Falling football, lacrosse ascendant: The state of Minnesota high school sports participation

For high school girls, the most popular sports are track and field
For high school girls, the most popular sports are track and field, which has seen a big increase in interest in recent years, volleyball and softball.

It’s September, and the kids are back in school. For high school athletes on their schools’ fall sports team rosters, it’s also back to practice.

More than 240,000 Minnesota high school students participated in sports last year — a record, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations’ annual participation survey, and Minnesota punched above its weight — ranking 10th among states (it’s the 22nd biggest state by population) for high school sports participation in the U.S.

But while more kids are playing sports in Minnesota, not all sports are seeing a bump in popularity. Here’s a look at what sports are gaining, what sports are losing and whether Minnesota is really the state of hockey.

Participation is up — for girls and boys.

Between 2002 and 2017, the number of high school students — both girls and boys — participating in high school sports has gone up. While there are still fewer girls who participate than boys, the number of girls playing sports has increased, and they’re nearly even now.

Total participation, girls and boys, 2002-2017
Source: National Federation of State High School Associations

Track and football top the lists

For high school girls, the most popular sports are track and field, which has seen a big increase in interest in recent years, volleyball and softball.

High school girls' participation in sports, 2017-18
Source: National Federation of State High School Associations

For boys, football is still the biggest sport, despite a decline in participation in recent years (more on that later). That’s followed by track and field, basketball, baseball and soccer.

High school boys' participation in sports, 2017-18
Source: National Federation of State High School Associations

Some sports, like football, are losing popularity

All the bad press surrounding football and concussions might be having an impact on the number of high school kids who play the game in Minnesota. Nationally, that’s been the case.

One of the most popular sports to begin with, football saw the biggest decline in players of any sport in recent years, from about 30,000 participants, at its recent peak in 2007 to about 25,000 last year.

Boys' sports losing participants, 2002-2017
Source: National Federation of State High School Associations

Among boys’ sports, golf and wrestling have seen much smaller decreases in participation, but are nonetheless down over previous years.

When it comes to girls’ sports, there aren’t such marked reductions in players in any sport, but swimming and diving, basketball and golf are all down over their early 2000s levels.

Girls' sports losing participants, 2002-2017
Source: National Federation of State High School Associations

Track, lacrosse and others see steady gains for girls and boys

If football is the biggest loser of high school student players, track and field is the biggest gainer, adding nearly 6,000 students between 2002 and 2017. Lacrosse, likewise, added a lot of players (girls’ lacrosse data are missing for 2003 and boys’ lacrosse data are not available before 2006), as did cross country and soccer.

Girls' sports gaining participants, 2002-2017
Source: National Federation of State High School Associations
Boys' sports gaining participants, 2003-2017
Source: National Federation of State High School Associations

The state of hockey is strong…

While participation in ice hockey is down slightly for girls and boys, Minnesota is home to one-fifth of all the high school hockey players across the country accounted for in the survey.

Minnesota has the second-highest number of hockey players of any state, after Massachusetts, but when you look at hockey on a per-capita basis, Minnesota, a smaller state with just a few fewer hockey players — is the state of hockey.

Hockey players by state, 2017-18
The number of hockey players by state is shown in raw numbers: keep in mind that Massachusetts has a bigger population than Minnesota, and North Dakota has a smaller one.
Source: National Federation of State High School Associations

…but the state of cross-country skiing is even stronger

Slogans aside, where Minnesota really stands out among states is Nordic skiing: Minnesota is home to about half the high school Nordic skiers in the entire country. So perhaps its not surprise that half the team that won the United States’ first-ever Olympic gold in cross-country skiing was from Minnesota (that would be Jessie Diggins, a Stillwater Area High School graduate).

Cross-country skiers by state, 2017-18
Source: National Federation of State High School Associations

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/18/2018 - 12:31 pm.

    Maybe I missed it, but are these all raw numbers? If we are going to gauge participation, shouldn’t we do it against a back drop of total numbers of students, which varies from year to year?

    • Submitted by Dean Carlson on 09/18/2018 - 03:48 pm.

      I was going to ask the same question. Football is down 17 percent over 10 years. My sense is that there are more high school age boys now than there were 10 years ago which makes that number even more concerning for the future of football.

  2. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 09/18/2018 - 03:34 pm.

    The last reader makes a good point, but the problem is that not all schools offer all sports. To have an accurate participation percentage would involve having student counts for boys and girls for only those schools that offer a sport. For example, very few schools offer girl’s badminton, but for those that do, the participation level is pretty high.

    Also, in small schools it is common for kids to be able to do multiple sports – because you need people to participate to have full rosters. These data are a good starting point, but isn’t really the issue that every students who wants to participate in a sport has an opportunity to do so?

    Also, the state high school league offers lots of other activities? They should have equal attention. One beautiful thing about smaller schools is that one can do multiple sports and multiple other activities – choir, band, theater, speech, robotics, etc.

    Extracurriculars provide students with fun and an opportunity to shine if they aren’t academic stars. They are so important – and it is sad when communities don’t have the financial means to provide a full range of options for their students.

  3. Submitted by ross savage on 09/18/2018 - 03:57 pm.

    I suppose as it ultimate frisbee coach I should not be surprised there was no mention of it in the article , but this sport is expanding in Minnesota and is looking forward to continuing growing interest

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/19/2018 - 11:11 am.

      I know a lot of kids who are playing it and left other sports. Is it wn actual varsity sport anywhere yet?

    • Submitted by Stephen Kotvis on 09/21/2018 - 10:32 am.

      I expect Ultimate is not measured because it is a club sport and not under the Minnesota State High School League, and therefore not under this national organization collecting and reporting the data.

  4. Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/19/2018 - 11:10 am.

    High School football won’t exist in 10 years.

    As the science on brain injuries continues to become more solid, the participation numbers will dwindle and the lawsuits and medical expenses will continue to grow. School districts won’t be able to afford that kind of liability.

  5. Submitted by Rob Stepaniak on 09/20/2018 - 12:29 pm.

    I am very excited for the day that Mountain Biking is a MSHL recognized sport.

    http://www.minnesotamtb.org/

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