Wrestling Participation in High School: Patient is Stabilized

Back in 2017 we wrote about the decline in wrestling participants from the 2010/11 peak of 273,732 (boys only). Since then, the NFHS has published three more years of data so we wanted to revisit this topic. Compared to the situation in 2015/16 the news is good. Not great, but good.

Girls Wrestling: Growing Like a Weed

Everyone knows girls wrestling is going bonkers. No problem there, keep doing that. This post is about boys participation.

Big Picture

High school sports declined by roughly 30,000 participants from 2017/18 to 2018/19 (boys only and hereafter) for a total of 4,534,758 participants. This is the largest year-to-year decline in the data which ranges back to 2002/3. There have been two other year-to-year declines in the NFHS data and both were less than 10,000 participants. Can’t say for certain if a 30,000 participant decline is meaningful though I suspect it isn’t. Back-to-back declines of this magnitude over a number of years would be more meaningful. Looking at the data, total participation appears flatlined at 4.5 million over the last ten years or so.

Back in 2009/10, wrestling’s share of total participation was roughly 6.1% representing 273,000 athletes. From that peak through 2016/17, wrestling’s share declined to 5.4% or 245,000 athletes. At the time, the decline in both absolute numbers and share of participation was a cause for concern in the wrestling community.

Wrestling Has Stabilized

From 2016/17 to 2018/19, wrestling participation has been stable at roughly 245,000 athletes. Also, wrestling’s share of total participation has increased slightly from 5.4% to 5.5%. This is good news.

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In addition, the number of high school programs is up slightly to 10,843 and the corresponding average number of participants per program is steady at 22.8. On average, states using NFHS weight classes (14 contested weights) are experiencing a minimum of six forfeits per V/JV dual meet.

State Level

Changes in wrestling participation vary considerably by state and over time. Over the last five years, the top ten states for adding wrestlers are:

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Washington is doing very well, adding over a thousand wrestlers to a significant base.

The ten states losing the most wrestlers over the last five years:

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Are We Doing Better than Football?

Depends. Football participation has declined in nine out of the last ten years whereas wrestling declined in only six of the last ten years. Over the last five years, football has lost ~4X the number of participants compared to wrestling, 87,000 v. 22,000. On the other side of the ledger, as a percentage of total participants, wrestling’s decline of 8.2% over the last five years exceeds that of any other top ten sport:

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Wrestling seems to have pulled out of its nose-dive and that’s a silver lining. We’ll be watching what happens over the next few years. And, again, as far as the girls are concerned: wow. Keep going.

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