When the National Federation of State High School Associations released its numbers on athletic participation rates in August, the findings raised some eyebrows.

In the 2010-11 school year, the country saw an increase of nearly 40,000 student-athletes from a year before. It marked the 22nd consecutive year-to-year increase. But it also marked the lowest year-to-year increase in more than two decades.

"I think we were pleased that there was any jump at all this year given the fact that a number of schools across the country have been facing budget issues and have had to cut back on coaches and some of their offerings of sports," said Bruce Howard, director of publications and communications of the federation.

A similar impact has been felt locally.

In a study conducted by The York Dispatch that involved 16

high schools in York County and one in Adams County, there were a total of 9,807 student-athletes in grades 9 through 12 in the 2010-11 school year.

Since most schools don't keep track of specific numbers on individual student-athletes, a student who plays multiple sports could be counted more than once. For example, a student who plays three sports will be counted three times.

Of the 17 schools involved in the study, nine were able to provide participation rates prior to the 2010-11 school year.

Those nine schools reported an increase of just 54 student-athletes from the 2009-10 school year to the 2010-11 school year.

The year before, those nine schools saw an increase of 78 student-athletes, from 2008-09 to 2009-10.

And had it not been for the recent addition of lacrosse to the sports slate, there would have been very little increase at all.

The culprit could be a struggling economy. But there are other factors that might be in play, including a drop-off in enrollment numbers, a slowing housing market and an aging York County population.

The slowdown has local athletic directors wondering if they have reached a limit on the number of sports they can offer to students.

Economy: As the economy has tanked in recent years, schools have felt the crunch, including high school athletic budgets.

Of the nine schools that provided numbers prior to the 2010-11 school year, just one school cut an athletic program within the last few years -- Northern York got rid of its freshman girls' basketball program after the 2008-09 season because there was little interest in the sport at the ninth-grade level. The school still has a varsity and junior varsity girls' basketball program.

Still, some schools have made other cuts to athletic budgets.

For example, Dallastown High School and York High each had more than $100,000 in cuts to this school year's budget.

The Wildcats eliminated two sports this year, gymnastics and winter track, which affected 130 students. One gymnastics coach and four winter track coaches were dropped, and nine assistant coaching positions were cut.

York High cut back on travel expenses and eliminated its wrestling and softball programs, which affected about two dozen students. The high school also saved money by closing its pool, although their swimmers still compete at other locations.

To make up for budget cuts, some schools have started introducing forms of pay to play. Three high schools in York County -- Dover, Red Land and York Suburban -- introduced an activity fee, or a form of pay to play, for the first time this year. The activity fees range in price from $25 to $50.

Enrollment: While a struggling economy has affected high school athletic budgets, it's also had a direct impact on enrollment rates, which could be a contributing factor to the limited growth in the number of students playing sports.

The 17 schools involved in the study had a total enrollment of 18,068 students in grades 9 through 12 in the 2010-11 school year, according to numbers provided by the state's Department of Education.

That's a decline of more than 400 students since the 2005-06 school year at those same schools.

This all makes perfect sense to Tyler Case, an economist for worldwide economic consulting firm Moody's Analytics.

"If you look at construction rates, they're now only about 20 percent of the level they were at a decade ago. There are not as many people moving in from Baltimore or Harrisburg. And that's mainly because as the housing bubble burst a few years ago, the housing in Baltimore became less expensive. Before, the housing in York was less expensive and it gave people from Baltimore a reason to come to York," Case said.

Marty Sowa, president of the Realtors Association of York & Adams Counties, has seen this happening firsthand.

"I used to work in construction, and I remember we used to put up three to four homes a month within a neighborhood consistently. And buyers were coming out of the area to purchase these new homes. That's not happening at this point," Sowa said.

Lacrosse: The 2008-09 school year marked the first year that the PIAA sanctioned high school lacrosse. Many high schools in York County added the sport that year, and a few added it the following year.

Eleven schools in York County now have a boys' or girls' lacrosse team. And for the most part, the athletic directors at those schools said the addition of lacrosse has not taken away athletes from other sports.

As a matter of fact, had lacrosse not been added to the sports slate, the number of student-athletes in York County could be much lower.

The nine schools in the study that were able to provide numbers prior to the 2010-11 school year saw an increase of 76 lacrosse players from the 2008-09 school year to the 2009-10 school year. That made up nearly the entire increase of 78 student-athletes those schools experienced as a whole.

From the 2009-10 school year to the 2010-11 school year, when there was an increase of 54 student-athletes, 35 of them were lacrosse players.

Soccer: While lacrosse has not taken away players from other sports, many athletic directors are concerned girls' soccer will when it switches from the spring to the fall next school year.

Female student-athletes already have to choose between volleyball, field hockey, tennis, cross country and cheerleading in the fall.

"I'm a little worried with (fall) soccer because the girls are the ones that's hard to get out and participate in sports," York High athletic director Chaz Green said. "With volleyball and soccer, a lot of girls play those sports. So, that might hurt those numbers if those sports are going head-to-head."

Spring Grove girls' soccer coach Emily Sprenkle agrees.

"I actually would lose more players to volleyball and field hockey than I would to lacrosse. A lot of my girls are field hockey players. So, most likely, I'm going to lose them," she said.

Future: As the numbers have shown, year-to-year increases in athletic participation rates on local and national levels have slowly tapered off over the past few years.

Though many local athletic directors are hopeful more kids will play sports in the future, some are starting to wonder if they have reached the tipping point in the number of sports they can offer.

"I'd say right now, I don't know what else they can really offer," said Rob Caruso, the athletic director at York Tech. "I think lacrosse was probably the last. But lacrosse is very expensive and field usage can be a problem. So, not all schools are going to add it."

Green agrees.

"Yeah, I think we have reached that point. And with certain schools that have budget cuts this year, if you had kids interested in a sport that you don't already offer, it's tough to even bring that up with a school board to see if you can add it," Green said.

Whether the athletic participation rates pick back up again or not, Howard said it's good to see that school administrators are continuing to make athletics a priority.

"Certainly, I think given the budget issues schools are facing and cutbacks from state government funding, schools are continuing to do a good job of making extracurriculars a priority," Howard said.

-- Reach John Walk at 505-5406 or jwalk@yorkdispatch.com.