Student Well-Being Infographic

Statistics on School Sports: How Many Students Play Sports? Which Sports Do They Play?

By Maya Riser-Kositsky & Holly Peele — July 30, 2021 | Updated: September 28, 2022 3 min read
Sports balls overlayed with data charts.
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School sports can give students an outlet and unite communities, but they can also cause consternation and sow division.

Today there is fierce debate over transgender students’ participation and furor over school mascots. School districts are also grappling with how to keep sports venues, spectators, and athletes safe.

To provide context to these discussions, we have pulled together key data on school sports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Center for Health Statistics, and the National Federation of State High School Associations, including information on how often girls and boys are playing sports and which sports they are playing.

We’ve also highlighted a few of the more unique sports that are being offered by schools in some states. (Bocce, anyone?)

What percent of high school students play sports?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 1991-2019 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data, about 57% of high school students played on at least one school or community sports team in the past year.

  • All high school students: 57.4%
  • 9th grade: 61.9%
  • 10th grade: 57.9%
  • 11th grade: 59.1%
  • 12th grade: 49.8%

Is there a difference between how likely children are to play sports based on their family income?

Looking beyond high school sports, children from low-income families are much less likely to play sports than those from higher-income families, according to data on children ages 6 to 17 from the National Center for Health Statistics’ 2020 National Health Interview Survey.

Around 31% of children ages 6 to 17 in families with incomes below the federal poverty level played sports, compared to 50% of children in families with incomes between the federal poverty level and four times it, and 70% of children in families with incomes over four times the federal poverty level.

Where are children most likely to play sports?

According to the National Center for Health Statistics’ National Health Interview Survey in 2020, about 58% of children ages 6 to 17 participated in sports in the Midwest and Northeast, compared to 56% in the West and just under 49% in the South.

What are the most popular sports in high school?

In the 2021-22 school year, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations, the sport with the most participants for boys nationally was 11-player football with 973,792 participants. For girls, it was outdoor track and field, with 456,697 participants.

How many girls play high school sports?

Since the early 1970s when Title IX was enacted, girls’ participation in high school sports has grown from fewer than 300,000 to a high of almost 3.5 million in the 2017-18 school year. In 2021-22, 3.2 million girls played high school sports. Girls now make up almost 43% of high school athletes, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations.

What are the most popular high school sports in each state?

In 44 states, the most popular boys’ sport is 11-player football. For girls, the landscape is more varied—in 24 states, the most popular sport for girls is volleyball, followed by outdoor track and field, in 14 states.

How has the pandemic affected high school sports?

The most recent data (from 2021-22) shows that both girls’ and boys’ sports participation took a hit from the pandemic. There were about 161,000 fewer girls and 158,000 fewer boys playing high school sports in 2021-22 than in 2018-19. That’s a 4.7% decrease for girls and an almost 3.5% decrease for boys.

What are some obscure school sports?

There are some pretty unique school sports out there (including sports adapted for students with physical disabilities and “unified” sports where students with and without intellectual disabilities play together), according to 2021-22 data from the National Federation of State High School Associations:

  • Some schools in Arkansas, California, and Ohio have rodeo teams.
  • Some schools in Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Vermont have bass fishing teams.
  • Some schools in California, Maine, and Ohio have rock climbing teams. (This rock-climbing-related story by teacher Jennifer McDaniel is a great read for anyone aspiring to be an educator or mentor.)
  • Some schools in Maryland, Massachusetts, and Ohio have bocce teams.

  • Some schools in California and Ohio have kayaking teams.

  • Some schools in California, Michigan, and Ohio have figure skating teams.

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