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High School Sports: More Popular Than Ever

According to its data from the 2008-09 school year, the National Federation of State High School Associations said participation in high school sports, both among boys and girls, increased to a new high – the 20th consecutive year that number has risen. The NFHS lauded it as high school sports’ ability to thrive in spite of the nation’s struggling economy.

You could look at these numbers from a couple of perspectives. First, with the nation’s population continuing to increase, of course, it would appear that more children would be playing high school sports. According to the U.S. Census, population increased by eight percent from 2000 to 2008; chances are, there are plenty of athletes among those 22 million new people. The survey, however, showed a greater percentage of high school students played a sport last year (55.2 percent) than in the 2007-08 school year (54.8 percent).

Secondly, there have been dozens of cases nationwide of school districts cutting programs, forsaking equipment and infrastructure improvement, or tightening travel restraints on teams, that it could have led to a decrease in participation.

Before we laud sports’ ability to overcome the economic downturn, I think these numbers need to be examined next year to see if they really are bulletproof to financial cutbacks.

Most of this year’s school budgets were prepared after districts realized the impact of the economy, and reduction were implemented accordingly. One study predicts a tripling in the number of extracurricular activities being cut. Sports will be hard-pressed to escape that group. At the same time, I wonder if teenagers might turn to school activities if the down economy eliminates many of the part-time jobs targeted for high school students.

There were a few numbers from the NFHS data, though, that really caught my eye. The sport that saw the biggest increase in participation from 2007-08 was swimming and diving, which saw a bump of 11.6 percent (289,060 overall). Perhaps this was the impact of Michael Phelps and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Lacrosse continued its ascent among teenagers, as high school participation increased 6.7 percent over the previous year.

Meantime, there was a decrease in the number of students playing boys’ basketball (1.4 percent), girls’ basketball (1.3 percent) and soccer (0.2 percent). Not surprisingly, football was the most popular sport, with 1,112,303 participants, nearly twice as many as the next most popular – track and field (558,007). Track and field supplanted basketball as the most popular girls’ sport.

By Alan Goldenbach  |  September 15, 2009; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  National issues  
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