A Summary of High School Sports Participation Rates in the United States

In 2018, the Philadelphia Eagles embraced their status as underdogs and pulled off one of the most shocking postseason triumphs in modern NFL history. Even though the Eagles carried the Lombardi Trophy home for the first time in franchise history, there was one aspect of the Big Game that most commentators did not applaud: the amount of viewers.



On the surface, over 103 million viewers may not appear to be a modest amount, but it is part of a rising problem for the NFL and professional football. The number of viewers for the 2018 Super Bowl was the lowest in nearly a decade, a trend that persisted throughout the whole of the 2017-18 season.


The league’s recent concerns have made headlines, but they may not be the only ones discouraging fans from tuning in or young athletes from playing the sport. We analyzed data from the National Federation of State High School Associations to determine which programs are gaining popularity and which may be on the decline among young athletes in order to acquire a deeper understanding of the changing attitude toward sports in America. Continue reading to see what we discovered about America’s favorite sports and how some high-profile scandals may forever alter the future of football, basketball, and soccer.


Regional Recreation

Despite some unfavorable headlines surrounding a few sports in recent years, the number of pupils participating in high school athletics climbed for the 28th consecutive year in 2017, reaching close to 8 million. This does not imply that every sport is increasing, however, since certain sections of the country are focused on more conventional team sports (such as basketball and football), while others look to the future of sports in America.



In 2017, participation by young female athletes in sports like as basketball, track and field, and volleyball hit a record high of over 3.4 million, contributing to the overall increase in high school student-athletes. In contrast, the expansion of male programs was more diverse and may provide insight into future rising and decreasing tendencies.


Participation increased in seven of the top ten most popular programs for high school guys in 2017. In terms of positive growth, soccer, outdoor track & field, and cross-country topped the list. In contrast, fewer male students participated in football during the 2016-2017 academic year.


Two states retained the largest number of high school athletes in the United States, however they may not play the same sports. In Texas, the top state for high school sports, as well as a large portion of the South, including Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi, football remained dominant. It is possible that prominent high school and university teams are helping to preserve the sport’s appeal as it continues to decrease on the national level. Outdoor track and field is the most popular sport in California, New York, Illinois, and Ohio, among other states with significant participation rates.


Additionally, basketball and soccer (two programs gaining popularity among male and female high school players) began to expand. More than one-fifth of high school students in South Dakota and Montana who participate in sports do so on the basketball court, but in Vermont and Maine, around fifteen percent of students who participate in sports play soccer.


A New Champion in the Game

Only soccer has had double-digit percentage increase among high school pupils over the past decade.



When we think of popular professional sports in the United States, football, basketball, and baseball likely come to mind. On the worldwide stage, however, professional sports take on a different appearance, and soccer is the sport that attracts the most supporters anywhere in the globe.


In recent years, soccer has made significant strides in the United States on numerous fronts. Not only are MLS (Major League Soccer) clubs beginning to appear all throughout the country, but their combined valuation in 2017 was over $185 million, a rise of 80% in only four years. Even the MLS is beginning to draw foreign players, which might result in more press coverage and prominence for these clubs. In addition to bringing in renowned players to help build fan bases or create reputation, MLS teams are also focused on cultivating their potential in the United States, which involves investing in the soccer movement among young boys and girls.


However, MLS is not the only method that soccer is growing popularity in this region. Amazon is said to be bidding large sums of money for the streaming rights to Premier League soccer matches (including clubs such as Manchester United and Chelsea), indicating that Americans are interested in more sports in their living rooms than they may now have access to.


Track & field and baseball likewise had a rise in participation rates over the past decade, but their growth was just a tenth of that of high school soccer.


What are America’s most popular pastimes?

Participation in high school athletic programs has been on the increase for over three decades, but from 2006 to 2016, only basketball and football saw a reduction in participation.



