WILKES-BARRE — Coaches and athletic directors took turns Tuesday lamenting the decline of sports participation before the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board voted to consolidate all sports.
But what are the actual numbers?
Some of them can be derived, in detail, courtesy of the state’s “Disclosure of Interscholastic Opportunity” reports required annually from all districts beginning with the 2012-13 school year. Comparing Wilkes-Barre data from that year to the 2016-17 data — the latest available — suggests that overall participation hasn’t dropped much in the intervening years, but that some sports have seen huge declines that may justify warnings they could disappear without the merger.
There are a few caveats.
The district has already combined some sports. Meyers High Athletic Director Mike Namey said wrestling at Coughlin and GAR Memorial have “co-opped” — short for an official “co-operative sponsorship” of a team allowed under rules of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association. That likely explains why there were no participation numbers reported for GAR in 2016-17. He also said Meyers and Coughlin lacrosse were co-opped.
The reports are filed by the district without verification by the state, and districts have been known to change the way they classified sports participation from year to year, or to forget to file data for certain sports some years. Namey wasn’t sure, but he said that may be why there were no participation numbers reported in 2016-17 for Solomon/Plains junior high school. This analysis only looked at numbers for the three high schools.
That said, here are some highlights:
• Meyers High School had the biggest overall drop in total participation, from 614 students to 513 for a 16.4 percent decline. GAR Memorial saw an increase, from 472 to 506, or 7.2 percent. Coughlin saw a smaller increase, from 740 to 770, up 4 percent. Overall, participation declined by 2 percent, from 1,826 to 1,789.
• That masks some big drops. For simplicity, consider all participants in a single sport that has multiple levels (varsity, junior varsity, boys or girls, for example). By that math, Meyers cross country dropped from 32 to 13, or by 59.4 percent. Coughlin golf fell from 15 to 8, or a nearly 47 percent slide. Meyers field hockey lost 24 participants, from 56 to 32, for a 43 percent decline.
• Going strictly by percentages, some sports with small numbers to begin with saw big gains. GAR cross country shot up from 15 to 32 for an increase of more than 113 percent. GAR girls tennis climbed from 7 to 20 for an increase of 186 percent.
• Looking at wrestling numbers for GAR and Coughlin — the two schools that co-opted the sport — GAR had no data reported for 2016-17, and had only 19 wrestlers in 2012-13, while Coughlin reported a decline from 66 to 31, or 53 percent. Adding the 19 that wrestled at GAR in 2012-13 to Coughlin’s numbers makes the drop bigger, a loss of 54 participants for a 63 percent decline
‘Spikes’ only temporary
Namey said the data is filed with the state based on projections of eligible athletes before a season begins, not of actual athletes by the time the season ends. That means it sometimes may list more participants than the sport actually has as the season progresses.
Namey also said it’s important to appreciate that participation sometimes seems to come in “spikes.” Student interest may surge for one sport one year, dramatically increasing the number of athletes, but they may drop out in later years. Even if they stick with the sport throughout high school, the impact of the spike disappears once they graduate.
And he said some sports seem to maintain strong traditions in specific schools, keeping participation up in one school while it sinks in another.
“I think that trails back to where the school had been dominant in the last few years,” said Namey. “Coughlin has been very dominant in the last few decades in field hockey, so their numbers withstand the changes in society, where Meyers and GAR begin to wane in field hockey.”
The state data bears out that idea. Coughlin barely saw any change in field hockey from 2012-13 to 2016-17, slipping from 55 participants to 51, only a 7.3 percent dip. GAR field hockey dropped from 49 to 36, more than 26 percent, and Meyers dropped from 56 to 32, for a drop of almost 43 percent.
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish