By Marcus E. Howard
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Football was the fastest-growing American sport for young players last year, according to a survey sponsored by the sport's governing body.
But it was the game's no-tackle variety that showed the biggest increase - a finding that may reflect concerns about injury.
The number of participants in flag and tackle football grew in 2015 while most other sports, except baseball, posted a decline, USA Football said on Monday, citing the findings of a survey of 30,000 children and teenagers.
Participation in no-tackle flag football grew by 8.7 percent among children aged 6 to 14, while tackle football rose 1.9 percent. For that age group, the only other sport that grew was baseball, with a 3.3 percent increase. All told, there were 102 sports in the survey.
In the 15-to-18 age group, flag football rose 10.5 percent, while tackle grew by 2.5 percent. Basketball was third, with a 1.1 percent increase. Participation in all other sports shrank.
Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute's Sports & Society Program, said he believed the data on participation was bolstered by a 2007 baby boom. Even so, he was surprised that flag football participation rose so much.
"The trend suggests parents are marching to the beat of a different drummer, in pursuing flag as an alternative for their kids," he said.
The findings come at a time of increasing concern about the hazards associated with youth sports, particularly hockey and football, where medical researchers have warned about the risk of concussions and death linked to brain injury.
A 2014 ESPN poll for espnW and the Aspen Institute found that 87.9 percent of parents had concerns about the risk of injury in youth sports.
USA Football, an Indianapolis, Indiana-based nonprofit funded in part by the National Football League, attributed the increases to better safety and health education.
"Football participation increases, even modest increases, may signal that medically endorsed programs, including our Heads Up Football program and practice guidelines, are making a positive difference," said Scott Hallenbeck, USA Football chief executive, in a statement.
To cut the risk to players, for example, the Ivy League earlier this year became the first college conference to consider banning tackling during practices.
The 2015 movie "Concussion," starring Will Smith, helped fuel a national conversation about the safety issues associated with football. It tells the story of a Nigerian pathologist who challenged the NFL with his research into brain damage suffered by professional football players.
Robert Cantu, a Boston University neurosurgery professor and investigator at the school's Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center, said the increase in flag football participation signaled that more parents are directing children to a safer alternative.
The survey, part of the annual Physical Activity Council Participation Report, was based on interviews with people aged 6 to 18. Sports Marketing Surveys USA led the research.
(Editing by Matthew Lewis)