fb-pixel Skip to main content
HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS

What are the most popular high school sports? Here are some takeaways from the latest national survey

Volleyball was the second-most popular girls high school sport in 2021-22, according to the latest data from the National Federation of State High School Associations.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

The first official collection of high school sports participation data in three years revealed a four percent drop in high school athletics across the United States.

But with 7,618,054 participants for 2021-22, school sports are on the road back after many states were unable to offer programs in normal fashion during 2019-20 and 2020-21 because of the pandemic, per a survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The survey included data from 50 member states and the District of Columbia on 69 sports as well as 16 adapted sports and 16 unified sports.

While overall participation is down, the survey found increased participation in a number of sports, with golf standing out as the only sport to see an increase among boys.

Advertisement



“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,” said Karissa Niehoff, CEO of the NFHS. “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.”

Here are a few key data points.

▪ While participation in 11-player football was down three percent (1,006,013 to 973,792), there was a 12 percent increase in 6-, 8-, and 9-player football where offered. The number of schools offering those adjusted formats increased (from 1,563 to 1,790) while the number of schools with 11-player football dropped (14,247 to 13,733).

Participation by girls in all tackle football formats increased by 39 percent (2,604 to 3,633) and girls’ participation in flag football increased by 40 percent (11,209 to 15,716).

▪ Girls’ volleyball was the only top 10 sport to see a rise in popularity since 2019-20. With 454,153 participants, volleyball is now the second-most popular girls’ sport behind outdoor track and field. Boys’ volleyball also saw a 4.6 percent increase in participation.

Advertisement



▪ Girls’ soccer moved ahead of basketball as the third-most popular girls’ sport.

▪ Golf saw an increase across the board, with boys’ participation jumping four percent to 148,585 participants and girls’ participation rising one percent to 80,829 participants.

▪ Cross country had the biggest decline of any boys’ sport at 14 percent and girls’ participation dropped by 13 percent.

▪ Girls’ swimming and diving and competitive spirit also saw a 13 percent decrease in participation.

▪ Girls’ wrestling saw a 50 percent increase (21,124 to 31,654) in participation and the survey found that 32 states now offer separate state wrestling championships for girls. Boys’ wrestling saw a six percent decrease.

▪ Baseball experienced the smallest decrease among the top 10 boys’ sports. The total number of participants dropped slightly from 482,740 to 481,044. Baseball remains the fourth-most popular boys’ sport behind football, outdoor track and field, and basketball.

▪ The survey found a massive increase in unified sports participation (7,689 to 47,909) across nearly 20 states. There was also a 163 percent increase in adapted sports (7,689 to 55,598).

▪ Bass fishing saw a significant rise in popularity with 10,626 participants.

▪ Texas topped all states with 846,161 total participants, an increase of roughly 20,000 from three years ago. California retained the No. 2 position with a drop of 60,000 to 762,823.

Advertisement



▪ Ohio had the third-most participants, followed by Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York, Florida, Michigan, and New Jersey.

▪ Massachusetts had the 10th-most participants in 2021-22. There were 215,848 total participants, including 122,124 boys and 93,724 girls.

Top 10 girls' sports
Participation figures based on 2021-22 school year.
Outdoor track
456,697
Volleyball
454,153
Soccer
374,773
Basketball
370,466
Softball (fast-pitch)
340,923
Cross country
191,323
Tennis
176,185
Swimming/diving
149,751
Competitive spirit
140,552
Lacrosse
96,762
SOURCE: National Federation of State High School Associations
Top 10 boys' sports
Total participation figures based on 2021-22 school year.
Football (11-player)
973,792
Outdoor track
569,262
Basketball
521,616
Baseball
481,004
Soccer
436,465
Wrestling
231,874
Cross country
231,387
Golf
148,585
Tennis
145,858
Swimming/diving
123,208
SOURCE: National Federation of State High School Associations