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March Mania

ND, Minn. sports participation numbers continue transformation

Grand Forks Red River cross country coach Jeff Bakke works out with his team at Cushman Field. Sports like track and cross country are seeing an increase in participants, while other sports' numbers have stayed flat or seen decreases. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

It’s been a good couple of years in North Dakota for high school runners, softball players and soccer players — and even for kids who like to play video games.

As quickly as North Dakota has changed in the last decade, the state’s high-schoolers — and the activities that take up their spare time — have changed with it. More are playing soccer and surging into high school track and field programs, or jumping into the state’s growing high school softball leagues. And though it’s not a “sport” in the traditional sense, e-sports — competitive video games — are poised to come to more high schools around the state.

The team sports on this month’s state tournament calendar — volleyball and football — have held at relatively steady participation levels. Volleyball’s 2018 season participation, for example, strays less than 2 percent below its 2011 participation. The same is true of football, where figures have also held steady for much of the last decade, although there are increasingly more nine-man, as opposed to 11-man, teams, and numbers are lower than they were in the 2000s.

The data on students’ shifting habits comes from the National Federation of High Schools and the North Dakota High School Activities Association, organizations that track the number of students who participate in a wide range of sports, fine arts programs, music activities and the like. The numbers are a window into a changing state that’s growing very, very quickly, making it hard to pinpoint which factors are driving changes. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city of Grand Forks grew by about 7.4 percent between 2010 and 2018, while the state grew by about 13 percent.

For those like Mark Rerick, the athletic director for Grand Forks Public Schools, the state’s growth has made it tough to figure how much upticks in sports participation come from student enthusiasm and how much comes from a growing population. In the 2014-15 school year, there were 1,319 local high school-level “participations,” a statistic that counts each student playing in each program (which means multi-sport athletes get counted more than once). That statistic in the 2018-19 school year was 1,509 — a 14.4 percent increase.

But besides the shifting state population, there are a range of other factors in play. One of the largest changes in the last decade has come in softball, where North Dakota High School Activities Association Executive Director Matt Fetsch said numbers have exploded as more schools have created programs. But there’s a web of other pressures, too, from local sports culture to growing “travel” teams that have changed how North Dakota’s children play sports.

There might be no better example than track and field. Jeff Bakke, who coaches the boys’ team at Red River High School, points out that high school coaches are grappling with a relatively recent trend in which high school athletes specialize in a single sport, sometimes playing it year-round. Efforts to bring those students back to high school athletics often get them involved in track and field, where their unique athletic talents often transfer most quickly to competitive success.

“Track is such a catch-all sport. It’s so beneficial to any athlete, no matter what sport they’re in,” Bakke said. “Even if they are doing, maybe summer or spring basketball or hockey, they’re still able to join us. That’s one of the reasons that, at least in Red River, we’ve boosted numbers, because we’ve worked with some of those kids and they’re willing to give it a try.”

The numbers suggest that’s a phenomenon happening statewide. Between 2013 and 2019, track and field participation has grown by nearly 1,000 total participants, from 3,753 to 4,716. In Minnesota, those numbers have grown from 30,713 to 33,371 during the same period.

A big part of that phenomenon is the growth of “travel” sports — competitive, non-scholastic youth clubs that often travel to play. Lisa Delpy Neirotti, a professor of sports management at George Washington University, echoed Bakke’s observation: oftentimes, high school sports participation suffers as students elect to play for travel teams. There may be some key differences for a rural place like North Dakota, she said, given travel teams are generally less common in rural areas. Meanwhile, local sports like high school football teams, for example, are more easily accessible for everyday students and more institutionally ingrained in the community than they might be in larger cities.

And football has one of the most difficult trend lines to explain. In North Dakota, 9- and 11-man high school football has held relatively steady in total participation numbers from 2011 to 2018, never straying much from about 4,050 players, with slightly rising statewide enrollments. But they’re down significantly from mid-2000s numbers, which put total football players at about 4,500 in 2007. Earlier numbers from that decade even higher.

Minnesota State High School League documents show about 26,500 players in 2012, but with numbers falling off across the rest of the decade.

It’s unclear how much the sport’s cultural currency holds it aloft in rural areas, or how much rising state population will or won’t affect those player numbers or how much declining participation in the sport elsewhere will affect North Dakota. Meanwhile, Fetsch, of the NDHSAA, said that with large high schools opening in some urban areas, but also rural schools with declining enrollments, football programs are seeing pressure on participation numbers in both directions.

Students are grappling with as much stress as ever, according to . Jason Heydt, who coaches volleyball at Red River High School, points out that he has seen students with increasingly busy schedules in recent decades.

“Kids are specializing (in sports) earlier, and whether it’s the parents or just the pressure (on) themselves, some of the kids get burned out,” he said, mentioning academics, multiple sports and jobs that students oftentimes navigate. “You want kids to be kids. They need to be able to relax and not have pressure, pressure, pressure, but have some down time, too.”

One of the newest additions to the pantheon of high school activities — and perhaps most unlike anything that’s come before it — are video games. Rerick said it’s best to think of them not really as sports per se, but as activities, like drama or debate. And, he said, there’s a growing club league that soon could turn into something even more vibrant. Even universities are seeing an emergence of e-sports, with the University of Jamestown, Dickinson State University and Bismarck State College all forming competitive e-sports teams.

After all, advocates point out, it stands to teach kids the same kind of collaborative, team-building skills they’ll learn in plenty of other activities that don’t require breaking a sweat — be it debate or music.

“(And) we don’t have our drama department finish a play and then run stairs for 20 minutes,” said Rerick, Grand Forks Public Schools’ athletic director, said.