three decades, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations released Tuesday. Nearly 8 million students took part in interscholastic sports in 2018, but that number is down more than 43,000 students from the year before.

Youth sports advocates had seen high school athletics as a beacon of optimism; even as participation in sports for kids ages 6 to 12 has decreased for years, high school sports enrollment had been on an upward swing for a generation.

But the drop-off in 2018, which was still the third-best year on record for high school sports enrollment, has experts asking questions about the future of prep athletics and especially high school football. Here’s what you need to know about the new data, in four questions:

What exactly do the numbers say?

Enrollment in high school sports in 2018 was down 43,375 participants, year over year. That doesn’t necessarily mean those students stopped playing sports entirely, or even stopped playing high school sports. If a two-sport athlete gave up one of his or her sports, that counts as one fewer participant. If an athlete left his or her high school team but kept playing for a club team or recreational team, that also counts as one fewer participant.

Still, the drop was jarring to people who study youth sports. And 70 percent of those 43,375 fewer participants came from high school football.

Also, 25,000 fewer girls participated in basketball in Texas from 2016 to 2018, but outside of that drop, nationwide numbers held steady.

Is this part of a trend?

In high schools, no. High school sports participation had increased 30 years in a row before the 2018 data was released. Consider that in 1988, only 1.84 million students participated in high school sports. That number has since increased by more than 300 percent.

But in youth sports, there is a trend. The proportion of kids ages 6 to 12 who participate regularly in team sports keeps declining. In 2008, it was 45 percent, according to the Aspen Institute think tank. In 2018, it was 38 percent.

That’s largely attributable to crumbling youth sports infrastructure — municipal recreational leagues are declining as parents push kids to chase college scholarships through more competitive teams — and the increased cost to play on travel or club squads.

“I do wonder if we’re reaching the point that the youth participation declines are reaching the high school level,” said Jon Solomon, editorial director at the Aspen Institute Sports and Society program. “When you at younger levels are losing players because of steeper competition and cost, that’s going to catch up to high schools at some point.”

What’s happening with football?

It’s shrinking. High school football enrollment is down 100,000 players since 2010, according to NFHS data. In the past decade, it’s down 9 percent overall.

Some of that is natural, said Scott Tainsky, who studies sports economics at Wayne State University. If you think about that decline in football participation as 1 percent per year, that’s nothing to fret over. The United States has five major participatory and spectator sports (football, basketball, baseball, soccer and hockey). They all jockey not only for eyeballs on TV screens but also for youth players. Football had a great run of growth in the 2000s, and now the numbers — in participation and in professional viewership — are inching back down.

High school football is still in fine shape. It is by far the most popular high school sport: 400,000 more boys participate in football than in the next most popular sport, outdoor track and field. But the same issues you have heard before about football — injury concerns and cost — are driving more high school athletes away from the sport.

“Those aren’t things that are likely to be resolved overnight, but they’re also not things that would cause some precipitous drop going forward,” Tainsky said.

In other words, something else significant is going to have to come along to dent football’s place as the king of high school athletics. Otherwise, Tainsky said, these participation numbers should level out over time.

Is any of this bad news? Should I be worried about high school sports?

Experts break this question up into two parts.

Should you be worried about football? No.

“The absolute numbers are still good for interscholastic football,” Tainsky said. “I think we naturally attribute this to the demand side, to the sense that there’s a little bit less interest in playing football for players and for parents to see their sons and daughters playing football.”

Should you be worried about high school sports overall? Yes.

It will take another few years of data to truly determine whether the issues in youth sports have found their way to high schools. But in the meantime, Solomon said, it’s not too early to fix the existing problems in high school sports that are forcing too many kids out of athletics.

Most high schools offer varsity and junior varsity teams. If a student doesn’t make those squads, then what? He or she probably stops playing, Solomon said. On top of that, nearly one in five public high schools don’t offer sports at all, according to research published last month by the Women’s Sports Foundation.

Solomon said it’s time to rethink the high school sports model to create more athletic opportunities outside of interscholastic competition.

“We need more intramurals, additional community partnerships and the ability to reimagine the role of the PE teacher as a connector to quality local programs,” he said. “Empowering and equipping schools to be a hub for physical activity throughout their community — not just for high school sports — would significantly impact the quality and quantity of sports participants.”

In other words, if more kids are physically active in school-sponsored athletic programs, high school sports participation could return to its upward trajectory.

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