Recreation Management Rec Report - The Newsletter for Recreation, Sports & Fitness Facility Managers

Feature Story

September 2022

High School Sports Participation Down 4%, Says NFHS Survey

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) recently resumed its High School Athletics Participation Survey for the 2021-22 school year. The survey is the first official report on high school sports participation from the federation since the 2018-19 school year, due to pandemic-related interruptions in data collection. The total number of participants in 2021-22—7,618,054—is down 4% from 2018-19's total of 7,937,491. The 2021-22 total includes 4,376,582 boys and 3,241,472 girls, according to figured obtained from the 51 NFHS member state associations, which includes the District of Columbia.

While sports participation has declined from 2018-19 to 2021-22, the NFHS noted that high school sports are still recovering after schools in many states were unable to offer normal sports programs during portions of the intervening school years.

"Given what has occurred in our country the past three years, we believe a decline of only 4% in participation from 2018-19 is pretty remarkable," said Dr. Karissa Niehoff, CEO of the NFHS. "We know some states that were able to complete surveys in 2020-21 reported participation increases this past year. So, we are very optimistic that trend will continue in the years to come as schools fully recover from the effects of the 2020 shutdown."

Among the top 10 boys sports (in terms of participants) from 2018-19, golf was the only sport that registered an increase—up just under 4% and surpassing tennis as the eighth most popular sport. Golf also saw increased participation among girls (up 1%).

Football presented interesting trends, with a decline of 3% for boys 11-player football, and a 12% increase in participation in 6-, 8- and 9-player football. Gains for girls playing football were even greater. In all four versions of the game (11, 9, 8, and 6 players), participation among girls increased 39% from the 2018-19 survey. Girls flag football saw an increase of 40%.

Niehoff called the numbers encouraging. "The movement from 11-player to other versions of the game continues to be attractive to schools in some states, and the growth of girls flag football continues to gain ground in more areas of the country."

After golf, baseball experienced the best showing among top 10 boys sports from the 2018-19 survey with a decrease of only 1,736 (482,740 to 481,004), and remained fourth in popularity behind football, outdoor track and field and basketball. The other change for boys top 10 sports was wrestling, which took sixth place, replacing cross country. Wrestling was down 6% from the previous survey, while cross country saw the biggest decline, 14%.

Volleyball continued to increase in popularity among girls sports and was the only top 10 sport to register an increase from three years ago. With 454,153 participants, volleyball is only 2,500 participants behind track and field for the No. 1 participatory sport for girls. In addition, the emerging sport of girls sand/beach volleyball increased from 2,237 to 6,489 participants.

Among other girls top 10 sports, soccer moved ahead of basketball to No. 3 behind track and field and volleyball, with softball remaining fifth. Cross country, swimming and diving, and competitive spirit registered the biggest declines the past three years among top 10 sports with 13% drops.

In addition to flag football, girls wrestling continued its recent surge in popularity with a 50% increase since 2018-19. A total of 32 states now offer separate state wrestling championships for girls.

While most of the traditional sports experienced some level of decrease since 2018-19, the 2021-22 survey showed a dramatic rise in Unified sports participation. With only 5,541 combined participants from 10 states in 2018-19, this year's survey indicated 47,909 combined participants in almost 20 states.

In addition to Unified sports participants, the survey indicated another 7,689 combined participants in Adapted sports. The 55,598 combined participants in Unified and Adapted sports represents a 163% increase from three years ago.

"It is great to see a growing interest in several emerging sports, as well as programs like Unified and Adapted programs," Niehoff said. "Our goal continues to be to involve as many students as possible in high school sports and other activity programs."

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