BRIDGEPORT, Pa. -- The National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) released a graph detailing the growth of high school athletics based on a comparison of the total number of athletes competing in a variety of sports during the 2011-12 versus the 2016-17 academic years. In both the men's and women's reports, water polo experienced significant increases in the percentage and total number of athletes competing in the sport.
For men, water polo experienced a 2.7% increase in the number of competing high school athletes rising from 20,721 in 2012 to 21,286 in 2017. The total compares to men's basketball which experienced a 2.8% growth (535,289-to-550,305) during the same period.
The largest increase belonged to indoor track & field (18.5%) with volleyball (15.7%), fencing (12.0%), lacrosse (11.1%), soccer (9.3%), cross country (7.2%), outdoor track & field (4.3%), cross country skiing (4.1%), baseball (3.7%) and swimming & diving (3.4%) also topping basketball and water polo.
Eight sports experienced declines in the number of participating men's high school student athletes as tennis (-1.0%), ice hockey (-1.5%), rifle (-3.3%), football (-3.5%), alpine skiing (-6.1%), golf (-7.4%), wrestling (-10.0%) and gymnastics (-19.5%) saw their numbers dwindle.
In regards to the total number of high school participants, several of the sports that experienced percentage decreases still rank among the most popular athletic endeavors as football (1,057,407), outdoor track & field (600,136), basketball (550,305), baseball (491,790), soccer (450,234), cross country (266,271), wrestling (244,804), tennis (158,171), golf (141,466), swimming & diving (138,364), lacrosse (111,842), outdoor track & field (82,172), volleyball (57,209), ice hockey (35,210), water polo (21,286), alpine skiing (5,451), cross country skiing (4,400), fencing (2,156), rifle (1,934) and gymnastics (1,894) rate at No. 1-to-20, respectively.
Women's water polo experiences a significant rise in the number of competing athletes as 20,826 athletes competed in 2016-17. The total is an 11.1% rise from the 2012 total of 18,749 athletes as women's water polo posts the fourth highest increase among the 21 listed women's sports.
Rifle (28.0%), lacrosse (24.6%) and indoor track & field (20.7%) are the only sports to beat women's water polo's increase.
Overall, 16 sports experienced an increase as fencing (9.8%), ice hockey (8.7%), cross country (6.5%), swimming & diving (6.4%), golf (6.4%), volleyball (6.2%), outdoor track & field (5.5%), bowling (4.9%), soccer (4.7%), tennis (3.7%), cross country skiing (0.3%) and softball (0.1%) raised their total number of athletes over the five-year span of the study.
Inversely, five sports saw their numbers drop as field hockey (-0.1%), alpine skiing (-1.1%), basketball (-1.3%), gymnastics (-6.3%) and rowing (-61.1%) all recorded percentage declines.
Similar to the men's numbers, however, several of the sports that posted negative outcomes remained among the most popular women's high school sports in 2017.
Outdoor track & field (494,477), volleyball (444,779), basketball (430,368), soccer (388,339), softball (367,405), cross country (226,039), tennis (187,519), swimming & diving (170,797), lacrosse (93,473), golf (75,605), outdoor track & field (72,422), field hockey (60,549), bowling (26,588), water polo (20,826), gymnastics (17,915), ice hockey (9,509), cross country skiing (4,670), alpine skiing (4,605), rowing (2, 434), fencing (1,944) and rifle (1,261) rate at No. 1-to-21, respectively. The total number of athletes is in conflict with the percentage increases as rifle experienced the largest percentage increase, but stands as the least populous women's sport.
The numbers do not take into account the number of athletes that compete on club teams outside their high schools.