NFHS: High School Sports Showing Strong Gains | Sports Destination Management

NFHS: High School Sports Showing Strong Gains

Girls’ Wrestling and Flag Football Increased; Organization is Also Tracking Esports
Aug 31, 2023 | By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Pandemic who? 2020 what? New statistics from the National Federation of State High School Associations shows participation is almost entirely back to its pre-disruption status. Participation in high school sports eclipsed 7.8 million in the 2022-23 school year, reflecting a sharp increase from the previous year as the NFHS completed its High School Athletics Participation Survey for a second time after the pandemic interrupted its collection of data.


The breakdown follows the growth of high school sports; however, that growth is only an indicator of changes in the sports landscape as a whole, and it all needs to be seen as a message to event owners: Get ready for more participation from teens and the need for more events (or more categories within events) that serve this demographic.


Overall Numbers
A total of 7,857,969 participants competed in high school sports in 2022-23, an increase of nearly 240,000 and up more than three percent from 2021-22 totals. The total includes 4,529,789 boys and 3,328,180 girls, according to figures obtained from the 51 NFHS member state associations, which includes the District of Columbia.


This year’s total marks the first upward movement in participation data since the all-time record of 7,980,886 in 2017-18, which was followed by the first decline in 30 years in 2018-19 and the two-year halt in data collection related to the pandemic.


“We were optimistic that the trends we saw in 2021-22 would continue, and our dreams were realized this past year as more and more students continued to pursue opportunities in education-based sports in our nation’s schools,” said Dr. Karissa Niehoff, NFHS chief executive officer. “Perhaps the most encouraging news with this year’s survey is that most every sport for boys and girls registered an increase from the previous year. Certainly, that is the goal of these programs – to meet the needs of as many students as possible. We salute coaches, administrators and everyone involved in school-based sports the past few years for their efforts in keeping these programs alive.”


Movement within the Top 10 Lists of Popular Sports
The top 10 sports remained the same for both boys and girls, although there have been some shifts within those lists. For example, boys tennis leapfrogged over boys golf to take the position of the eighth-most popular sport, and girls basketball and girls competitive spirit each moved up a spot on the girls side. On the boys side, eight of the top ten sports registered increases in participation, while nine of the top ten sports on the girls side added participants.


Big Gains in Wrestling
One of the biggest increases in participation for boys and girls was in the sport of wrestling. Boys wrestling jumped 10 percent, adding nearly 25,000 participants, to more than 256,000, the largest total since 258,208 in 2014-15.

NFHS shows big participation gains

But the increase in girls wrestling was even larger with 17,473 additional participants, a massive (wait for it) 55 percent increase from 2021-22, reaching a record total of 49,127. Just 10 years ago, there were fewer than 10,000 girls in high school wrestling.  In addition, 36 states now offer separate state wrestling championships for girls and the sport is well on its way to becoming a championship level sport for women in NCAA.


Football Gains Yardage Among Boys and Girls
Eleven-player football remained the most popular boys sport with the total climbing back over one million participants. The total of 1,028,761 participants marks an increase of 54,969 and 5.6 percent from the previous year.


Not only did 11-player football top the one million mark, this year’s increase was the first in the sport since 2013 and only the second increase since the all-time high of 1,112,303 in 2008-09. There also was a slight gain (34,935 to 35,301) in the number of boys in 6-, 8- and 9-player football.


The number of girls playing football, particularly flag football, continued to climb as well. A total of 20,875 girls participated in flag football in 2022-23, an increase of 32 percent. Seven states now sponsor a state championship in girls flag and more are in the planning stages. The number of girls in 11-player football increased 18 percent with 3,654 participants.


Altogether, boys and girls participation in all versions of football increased from 1,028,976 to 1,089,880, a jump of six percent.  


Other Top-Ten Stats
On the girls side, outdoor track and field (+6.5%) and volleyball (+3.6%) remained in the top two spots, while basketball reclaimed the third position from soccer, jumping 3.5 percent and adding 12,896 participants. In addition, girls competitive spirit added 9,142 participants, an increase of 6.5 percent.


Esports Participation Now Being Tracked
This year’s survey also captured esports participation data for the first time with 20,001 boys and 3,921 girls recorded. Eighteen states reported esports participation, with Illinois and California leading the way, each with more than 3,000 participants. Expect this trend to grow as colleges increasingly offer teams, as well as scholarship money, to esports athletes.


Which States Have the Most Student Athletes?
Texas remained atop the list of state participation with 827,446, but California closed the gap in second adding 25,000 participants to climb to 787,697. New York is third with 356,803, followed by Illinois (335,801), Ohio (323,117), Pennsylvania (316,587), Florida (297,389), New Jersey (272,159), Michigan (268,070) and Minnesota (219,094), which climbed into the top 10 past Massachusetts.


The NFHS High School Athletics Participation Survey was started in 1971 and was compiled in its current form through the 2018-19 school year, resuming annually last year with the 2021-22 survey. The complete 2022-23 NFHS High School Athletics Participation Survey will be available soon on the NFHS website at this link.

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