While this is typically the time of year the National Federation of State High School Associations releases its annual sports participation survey, listing all sports at the high school level and showing numbers of students and schools enrolled, this year has been, well, not typical.
As a result, for the first time in 50 years, NFHS did not release its survey. What it did do, however, was share the following insights about fall sports (the only ones unaffected by COVID):
Girls’ volleyball continued its tremendous growth last fall, increasing by 9,751 participants for a total of 462,559. In the past 10 years, the sport has added 60,000 participants and has passed basketball as the No. 2 sport for girls behind track and field.
Volleyball is played on three surfaces (indoor, grass and sand) and the NFHS tracks indoor and beach. The growth figures are for indoor volleyball (which plays in the fall), which is good news for ASBA’s Courts & Recreation Division, as well as for its Supplier Division.
11-player football, which has been declining in participation for the past three years, according to NFHS, posted its smallest drop to date – just under 2,500 students. (To put that into perspective, the three previous annual drops had been 23,311, 20,540 and 30,829). A four-figure drop, therefore, is a significant improvement.
“These numbers suggest to us that parents are appreciative of the risk minimization efforts that have been put in place,” said Dr. Karissa Niehoff, NFHS executive director. “Every state has enacted rules that limit the amount of contact before the season and during practice, and every state has established concussion protocols and laws. The continued enthusiasm for football has been evident this fall – even amid the COVID-19 pandemic. State associations have worked with government, education and health leaders to do everything possible to offer the sport at some time during the 2020-21 season.”
The NFHS notes that a total of 34 states is conducting football this fall. Some other states have shifted their football season, along with several other sports, including soccer, to spring. In addition, some states have made format or location changes to try to create a more healthful environment; for example, Vermont has shifted to playing 7-on-7 football and outdoor volleyball.
Outdoor volleyball could lend itself to the grass game – something that would be good news for the Fields Division – however, with more demands on fields because of spring football, as well as a host of other traditional spring sports – and any sports moved to spring – schools may find themselves hard-pressed to keep up with the demands for practice and competition space.
It is also likely that students themselves will take the initiative and try new sports that do not involve as much physical contact. Outdoor sports, such as fishing and archery may become more popular. Tennis, having been viewed as a healthy social distancing option, could also spike in popularity, even if schools do not offer play. Esports, which has continued to grow wildly, and which now is an avenue for college scholarships, is also likely to continue its growth trajectory.
“Though a complete participation report for 2019-20 will not be available due to the loss of spring sports,” concludes Dr. Niehoff, “totals on more fall and winter sports from 2019-20 will be formulated in the coming weeks. Judging from the early returns, it appears the past year’s participation numbers would have started the NFHS on a new streak of record participation if spring sports had not been cancelled.”