The franchises that make up the NFL and NBA are among the most valuable clubs in the world, yet viewership continues to fall even on their greatest platforms. During the 2017-18 NFL season, ratings for the regular season, postseason, and even championship games were shockingly low, and many critics pointed to the league’s problems with player demonstrations during the national anthem as a major source of discord. When the president and White House officials condemned the behavior of a number of players kneeling during the national anthem on live television, the political ramifications (and fans’ protests) were amplified.


But can national anthem demonstrations represent the whole picture, and how might one year of political discourse affect a decade of child players participating in the sport? An more significant element may be contributing to the fall in NFL viewership and consequent loss of momentum. In 2017, studies indicated that CTE was present in the brains of 99 percent of deceased football players whose brains were submitted for scientific study. This neurodegenerative brain illness has been connected to the suicide of former player Junior Seau and is observed in players who have had chronic head trauma. In 2013, very less was known about the illness. Today, the NFL has made certain regulation changes to account for the injuries players experience during games, but parents of student-athletes are going even further. As worries over CTE and injuries continue to grow, young football participation has sharply declined. Even parents who participated in the sport as youngsters no longer want their children to play it.


In recent years, the NBA has witnessed a comparable (though less severe) reduction in ratings, but the decline in student involvement has vastly different causes than those of football. Two key reasons may be pushing against teenage engagement, particularly among female students: a system that eliminates “non-elite” players at a young age and economic pressures (particularly in rural regions) that leave high school students with less time to play sports. The majority of kids in public schools in the United States live in poverty, and economic needs have compelled students to choose after-school employment over after-school basketball, which may partially explain this decline in participation. According to NFHS data, high school basketball participation was at its lowest point in 2011, a time of economic distress in the United States, but has gradually increased between 2011 and 2016.


A new sheriff has arrived

Despite the bad press and loss of dominating student sports programs in the United States, high school sports participation is on the rise, with soccer, track and field, and baseball having the largest increases.



The attractiveness of soccer in areas such as Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas is partly attributable to the sport’s professional popularity, which includes MLS and foreign clubs such as the Premier League and La Liga (including clubs like Real Madrid and F.C. Barcelona). Oklahoma City is in discussions to construct a professional stadium that might host one of the existing 23 MLS teams. However, this growth has been gradual in the United States, and some critics say that the expansion of MLS may be a response to the popularity of minor soccer leagues among young fans.


Track and field participation has also increased dramatically since 2006, notably in Oklahoma, Delaware, and Georgia, while baseball continues to effectively recover from a decline between 2008 and 2010. (also years associated with the economic recession). The Major League Baseball started its “Play Ball” project in 2015, which encouraged children to play baseball for fun as opposed to requiring them to be serious players. Since 2012, baseball’s popularity among high school students has steadily increased as a result of an increased emphasis on the sport’s recreational rather than competitive aspects.


Participation Active

In the United States, high school sports are evolving. In many situations, as a result of what occurs on the professional and international levels, parents and kids are altering their approach to sports competition. The popularity of football among high school students has steadily declined between 2006 and 2016, as the NFL continues to deal with concerns relating to player protests and, arguably more crucially, players’ general physical and mental health.


Beyond football, though, high school student athletic participation continues to expand, and new and fascinating sports are developing for fans of all ages. The popularity of soccer among students corresponds with the expansion of Major League Soccer across the country, which might imply that soccer has finally arrived in America and is here to stay.


Regardless of the curriculum, what counts most is that children be active and participating in safe, enjoyable sports rather than being pressured to compete. Whether it’s baseball, soccer, basketball, or track and field, organized sports programs may help children develop vital leadership skills, find good mentors, enhance their academic performance, and remain physically active.



We acquired information from the National Federation of State High School Associations (nfhs.org). We pulled high school sports participation data from schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia for this initiative. We investigated 10 years of sports involvement, beginning with the 2006-2007 school year and continuing with the 2016-2017 school year, the most recent accessible data set. The hypotheses were then evaluated statistically.

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