November 29, 2014 • Athletic AdministrationCoaching

Strength in Numbers: NFHS survey shows more growth

Slimmer budgets and cuts to athletic programs paint a grim picture for high school sports, but national participation numbers continue to show they’re alive and well.

The National Federation of State High School Associations’ annual survey revealed that participation in prep sports is up for the 25th consecutive year, reaching a record 7.8 million student-athletes. That’s an increase of more than 82,000 participants from the previous year.

“This past year’s report on sports participation in our nation’s high schools was another great statement about the important of these education-based programs,” said NFHS Executive Director Bob Gardner in a statement. “We are encouraged that schools are continuing to respond to the funding challenges and are particularly pleased to see that the increase this past year was evenly distributed between boys and girls.”

The highlight of the 2013-14 participation survey was a jump in football numbers, the first in five years. The sport lost about 25,000 players from 2008-09 to 2012-13, a decline that many attributed to the increased awareness of injuries like concussions. Parents across the nation said they wouldn’t allow their children to play a sport that involved so many risks, and even some professional football players publicly expressed their concern over the game’s long-term impact on physical and mental health.

It’s difficult to gauge whether those issues stagnated the sport’s growth, but football grew by nearly 6,800 participants over the last year, maintaining its position as the most popular sport for high school boys.

“With the precautions that are in place nationwide to address concussions in all high school sports, including football, we have maintained that the risk of injury is as low as it has ever been,” Gardner said in a news release. “Certainly, this rise in football numbers is a confirmation of those beliefs and indicates the strong continued interest nationwide in high school football.”

Here is a look at some of the nation’s most popular prep sports and how they fared in this year’s annual survey.

Track and field

Participation in the nation’s second biggest sport has declined just once over the past seven years, jumping 6.3 percent since the 2007-08 school year. Outdoor track and field now stands just 35,000 participants behind football.

Sam Seemes, CEO of the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association, believes one of the reasons the sport has blossomed over the years is because it welcomes a diverse range or participants. It allows just about anyone who may not possess the ability of a 6-foot-5 quarterback to gain the valuable experience that comes with being part of a team.

“It doesn’t care for the most part if you’re tall, short or what body type you have,” he said. “It offers a lot of opportunities that other sports don’t because they’re restrictive in nature. There’s not much of a place on a boys basketball team for a 5-foot guard, but there’s a lot of diverse opportunities here.”

It makes sense, especially when you consider the number of track and field events and the range of skills that each one requires. Other factors could be cost — equipment expenses for track and field are almost nonexistent when compared to football or hockey — and roster size. There are no limits to the size of a track and field team, but some schools do have self-imposed caps to control participation numbers.

The looming question is whether track and field’s momentum is enough to overtake football as the nation’s most popular sport. Seemes isn’t so sure that it’s written in stone, but he thinks it’s a real possibility.

“It could, but I think the difference is football obviously gets more of the main headlines,” he said. “Schools are also more likely to have more than one football program with varsity, junior varsity, freshman and eighth-grade teams whereas track and field has just one. Each sport has their own strengths, and at the end of the day they’re kind of balanced.”

Cross country

Cross country grew by 7,099 student-athletes over the last year and it’s up 14.4 percent since the 2007-08 school year — the most growth of any single sport.

The potential reasons are similar to those in track and field, but Seemes believes the fitness boom may also play a role. Running is one of the most popular methods for staying in shape, so for high school students looking to get involved in sports, it’s a natural fit.

“Part of the draw to cross country is kids are really attracted to teams, and it’s a pretty simple sport that allows them to be involved in a team,” Seemes said. Cross country is the second most sponsored sport for men and women in NCAA Division I.

“I like to think a bit of it is people who hope to be fit,” he continued. “There is a lot of talk of obesity in the world today, and this is a way to attack that. Unfortunately, there are schools that have no or reduced physical education programs, and this is an outlet for those students with an added health benefit.”

With the influx of student-athletes comes the natural need for more coaches. Seemes said there has not been issues finding coaches for sports like cross country, but the biggest problem is finding qualified individuals within the high schools to take the job. Fewer teachers are taking on coaching positions, so many athletic directors are forced to look to the private sector for candidates.

“I think you see a trend in our sport and many others that the traditional coaching position has changed,” Seemes said.


Few sports have had the type of growth that volleyball has enjoyed over the last seven years. The third most popular sport among high school girls has added nearly 37,000 student-athletes since the 2007-08 season, picking up 11,222 in the last year alone. No sport added more participants.

“It’s about the programs being offered, and we’re seeing more opportunities for girls having a chance to play in the Southeast and the East,” said Kathy DeBoer, executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association. “For many years in the Southeast is was all basketball all the time, and now people are adding volleyball programs in high school. And once you have a program and it’s offered, you’re going to see a lot of girls picking volleyball.”

According to the NFHS survey, 107 girls volleyball programs were added over the last year. Another 28 were created for boys.

DeBoer hasn’t concluded what’s causing the upswing, but she admits several factors likely come into play. Many kids take on sports that were played by their parents — namely basketball, football or baseball — yet volleyball numbers continue to climb, she said.

There also is the club effect. Volleyball is one of the biggest club sports in the nation, so kids that latch on to the sport at a young age are more likely to take on the sport in high school. While that’s a real possibility, DeBoer prefers they take on multiple sports instead of focusing on a single one that consumes most of their free time.

“We want them to be introduced at 7, 8 or 9 years old, but we want them to play tennis, softball or soccer and go from season to season doing lots of different things,” she said.

Volleyball itself introduces obstacles to getting athletes involved at a young age. Moms and dads can shoot hoops in the driveway with their children or play catch in the backyard. Volleyball doesn’t provide those same opportunities to hook kids early on.

“We didn’t modify the sport to make it real fun for young kids until about 10 years ago,” DeBoer said. “We’re late to the party, and that’s part of the reason you’re now seeing this growth.” 

Additional trends

• Participation in baseball declined by nearly 7,300 student-athletes from 2007-08 to 2010-11, but the last three years show America’s pastime is steadily rebounding. Baseball added 7,645 in the last year alone and stands as the fourth most popular sport among high school boys.

Soccer has grown 8.5 percent over the last seven years, adding more than 61,000 student-athletes during that time. Since last year, there are 92 more schools offering boys soccer programs compared to just three on the girls’ side.

• Like football, basketball used to have more than one million participants, but the numbers have slipped 2.8 percent since the 2007-08 school year. The sport added roughly 2,600 student-athletes since last season and by next year may lose its position as the second most popular girls sport to volleyball. Club and travel basketball teams are believed to be part of the reasons for the sport’s decline at the high school level.

Lacrosse, often referred to as America’s fastest growing sport, added 9,744 participants over the last year. The sport was also picked up by another 223 schools — 124 new girls programs and 99 on the boys’ side. Participation is strongest in the Northeast, with New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey leading the way.

• Participation in wrestling reportedly increased by less than 1,000 student-athletes, but more states reported their numbers in this year’s survey, meaning participation could actually be down. The report included 180 more schools with boys wrestling programs compared to last year’s survey. There were 86 fewer schools with girls wrestling teams.

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