High school students have no shortage of sports to choose from throughout the fall, winter, and spring, but the most popular high school sports are the ones that get the most attention. They not only have the most student participation, but they draw the biggest crowds on game day.
For those that played sports growing up, you understand how important they are to your growth and development through high school. They not only keep you active and healthy, but they teach you about morals, discipline, teamwork, communication, confidence, and competitiveness.
Some students use sports as a way to meet new people, some use them as an escape, and some use them as a way of staying in shape. Whatever the reason, high school sports play a major role in many student’s lives growing up — as it did to a majority of us growing up.
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What Are the Most Popular High School Sports?
Did you know that nearly eight million high school students sign up to play sports every year? While that number has been on a slight decline in recent years, that doesn’t mean sports are any less popular than they once were. They still draw in a lot of students and participants.
The most popular high school sports are those that have the highest participation numbers each year, both boys and girls combined. It doesn’t matter which state or town you’re in, the most popular high school sports are going to be available to high school students more often than not.
As we go through our list of the 20 most popular high school sports, we’ll be taking several things into consideration — including how many boys and girls participated in that sport, how many schools offer that sport, and how well that sport is received by the local community.
All statistics on high school sports participation are according to NFHS in their 2018-19 High School Athletics Participation Survey.
Boy Participants: 4,781 students
Girl Participants: 13,381 students
Total Participants: 18,162 students
# of Schools: 249 for boys, 519 for girls
Badminton is a unique and entertaining high school sport for boys and girls that’s largely played during the fall season. California and Illinois are the two states where badminton is the most popular, but it’s also popular in Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Arizona, and Minnesota.
Boy Participants: 17,681 students
Girl Participants: 11,463 students
Total Participants: 29,144 students
# of Schools: 860 for boys, 707 for girls
Weightlifting is a sport that generally takes place in the spring season and is available for both boys and girls. It’s most popular in Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Michigan, and Ohio, but students also compete in California, Georgia, Maine, Arkansas, and the District of Columbia.
18. Water Polo
Boy Participants: 22,475 students
Girl Participants: 21,735 students
Total Participants: 44,210 students
# of Schools: 862 for boys, 881 for girls
Water Polo is a high school sport that’s usually reserved for the winter season, drawing an equal number of boys and girls. High school water polo is dominated in California, which is home to 16,568 girl participants and 17,304 boy participants. It’s also popular in Florida and Illinois.
17. Ice Hockey
Boy Participants: 35,283 students
Girl Participants: 9,650 students
Total Participants: 44,933 students
# of Schools: 1,638 for boys, 642 for girls
Ice hockey is a popular sport that’s generally played during the winter season. The sport is largely dominated in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin. It’s no coincidence that those states are home to some of the best hockey colleges.
16. Field Hockey
Boy Participants: 212 students
Girl Participants: 60,824 students
Total Participants: 61,036 students
# of Schools: 5 for boys, 1,768 for girls
Field hockey is largely dominated by women and is generally played during the fall season. It’s most popular in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and California. Pennsylvania has the most girl participants with a total of 9,625 students.
Boy Participants: 32,969 students
Girl Participants: 28,322 students
Total Participants: 61,291 students
# of Schools: 2,949 for boys, 2,925 for girls
Many people go bowling for fun at their local bowling alley, but thousands of high schoolers do it for competition. It’s generally played in the winter season and is most popular in Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Alabama, and Iowa.
14. Competitive Spirit
Boy Participants: 3,938 students
Girl Participants: 161,358 students
Total Participants: 165,296 students
# of Schools: 870 for boys, 7,214 for girls
Competitive spirit, also known as competitive cheerleading, is among the top-ten most popular high school sports for girls — ranking ninth, ahead of Lacrosse. It’s generally a fall sport that’s most popular in California, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Oklahoma.
Boy Participants: 113,702 students
Girl Participants: 99,750 students
Total Participants: 213,452 students
# of Schools: 3,026 for boys, 2,877 for girls
Although lacrosse doesn’t fall in the top-ten most popular high school sports for boys, it does rank 10th for girls. It’s generally played in the spring and is most popular in California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Maryland.
Boy Participants: 143,200 students
Girl Participants: 79,821 students
Total Participants: 223,021 students
# of Schools: 13,590 for boys, 10,402 for girls
The high school golf season is usually in the spring or fall and is popular among boys and girls. In fact, it ranks as the sixth most popular sport for boys and just out of the top-ten for girls. It’s most popular in Texas, California, Ohio, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania.
