An Overview of High School Sports Participation Rates in America
In 2018, the Philadelphia Eagles embraced their underdog status and pulled one of the most unexpected victories in recent NFL postseason memory. The Eagles may have brought the Lombardi Trophy home for the first time in team history, but there was one thing about the Big Game most critics weren't celebrating: the number of people who watched.
Over 103 million viewers might not seem like a small number on the surface, but it's a part of growing problem for the NFL and professional football. The 2018 Big Game marked a near-decade low for the number of people tuning in, a trend that was echoed across much of the 2017-18 season.
The league's most recent issues have made big headlines, but they might not be the only problems keeping fans from tuning in – or young athletes from signing up to play the sport at all. To take a closer look at the evolving attitude toward sports in America, we utilized data from the National Federation of State High School Associations to find out which programs are gaining traction and which might be starting to die out among young athletes. Keep reading to see what we uncovered about America's favorite pastimes and how certain marquee scandals could be changing the future of football, basketball, and soccer forever.
Despite some of the negative press centered on a few sports in recent years, the number of students participating in high school sports increased in 2017 for the 28th year in a row, closing in on nearly 8 million. That figure doesn't mean every sport is growing though, and certain regions of the country are focused on more traditional team activities (including basketball and football), while others look ahead to what might be the future of sports in America.
Participation from young female athletes in programs like basketball, track and field, and volleyball reached an all-time high in 2017 to over 3.4 million, helping to account for the total rise in high school student-athletes. In contrast, male programs were more varied in their growth and may offer keen insight into rising and falling trends for the future.
Seven of the top 10 most popular programs for high school boys saw a rise in participation in 2017. Leading the way with positive growth, soccer, outdoor track and field, and cross-country all peaked. On the other hand, the number of male students playing football decreased during the 2016-17 school year.
Across the U.S., two states maintained the highest number of high school athletes – but they might not be playing the same games. In Texas, the No. 1 state for high school sports, and in much of the South including Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi, football still reigned supreme. High-profile high school and collegiate-level teams may be helping to sustain the popularity of the sport while it continues to decline on the national stage. In California (and in other high-volume states including New York, Illinois, and Ohio), outdoor track and field took the cake.
Basketball and soccer (two programs rising in popularity for both male and female high school athletes) started to spread as well. More than 1 in 5 high school students playing sports in South Dakota and Montana do so on the basketball court, while roughly 15% of students participating in sports in Vermont and Maine are playing soccer instead.
A New Champ on the Field
Over the last decade, only one sport has seen double-digit percentage growth among high school students: soccer.
When we think of popular professional sports in America, football, basketball, and baseball are probably at the forefront of the mind. On the international stage, however, professional sports look a little different, and no sport anywhere in the world draws more fans than soccer.
In recent years, soccer has made a major push in the U.S. on multiple fronts. Not only are MLS (Major League Soccer) clubs starting to pop up all across the country, but those teams were worth roughly $185 million in 2017 – an 80% increase over just four years. MLS is even starting to attract international talent, which could mean major press and higher visibility for these clubs. More than just bringing in established players to help boost fan bases or establish credibility, MLS teams are also focused on growing their talent here in the U.S., and that means investing in the soccer movement with both boys and girls at a young age.
MLS isn't the only way that soccer is gaining traction on this area of the globe, though. Amazon has been hotly rumored to be bidding big bucks to earn the streaming rights to Premier League soccer matches (including teams like Manchester United and Chelsea), signaling Americans aren't just interested in watching their teams play – they want even more soccer in their living rooms than they might currently have access to.
Track and field and baseball both saw an increase in participation rates over the last decade, although they only accounted for a fraction of the growth posted by high school students playing soccer.
America's Favorite Pastimes?
Participation in high school athletic programs has been on the rise for nearly three decades, but between 2006 and 2016, only two programs experienced a decline: basketball and football.
