Montana Prep Football Participation Dips Sharply for Second Straight Year

Overall sports participation in state drops for ninth time in last 10 seasons, per NFHS survey

By Andy Viano
Glacier's Colin Bowden tries to recover a fumble during at game at Legends Stadium in 2018. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Fewer than 4,700 Montana high school boys suited up for football in 2018, a more than 11 percent drop from the 2016 season, and overall sports participation in the state declined for the ninth time in the last 10 years, according to an annual survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).

The survey, released on Aug. 26, tracked participation in high school sports across the country in the 2018-19 school year and reported a nationwide decrease in the total number of student-athletes playing sports for the first time in 30 years.

In Montana, 30,530 total student-athletes played for school-sponsored teams, a less than 1 percent dip from 2017-18. Taken in the larger view, however, total participation has steadily declined from a 10-year high of 32,956 in 2008-09, decreasing nine times in the last 10 school years.

Nowhere is the decline more stark than in football. Participation in that sport is declining nationwide and reached its lowest total this century in 2018, according to an NFHS press release announcing the findings.

“We recognize that the decline in football participation is due, in part, to concerns about the risk of injury,” Dr. Karissa Niehoff, the NFHS executive director, wrote. “Every state has enacted rules that limit the amount of contact before the season and during practices, and every state has concussion protocols and laws in place, so we continue to believe that the sport is as safe as it has ever been.”

Participation in 6- and 8-player football is up slightly, both nationwide and in Montana, but those modest gains are not enough to counter the major dips in 11-player football participation. The 2018 season saw only 3,476 boys take the field for 11-player teams, a drop of more than 15 percent from the 4,127 boys who played in 2016. Eight-player teams accounted for 790 boys in 2018 and 6-player teams added 426. Ten years ago, in 2008, there were 6,150 total boys playing football in Montana compared to 4,692 last year, a total loss of 23.71 percent.

Eleven-player football is also no longer the state’s most popular sport for boys — the first time that has happened in at least 10 years — as boys track and field numbers jumped to 3,524 last school year. Track and field participation is still down slightly from 2008-09 (3,640) but is up more than 4 percent from 2017-18. The state’s third most popular boys sport was basketball at 3,282 student-athletes, and it too has seen a steep decline of more than 6 percent in the last two school years.

Girls sports were not immune from the trend, either. While total participation ticked up by .25 percent overall in Montana, the state’s three most popular girls sports — volleyball, track and field, and basketball — all saw decreases in 2018-19. Volleyball led the way with 3,349 students, a drop of nearly 7 percent from 2016. Basketball came in at 2,822 participants (down 6.25 percent from 2016-17) and track and field registered 2,598 (a 2.48 percent drop from two years prior).

To view the complete results of this year’s survey and a complete archive of past years, visit www.nfhs.org/sports-resource-content/high-school-participation-survey-archive/.