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More high school athletes are returning to sports, WIAA says

New report says about 17,000 fewer Wisconsin boys and 10,000 fewer girls played high school sports last year

fans in face masks applaud from the bleachers
Fans watch from bleachers as the Burlington High School and Badger High School football teams compete Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in Burlington. Angela Major/WPR

Participation in Wisconsin high school sports remained below pre-pandemic levels last year, according to newly released figures from an industry group.

The National Federation of State High School Associations found nearly 27,000 fewer Wisconsin students played high school sports during the 2021-2022 school year compared to the 2018-2019 school year.

A report from the association this month marked its first high school sports participation survey in three years. It shows Wisconsin ranking 16th among states, down two spots from before the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Appearing on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Larry Meiller Show” recently, the head of a nonprofit overseeing Wisconsin youth sports similarly talked about schools and teams still working to recover.

“We saw a lot of schools finally getting back to what felt like normal last year,” said Stephanie Hauser, executive director of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. “There were kids that had gotten away from being active in a high school sport for a year.”

About 17,000 fewer boys and 10,000 fewer girls played high school sports in Wisconsin last year than the 2018-2019 school year, according to the national association. Football remained the most popular sport among boys, though participation dropped nearly 33 percent. Among girls, volleyball remained in the top spot with participation falling about 18 percent.

Statewide, the national group’s survey said the five most popular boys programs were football, outdoor track and field, basketball, baseball and soccer. The five most popular girls programs were volleyball, outdoor track and field, basketball, softball and soccer.

Although participation in high school sports declined since the pandemic, Hauser said more athletes are returning to their sports teams this year.

“Coaches are thrilled to see that (increase), because we know how positive it is for kids to get connected to their high schools,” she said.

high school sport referee
LM Otero/AP Photo

The rebound comes amid a nationwide referee shortage, which Hauser said is creating issues for athletic programs across the state.

The WIAA said nearly 3,000 licensed registered officials left their positions last year. Schools are changing game schedules to adapt.

“Conferences are beginning to adjust their football games off of Friday nights and playing them on a Thursday or a Saturday, because they don’t feel that they have enough high-level varsity officials to officiate those games,” she said.

Hauser said there are a multitude of reasons for the shortage, including disrespectful behavior. She said officials are being mistreated by fans, coaches and players.

The pandemic also raised new health concerns for officials, Hauser said.

“A lot of our officials are getting up there in age,” she said. “They were fearful of being around young kids that they thought could make them sick. So we have seen a return of a lot of our officials.”

Hauser said the WIAA aims to have at least 10,000 licensed officials annually. Last year the association fell short. But Hauser said this year athletic programs are getting back to a sense of normalcy.

They’re becoming more digital friendly, too.

“Now we’ve got a virtual world,” Hauser said. “They (schools) have cameras in their gyms and cameras on their fields now, which can actually open up the doors to have grandmas and grandpas or relatives far away.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which protects students from sexual discrimination in an education program or activity. Nationwide, about 3 million more high school girls and nearly 200,000 more college women have opportunities to play sports each year since the law was enacted in 1972, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation released a report earlier this year.

In January, the WIAA held the state’s first girl’s wrestling tournament. The association plans to culminate a year-long celebration at the state football tournament set for Nov.17-18.