The franchisees that comprise the NFL and NBA are among the most valuable clubs anywhere in the world, yet even on their biggest stages, viewership continues to decline. During the 2017-18 NFL season, ratings for the regular season, postseason, and even championship games hit startling lows, and many critics cited the league's issues with player protests during the national anthem as a primary cause of strife. In the battle over a handful of players kneeling during the anthem on live TV, the political implications (and indeed, further protest by fans) were only exacerbated when the president and White House officials stepped in to condemn the actions.
But do national anthem protests tell the entire story, and how could one year of political debate impact a decade of youth athletes playing the sport? One other major factor could be contributing to the decline of NFL ratings and subsequent loss of traction. In 2017, research revealed that 99% of deceased players whose brains had been donated to scientific research were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. This neurodegenerative brain disease can be found in players who've been exposed to constant head trauma and has been linked to the suicide of former player Junior Seau. In 2013, much less was known about the disease. Today, the NFL has made some alterations to its rules to help account for the injuries players sustain during games, but parents of student-athletes are going even further. As concerns over CTE and concussions continue to mount, youth participation in football has been in steep decline. Even parents who played the sport themselves as kids no longer want to see their children participating in it.
The NBA has experienced a similar (although less dramatic) rating decline in recent years, but the falling participation among students has far different roots than that of football. Particularly among female students, two major factors may be working against youth participation: a system that weeds "non-elite" players out at young ages and economic pressures (particularly in rural areas) that leave high school students with less time to play sports. A majority of students in U.S. public schools are in poverty, and economic needs have forced students to pick after-school jobs over after-school hoops, which may help account for this decrease in participation. According to data from the NFHS, high school basketball participation was lowest in 2011, a time of economic recession in the U.S., but has slowly continued to rise between 2011 and 2016.
A New Sheriff in Town
Despite the negative press and decline of dominant sports programs for students in the U.S, high school sports participation is on the rise, and three programs are experiencing the biggest boosts of all: soccer, track and field, and baseball.
The allure of soccer, particularly in states like Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, can largely be attributed to the popularity of the sport professionally including both MLS and international clubs like the Premier League and La Liga (including clubs like Real Madrid and F.C. Barcelona). Oklahoma City has been in negotiations to build a professional stadium that could house its own MLS team, of which there are currently 23. However, that growth has taken time in the U.S., and some critics argue the growth of MLS may actually be a response to young fans playing the game in youth soccer leagues rather than the other way around.
Track and field has also seen a dramatic increase since 2006, particularly in states like Oklahoma, Delaware, and Georgia, while baseball continues to rebound successfully from the dip in participation between 2008 and 2010 (also years associated with the economic recession). In 2015, the MLB launched their "Play Ball" initiative that encouraged kids to play baseball casually as opposed to forcing them to act as serious participants. By focusing on the game rather than the competitive nature of the sport, the popularity of baseball among high school students has continued to rise consistently since 2012.
Across the U.S., the face of high school sports is changing. In many cases, as a response to what happens professionally and on the world stage, parents and students alike are changing the way they approach athletic competition. As the NFL continues to battle issues over player protests and, perhaps more importantly, players' overall physical and mental health, the popularity of football among high school students has seen a near-constant decline between 2006 and 2016.
But beyond football, athletic participation among high school students only continues to rise, and new and exciting sports are emerging in big ways for fans of all ages. The growth of soccer among students coincides nicely with the growth of MLS across the country, which could indicate once and for all that soccer has officially arrived in America and isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
Regardless of the program, what really matters is that students are active and playing safe sports they enjoy rather than forced competition. Whether it's baseball, soccer, basketball, or track and field, organized sports programs can help students establish valuable leadership skills, find positive mentors, improve their academics, and stay fit along the way.
We collected data from the National Federation of State High School Associations (nfhs.org). For this campaign, we scraped high school sports participation data from schools in all 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C. We analyzed 10 years of sports participation, starting with the 2006 school year and ending in 2016, the most current data set available. Hypotheses were then statistically tested.
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