Boy Participants: 247,441 students
Girl Participants: 21,124 students
Total Participants: 268,565 students
# of Schools: 10,843 for boys, 2,890 for girls
Although wrestling doesn’t crack the top-ten most popular high school sports for girls, it ranks seventh among boys. It generally takes place during the winter months and is most popular in California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, Illinois, Florida, Texas, and Georgia.
10. Swimming & Diving
Boy Participants: 136,638 students
Girl Participants: 173,088 students
Total Participants: 309,726 students
# of Schools: 7,704 for boys, 8,007 for girls
Swimming and diving are the 10th most popular high school sport among boys and eighth most popular among girls. It generally takes place in the spring and is most popular in California, Florida, Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New York, Georgia, and Illinois.
Boy Participants: 159,314 students
Girl Participants: 189,436 students
Total Participants: 348,750 students
# of Schools: 9,809 for boys, 10,290 for girls
Tennis is the eighth most popular sport among boy students and the seventh most popular among girl students. It’s generally played in the spring or fall and is most popular in California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin.
Boy Participants: 2,183 students
Girl Participants: 362,038 students
Total Participants: 364,221 students
# of Schools: 90 for boys, 15,877 for girls
Fast pitch softball is generally played in the spring and is dominated by girl students, though there are quite a few boy participants in California and Iowa. Among girl students, it’s the fifth most popular high school sport and is most popular in Texas, California, New York, and Ohio.
Boy Participants: 482,740 students
Girl Participants: 1,284 students
Total Participants: 484,024 students
# of Schools: 16,170 for boys, 1,442 for girls
Where softball is dominated by girls, baseball is dominated by boys. It’s generally played in the spring and is the fourth most popular high school sport among boys. It’s most popular in California, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, New York, Missouri, and Alabama.
6. Cross Country
Boy Participants: 269,295 students
Girl Participants: 219,345 students
Total Participants: 488,640 students
# of Schools: 15,632 for boys, 15,345 for girls
Cross country doesn’t have as many boy participants as baseball or girl participants as softball, but it has more combined participants than both sports. It’s the sixth most popular high school sport among both boys and girls and is most popular in California, Texas, and Pennsylvania.
Boy Participants: 63,563 students
Girl Participants: 452,808 students
Total Participants: 516,371 students
# of Schools: 2,692 for boys, 16,572 for girls
Volleyball doesn’t draw as much attention from boys as it does girls, but the amount of girls it draws is enough to have it rank as the fifth most popular high school sport. In fact, it’s the second most popular sport among girls and is dominated in California, Texas, and Florida.
Boy Participants: 459,077 students
Girl Participants: 394,105 students
Total Participants: 853,182 students
# of Schools: 12,552 for boys, 12,107 for girls
Soccer is the fifth most popular sport among boys and fourth most popular among girls. It’s usually played in the fall season and is most popular in California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Florida. It’s also the most popular sport in the world.
Boy Participants: 540,769 students
Girl Participants: 399,067 students
Total Participants: 939,836 students
# of Schools: 18,617 for boys, 18,210 for girls
Basketball is played at more high schools than any other sport and if the rosters were larger, it would have a lot more participants. Instead, it’s the third most popular high school sport among boys and third most popular among girls. California and Texas have the most participants.
Boy Participants: 1,006,013 students
Girl Participants: 2,404 students
Total Participants: 1,008,417 students
# of Schools: 14,247 for boys, 1,918 for girls
Most of us have amazing memories of going to the Friday night high school football games growing up. It’s one of only two sports to draw more than one million participants and is usually played in the fall season. It’s dominated by boys and is the most popular sport among boys.
1. Track & Field
Boy Participants: 605,354 students
Girl Participants: 488,267 students
Total Participants: 1,093,621 students
# of Schools: 17,052 for boys, 17,012 for girls
While track and field ranks as the second most popular high school sport among boys, it ranks as the most popular among girls — ahead of volleyball by roughly 35,000 participants. It’s generally played in the spring and is most popular in Texas, California, Illinois, and Ohio.
Which of the Most Popular High School Sports Did You Play?
We all had a favorite high school sport growing up. It was what helped keep us sane throughout the school year, gave us something to look forward to, is where we met a majority of our friends, and helped teach us a wide range of lessons that we utilize and apply as we step through life.
Texas (825,924 participants) and California (824,709 participants) are the two states with the most total student participants, which is no surprise due to their size and population. Florida, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois all have more than 300,000 total student participants.
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Some of the sports that are worth mentioning, but didn’t fall in the top 20, include archery, dance, flag football, gymnastics, rugby, skiing, fencing, and drill team. Is there a sport that you enjoyed in high school that’s not listed above? If so, that makes you more unique than most people!
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