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State-level participation data has been released for specific sports and the numbers continue to show the major impact the COVID-19 pandemic had in North Carolina.
Compared to the 2018-2019 school year, the last set of participation data released before the pandemic, participation declined in every high school sport in North Carolina with the exception of five sports — boys golf, girls golf, girls indoor track & field, volleyball, and wrestling.
Girls indoor track saw the largest increase in participation, jumping from 4,958 athletes in the 2018-2019 season to 8,978 athletes during the 2021-2022 season. This is notable since indoor track season was canceled during the 2020-2021 school year and the boys indoor track participation numbers actually declined by 12.9% from 6,207 to 5,409.
Volleyball participation grew by 1.4% from 9,442 to 9,574 — the highest participation level ever recorded in North Carolina for the sport. Girls golf remained steady with 1,405 golfers, the same number recorded in 2018-2019.
Wrestling and golf were the only boys sports that saw growing participation compared to the pre-pandemic era. Wrestling grew by 3.7% from 7,754 wrestlers in 2018-2019 to 8,042 wrestlers in 2021-2022. Boys golf grew from 2,828 golfers to 2,924 golfers in the same period, an increase of 3.4%.
Eight sports saw declines of 10% or more
The news was not good more many sports. In fact, eight different sports — five boys sports and three girls sports — saw double-digit percentage declines in participation from 2018-2019 to 2021-2022.
The largest decrease came in cheerleading, which saw a participation decline of 53.6% during the pandemic. During the 2018-2019 school year, cheerleading had 19,360 participants, but last year that number dropped to 8,987.
Swimming & diving and cross country were the other girls sports that saw double-digit percentage declines in participation. Girls swimming & diving participation dropped by 22.5% from 5,087 to 3,940, while girls cross country participation declined by 21.4% from 5,063 to 3,979.
The largest percentage decline in boys sports came in cross country, which saw a decrease of 23.2%. The number of boys cross country runners dropped from 6,268 in 2018-2019 to 4,812 in 2021-2022.
Swimming & diving (-18.2%), indoor track & field (-12.9%), soccer (-12.5%), and tennis (-10.5%) were the other boys sports that saw double-digit percentage declines.
More of the same for football, girls sports
The trend of declining participation continued in some of the usual sports.
Football is inching closer to falling below 25,000 participants for the first time in the modern era. The sport, which had over 30,000 participants a decade ago, now reports 25,654 players — a decline of 4.9% from the 2018-2019 school year. The numbers from the 2018-2019 season were down 5.7% from the 2017-2018 school year.
Some girls sports that have had participation concerns in the past continued to struggle last year. Softball participation dropped by 9.5% last year, falling below 7,000 participants. The number of softball players dropped from 7,491 in 2018-2019 to 6,778 in 2021-2022.
Girls soccer dropped below 10,000 participants for the first time since the 2014-2015 school year. Participation in girls soccer declined by 7.1% from 10,206 to 9,482 last year.
The numbers for girls basketball continue to drop as well. Participation in the sport decreased by 5% from 7,649 to 7,264. The last time girls basketball participation increased was in the 2015-2016 school year when the number of players grew by 0.8%.
Last week, the NCHSAA said participation in football and boys and girls lacrosse grew from the pandemic-shortened seasons in 2020-2021 to 2021-2022, but the NCHSAA has not provided full data from the 2020-2021 school year to compare.