Every year, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) publishes program count and participation numbers for high school sports. It's a very useful database. We've spent quite a bit of time looking at college wrestling and now turn our attention to high school wrestling.
For both boys and girls, the number of programs across all states is in good shape trending up from 2002 to 2016.
The number of girls programs has more than doubled over the time frame and boys program growth was 12%. This is good news -- girls wrestling is wildly successful and boys wrestling is growing slightly on a very large base.
In contrast to the healthy number of programs, participation on the boys side is in trouble. We've lost slightly more than 23,000 high school wrestlers from the peak of 273,732 in 2010/11. This decline has been precipitous in the last two academic years, 2014-2016. Should this trajectory continue, the 2016-17 numbers will fall in the 240-250 thousand range, the same level of participation as 2004/05.
On the girls side, participation is accelerating at a rate even faster than underlying program growth. More good news!
WIth boys participation down and the underlying number of programs growing slightly, the net impact is a pronounced decline in the average number of participants per program. No small wonder that the JV dual meet format is all but extinct in many regions. If the current trend continues, the number of participants per team will drop below 20 by 2020.
Lastly, we compared wrestling participation to tier one, seasonal team sports. The data is indexed to 2002 to make the comparison visually meaningful in graph form. Both basketball and football are slightly down from their post crash highs and football participation is surprisingly resilient given the concussion scare. Perhaps the bottom will fall out in 2016/17. Baseball, everyone's favorite in light of Boise, has grown over the time frame even compared to pre-crash (2006/07) levels. Wrestling doesn't look materially different from the other sports in the 2009/10 to 2013/14 range, but the last two academic years show a considerable decline while the other sports are flat to up. Continuing this trend, the number of boys high school wrestlers will be below 2002/03 levels by 2017/18.
As far as causes are concerned, that would be speculative. Some believe that the emphasis on tournaments instead of dual meets is a key contributor as parents/fans won't sit for eight hours to watch their favorite wrestler compete for a few minutes. I've been on the parent side of that argument and it has considerable merit. Coaches, generally, aren't thrilled with all-day events either but believe that more matches means better performance and the tournament format can offer a lot of matches. Also, some assert that dual meets attract larger and more engaged crowds not only due to the shorter duration but also because school-versus-school rivalries are more spirited. Another good point.
I've recently wondered if our wrestling "elevator pitch" is helping or hurting. The pitch usually contains variations on "work hard" and "life lessons." Not sure if that's effective. Haven't encountered many high schoolers seeking hard work and delayed gratification. Throw in "cutting weight" and our pitch is something like:
"Work hard and be a better future person. Lose uncomfortable amounts of weight. Join the wrestling team!"
Might make sense to reconsider our messaging.