High school sports ended their 30-year streak of annual growth in the 2018/19 school year. For as long as the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has taken their annual survey, they have only ever reported on an increased number of young people playing competitive scholastic sports. But the multi-year decline in football and basketball caught up to the gains in other sports to bring down the total participation number.

Even after five years of decline, football is still by far the most popular high school sport. Over 1,000,000 boys played football in 2018/19.

The second-most popular boys’ sport and the most popular girls’ sport was track & field, and the combined boys’ & girls’ participation in track & field was just barely more than boys' football. The survey does not account for youth who play multiple sports, and we know that many football players in the fall turn out for boys’ track & field in the spring.

Men's High School

US Men high school sports participation 2018-19

Key Insights 

  • Football has lost more than 77,000 participants in the last 5 years, but is still the most popular sport…by far. 
  • Track and Field continues to grow at a modest pace, despite overall sports participation being down for the year.
  • More schools offer basketball than any other sport, followed by Track and Baseball.
  • Soccer and Cross Country grew by 26K and 18K participants over the last 5 years respectively.

 

Top 10 Men's High School Sports

2018-19 Growth/Decline
# SportSchools Participants 1-Year5-Year
1Football14,2471,006,013-3.0%-7.2%
2Track & Field17,052605,3540.9%4.6%
3Basketball18,617540,769-1.9%-0.1%
4Baseball16,170482,740-0.9%-0.8%
5Soccer12,552459,0770.6%6.1%
6Cross Country15,632269,295-0.3%7.3%
7Wrestling10,843247,4410.8%-4.2%
8Tennis9,809159,3140.7%1.3%
9Golf13,590143,200-0.6%-3.8%
10Swim / Dive7,704136,638-1.7%-0.3%

 

Data comes from the NFHS Annual High School Participation Survey. Football refers to 11-man tackle football only.

Basketball is the third-most popular sport for both boys and girls, but both lost participants from 2018 to 2019. However, the NFHS points out that most of the decline in girls’ basketball was from Texas.

Several sports gained participants, even if not enough to reverse the overall trend. Boys’ track & field, soccer, wrestling and tennis grew, as did girls’ volleyball, soccer and lacrosse. Lacrosse and volleyball for both boys and girls continue to be a major growth engine in high school sports, with over 20% growth in the last decade.

Women's High School

US Women high school sports participation 2018-19

Key Insights 

  • Track & Field had the most participants every year last decade.
  • Volleyball added over 6,000 participants last year, the most of any top 10 sport
  • Soccer has continued its steady climb and may move to #3 next year.
  • Basketball declined significantly the last 2 years, but more schools still offer basketball than any other sport.
  • Competitive Spirit was flat last year, but skyrocketed the previous 4 years.

 

Top 10 Women's High School Sports

2018-19 Growth/Decline
# SportSchoolsParticipants1-Year5-Year
1Track & Field17,012 488,267-0.1%2.0%
2Volleyball16,572452,8081.4%4.8%
3Basketball18,210399,067-3.2%-7.1%
4Soccer12,107394,105 0.9%4.9%
5Softball15,877362,038-1.6%-0.6%
6 Cross Country15,435219,345-1.9%-1.0%
7Tennis10,290189,436-0.7%3.6%
8Swim / Dive8,007173,088-1.4%3.7%
9Comp. Spirit7,214161,358-0.8%28.3%
10Lacrosse2,87799,7502.9%17.7%

 

Data comes from the NFHS Annual High School Participation Survey. Track and Field only includes outdoor participation and Softball refers to Fast Pitch only.

Looking back at this data from the summer of 2020 seems like a glimpse into ancient history or an alien world, as schools debate reopening in the fall and the status of scholastic sports. It’s anyone’s guess whether “socially distant” high school sports like track & field, golf, tennis, swimming & diving will get a boost from the change in school schedules, and how parents and students assess the risks of participation. The most iconic high school sports for boys and girls are team sports, though, and there are lessons that can only be learned by donning school colors and taking the field or court as a team.

The NFHS executive director said last year’s survey “serves as a reminder that we have to work even harder in the coming years to involve more students.” The challenge is now that much harder, but all the more important.