Top Insights from NFHS: More Girls Playing Football, Increase in Boys Golfing | Sports Destination Management

Top Insights from NFHS: More Girls Playing Football, Increase in Boys Golfing

Oct 09, 2022 | By: Michael Popke

Photo © Russ Ensley |

For the first time since 2019, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has released a sports-participation survey. And the results, arriving in the wake of two years of pandemic-induced chaos at programs around the country, aren’t as grim as you might think.


True, the total of 7,618,054 participants during the 2021-22 academic year is down four percent from 7,937,491 student-athletes in 2018-19. But that number could have been a lot lower, according to Dr. Karissa Niehoff, chief executive officer of the NFHS, considering that schools ien many states were unable to offer their typical programs during portions of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.


“Given what has occurred in our country the past three years, we believe a decline of only four percent in participation totals from 2018-19 is pretty remarkable,” Niehoff said in a statement.  “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.”


According to figures obtained from the 51 NFHS member state associations (including the District of Columbia), 4,376,582 boys and 3,241,472 girls participated in sports during the fall, winter and spring seasons of the 2021-22 school year.


Boys’ Golf Numbers Up, Football Down

Among the top 10 boys’ sports in participation from 2018-19, golf was the only sport to register an increase — up almost four percent with 148,585 participants and surpassing tennis as the eighth-most popular sport. In fact, golf was one of the few sports to increase on both sides of the ledger, as girls’ participation was up one percent to 80,829 participants.


High school sports participation
Photo © Chris Van Lennep |

Perhaps the biggest storyline — at least when it comes to boys’ sports — is what’s happening in football. While participation in 11-player football was down three percent (from 1,006,013 to 973,792), participation in 6-, 8- and 9-player football registered a 12 percent increase (from 31,221 to 34,935).


According to NFHS officials, the shift from the 11-player game to other versions was seen in school sponsorship of the sport, too. While the number of schools with 11-player football dropped by 514 (from 14,247 to 13,733), the number of schools offering 6-, 8- or 9-player football increased by 227 (from 1,563 to 1,790).


Also newsworthy is the number of girls playing high school football. In all four versions of the game (11-, 9-, 8- and 6-player), girls’ participation increased 39 percent over 2018-19 — from 2,604 to 3,633. Additionally, participation in girls’ flag football increased 40 percent — from 11,209 to 15,716. Collectively between boys and girls, participation in all versions of football decreased just 2.2 percent — from 1,051,047 to 1,028,976.


“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,” Niehoff said.


Beyond golf, baseball experienced the best showing among the top 10 boys’ sports from the 2018-19 survey, with a decrease of only 1,736 — from 482,740 to 481,004. And it remained fourth in popularity behind football, outdoor track and field, and basketball.


The other change in the boys’ top 10 was wrestling, which nudged cross country for sixth place with 231,874 participants compared to 231,387. Wrestling was down six percent from the previous survey while cross country had the biggest decline at 14 percent.


Other boys’ sports outside the top 10 that experienced significant gains from 2018-19 were volleyball (up 4.6 percent) and bass fishing (10,626 participants). 


Girls’ Volleyball Participation Spikes

For girls, volleyball continued its rise in popularity as 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 high school sport for girls. In addition, participation in the emerging sport of girls’ sand/beach volleyball increased from 2,237 to 6,489. 


Among other top 10 girls’ 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 — each with 13-percent drops.


In addition to flag football, girls’ wrestling continued its recent surge with a 50 percent increase since 2018-19 — from 21,124 to 31,654 participants. A total of 32 states now offer separate state wrestling championships for girls.


Unified, Adapted Sports on the Rise

Generally speaking, while most of the traditional sports experienced some degree 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 percent 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.”  


What About the Rest?

This year’s survey indicated participation by high school students in 69 different sports, as well as 16 Adapted sports and 16 Unified sports. In addition to those previously noted, other popular sports include bowling, field hockey, ice hockey, water polo and weightlifting.


With an increase of about 20,000 participants, Texas topped the list of state participation with 846,161 and was one of 14 states that saw an uptick in participation since the 2018-19 survey. California retained the No. 2 position with 762,823 participants, despite a drop of more than 60,000 from three years ago.


Other changes in the top 10 involved Ohio moving to No. 3 with 378,354 participants, followed by Pennsylvania (315,097), Illinois (314,839), New York (313,404), Florida (291,504), Michigan (271,423), New Jersey (264,139) and Massachusetts (215,848).


For more results of the survey, click here.

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