Prep Athletics: In Minnesota, the sports kids are playing are changing — fast
ST. PAUL -- Andrew Johnson jumped up and down on the sideline, limbering up before charging onto the lacrosse field. "I like the contact of lacrosse and the speed of the game. I used to play baseball, but it was too boring," the 13-year-old Lakev...
ST. PAUL -- Andrew Johnson jumped up and down on the sideline, limbering up before charging onto the lacrosse field.
“I like the contact of lacrosse and the speed of the game. I used to play baseball, but it was too boring,” the 13-year-old Lakeville player said as he ran off to take on the other team.
In the same way, lacrosse is taking on the traditional bastions of youth sports. Newly released figures from the National Federation of State High School Associations show participation declines in football, baseball, softball and both boys and girls hockey and basketball.
These legacy sports are being dethroned by such upstarts as lacrosse, soccer and cross country. And a new champion of high school sports has emerged -- boys and girls track and field, which claims the highest combined total of athletes in Minnesota.
Interviews with students, parents and experts show that traditional sports are being abandoned for being too dangerous, too costly or even too dull. Although there are exceptions, many teens are migrating from team sports into more personalized sports.
“No doubt about it. Team sports are suffering, and individual sports are gaining,” said Dev Pathik, CEO of Florida-based Sports Facilities Advisory and Sports Facilities Management, which manages construction of sports complexes.
Jody Redman, associate director of the Minnesota State High School League, said the shifts are partly due to inherent limitations of team sports, which limit the number of athletes who can play.
“In volleyball, you have six kids on the court at one time. That means maybe 15 or 26 on the team,” Redman said. “But track and field is open to as many as can participate.”
The phrase “Minnesota -- State of Hockey” is OK as a chamber of commerce slogan. But it’s not exactly accurate any longer. In the past 10 years, participation in girls hockey has dropped by 7 percent, and it’s dropped by 12 percent in boys hockey.
Hockey is now tied with swimming, with about 9,600 boys and girls in each sport.
One reason hockey suffers is its high costs, said Laura Ranum, St. Paul Public Schools’ athletic department specialist and a mother of four boys.
“For something like cross country, the cost is a pair of tennis shoes. Look at swimming -- not a whole lot of equipment there,” Ranum said. “Then you have hockey, with all the equipment and the ice time.”
Although “Minnesota -- State of Track and Field” might not be a slogan that excites the blood, it reflects reality here.
For generations, baseball has been second only to football in boys’ participation numbers in Minnesota -- but no more. Track and field has overtaken America’s pastime.
One reason for the surging popularity of track and field, as well as cross country, might be an overall appreciation of physical fitness, said Perry Coonce, director of the Minnesota Sports Federation, which represents nonschool youth sports teams and adult recreational sports. “Track and field provide lifetime benefits,” Coonce said.
Although football is still the single sport in Minnesota with the most participants -- 23,800 boys in the 2014-15 school year -- the number has dropped 8 percent in since 2004-05.
In Woodbury, the size of the youth football programs has remained steady, for a reason that might not bode well for the future of football in its most popular form.
“We have shifted to flag football,” said Gene Johnson, director of the Woodbury Athletic Association. There are now 170 boys and girls playing in grades three through eight, he said.
Sports Facilities Advisory CEO Pathik also speculated that football is falling behind because it is too competitive. Many boys try out for football and don’t make the team. “You walk off the playing field after tryouts and go home to play video games. This is a serious national health crisis,” Pathik said.
But the main cause of football’s demise is worry about concussions, parents, students and experts agree.
Ranum said she noticed the flurry of publicity last year over the high rate of concussions in football. “There was a little bit of, ‘Oooh, maybe the kids shouldn’t play that,’ “ she said.
Lacrosse boosters like to boast that their sport is almost injury-free. “I have had maybe one concussion (among his players) in the past five years,” said Jeff Wright, who coaches the boys lacrosse team at Lakeville North High School. “You don’t have the head-to-head contact. It’s more shoulder-to-shoulder.”
In the participation derby, other sports have posted mixed results in Minnesota.
Soccer is surging, but basketball is down sharply for girls and boys. The Woodbury Association’s Johnson said the lagging sports, including basketball, can strike students as too rigorous. “They are home playing video games rather than working,” he said.
Meanwhile, participation in Minnesota high school wrestling continues a long, slow decline, dropping 6 percent, to 8,200 participants, since 2004-05.
At the same time, trends in swimming are split. While boys swimming shot up 27 percent, to 3,800 participants in the state, girls swimming lost 17 percent, to 5,800.
As a sport, swimming is struggling nationwide, and Pathik said it’s partly because 1,300 public pools across the country have been closed in the past 10 years.
As for golf? It’s plummeting faster in Minnesota than almost any other sport. Participation in boys golf fell 18 percent, to 5,500, in the past decade, and the ranks of girls playing the sport fell 16 percent, to 4,200. “Golf is in trouble,” Pathik said.
In Woodbury, for example, Johnson canceled the youth golf programs two years ago because of declining participation. About 10 years ago, he had 300 athletes in his programs.
Lacrosse is catching fire
Lacrosse is increasing more rapidly in Minnesota than in any other state, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. The number of girls playing soared five-fold to 3,600 from 2004-05, while the number of boys playing went from zero to 3,400.
“Lacrosse is blowing up,” said Wright, the Lakeville North boys lacrosse coach.
He said that when he began coaching in 2003, four high schools in the south-metro area had to band together to make a single team. Now, he said, his team is drawing refugees from football and baseball fields. “In baseball, there is too much standing around. Lacrosse has constant action,” Wright said.
Once reserved for the playing fields of elite East Coast colleges, lacrosse is becoming mainstream, said Woodbury High School boys coach Jason Worwa.
“There is a coolness to it,” Worwa said. “Now you see kids playing it in parks, just for fun.”
On a recent Sunday, parents lugged lawn chairs to the sidelines of a field in Eagan to watch their eighth-grade sons play lacrosse.
Paula Miller, sipping from a water bottle, explained why her son likes the sport. “It’s a mix of football and hockey,” she said. “It’s got a certain level of violence.”
Chad Zuehlsdorff of Lakeville squinted in the sun as he watched his son dart around the field. He coaches youth football and is keenly aware of how much lacrosse is cutting into his teams. “The numbers for football are down, big time,” he said.
But like football, he said, “lacrosse has constant action. It’s rugged and rough.” Because the sport is less dependent on physical contact, it accommodates boys and girls of all sizes.
Graham Robbins, 13, a Lakeville North player, panted on the sideline while taking a break from the game.
“It mixes a lot of sports,” he said through his face mask. “It’s a little bit of football, a little basketball and a little soccer” -- without exactly being those sports.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner of Forum News Service.