The Future of Interscholastic Sports

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Lines on a running track


CNN recently reported that last year’s Super Bowl 50 was the third most watched broadcast ever in U.S. television history. Despite the increase in fans watching football, many studies have reported a drop in athletes desiring to play the sport, particularly at the high school level.

Although less high school athletes are playing football, they are not giving up on high school sports entirely. The National Federation of State High School Associations recently announced that in 2015 participation in high school athletics increased for the 26th consecutive year. Much of this increase is due to new sports and opportunities that high school athletes are being provided. Below, we will look at current and future trends in interscholastic sports, as well as provide insight on emerging sports in the United States.

More High School Athletes Are Getting Active with Sports

Based on data generated from 51 members of the National Federation of State High School Associations (which includes all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia) the number of students partaking in high school athletics reached the highest number ever recorded – 7,807,047. Interestingly enough, the increase in participation in interscholastic sports is not shared across genders. The total number of girl athletes increased for the 26th year, yet the number of boys participating in athletics dropped. Here is a full breakdown of the numbers:

  • High School Athletes participating in sports: 7,807,047
    – An increase of 11,389 from 2014
  • Boys participating in sports: 4,519,312
    – Dropped by 8,682 from 2014
  • Girls participating in sports: 3,287,735
    – Increased by 20,071

Led by cheerleading and cross country, six of the most popular girls’ sports found an increase in participation, although none gained enough new athletes to knock off the reigning number one sport for girls: track and field (478,726 participants). That said, volleyball did gain enough new athletes to replace basketball as the 2nd favorite sport for girls, both of which had 432,176 and 429,504 participants respectively. (Fun Fact: Basketball was the number one girls sport ten years ago.)

For boys, soccer generated the largest amount of new participants with an additional 15,150 athletes trying the sport during the 2015 season. It is interesting to note that despite this increase in soccer, both wrestling and football saw a very significant decrease in number of participants. The decrease in students trying wrestling is partially due to some students choosing basketball instead, but the decrease in football has been reportedly due to a variety of more complicated issues.

The Future of Football is in Question

During the 2014-2015 season, there were a little over 1 million athletes out for high school football. While this total is still significant, many reports have shown a steady drop in the amount of students playing football. This decrease doesn’t end at the high school level, though, as a number of young NFL players have left the game due to both short and long-term health concerns. Furthermore, a surprisingly large amount of former NFL players and coaches – including Hall of Fame coach Mike Ditka –  have publically stated that they would discourage their own kids from playing the sport.

These safety concerns are valid, and as a result, a number of high school football programs cut their seasons short due to increasing safety concerns, and a few have shut their programs down entirely. The past football season has done nothing to help these concerns either with eight high school athletes dying as a result of playing the sport.

It is important to note that although football’s safety concerns are growing, the equipment being used by players is some of the safest in the history of the sport. Helmets are now made much more intricate than in the past, and pads are continuously offering more padding. So if helmets and padding are offering more protection, why are there increasing health risks? Much of this has to do with more developed medical technology, as doctors and trainers can now identify a wide variety of risks that they did not have the tools or resources to notice in the past (example: concussions).

That said, it is fair to say that the future of high school football is currently in question. Moving forward, it will be quite interesting to see how this situation develops in the years to come.

Growing Each Year: Emerging High School Sports

Despite the decrease in football participation, a number of sports saw a steady increase in first-time athletes looking to try something new. Sports showing a steady increase in numbers include:

  • Soccer – 15,150 new participants
  • Cheerleading – 5,170 new participants
  • Girls Cross country – 3,495 new participants
  • Baseball – 3,938 new participants

There has also been a steady increase of high school athletes looking to participate in less traditional sports. Due to this, more schools are starting to expand their athletic offerings by providing sports specific to their region. Some of these sports include:

  • Archery
  • Water Polo
  • Weightlifting
  • Ice Hockey
  • Riflery

As a whole, the future of interscholastic sports looks extremely bright. Whether it is playing a traditional sport – such as cheerleading or soccer – or trying a less-common sport like weightlifting, high school students are continuing to look for interscholastic fun and competition. That said, all signs point to 2016 being the 27th consecutive year of an increase in high school athletic participation.

Learn More

Ohio University’s Online Master of Athletic Administration program specializes in developing interscholastic Athletic Directors, building on the students’ passion for serving young student-athletes and running a highly-successful athletic department. Ohio University is a pioneer in sports education. By establishing the first academic program in the field of sports administration, this online program is recognized today as the premier professional training program for candidates seeking careers in the sports industry.


Sports Illustrated, “High School Football at a Crossroads”
CNN Money, “Super Bowl 50 Ratings”
National Federation of State High School Associations, “Participation Data”