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Report: High school girls basketball participation down 19% since 2002

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Sidwell Friends (Washington, D.C.) players huddle before a game against St. Paul VI on Jan. 9 in Chantilly, Va. (Scott Taetsch for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Girls basketball was among the leaders in popularity in high school sports two decades ago, but according to an article published in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, the sport has lost 19 percent of its participation since 2002.

Last year, basketball fell to the fourth-most popular girls sport by participation, according to data released this month by the National Federation of State High School Associations. Meanwhile, track and field, the top sport among girls, grew 10%. Volleyball and soccer also saw participation increases at 15% and 27%, respectively.

Overall, boys and girls sports at the high school level declined 4% since 2019 in the first national survey of the post-pandemic era. In that same time, girls basketball dropped 7%.

With TV ratings for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament and the WNBA on the rise, the decline in participation at the scholastic level is even more striking.

The WSJ report indicates that several forces are driving the decline, including the reality that more athletes are sticking to one sport year-round. Other factors include schools adding other sports, which have lured athletes away from the court, and the suggestion of coaches that some girls view basketball as too difficult, or not “girly” enough, to play.

Clay County (Tenn.) guard Abby Head, right, dribbles against Gleason guard Alayna Anderson during the Class 1A state tournament on March 10 in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (The Tennessean via USA TODAY NETWORK)

“It’s sad,” Justin F. Kimball (Texas) girls basketball coach Erica Delley told the WSJ. “That’s why I came back, to make a difference and try to encourage kids to play.”

Delley is a first-year coach at her alma mater, where she played in the early 2000s when the program was a regional power. The Knights had just one player from last year’s team signed up to play, according to Delley, but she was able to convince two others to return before recruiting two dozen more with T-shirts and a promise that she’d teach them the game. Most of her team has never played basketball before.

In Texas, there is an issue with parity between powerhouse programs and smaller programs with depleted rosters, partly because of open-enrollment policies. Despite the state’s surging population, girls basketball participation has dropped 38% in the last two decades.

“A lot of athletes are specializing sooner,” Mansfield (Texas) girls basketball coach Brooke Brittain told the WSJ. “If their parents are paying thousands of dollars for them to play [club] volleyball, they don’t want them missing practice to play a basketball game.”

Iowa is another example of the decline in girls basketball participation. Girls have played high school basketball in Iowa for more than a century in front of packed crowds, but the state now has half as many players as it did during the late 1990s.

While the quality of top players remains high, many girls are choosing sports that require less specialized skill and are less exerting than basketball, according to former Valley (Iowa) girls basketball coach Josef Sigrist.

“I think club volleyball and softball and soccer in some respects are doing OK because they don’t require the physical task on your body that maybe basketball does,” Sigrist told the WSJ.

Following the overlap of a large club volleyball tournament and high school district playoffs on Presidents Day weekend in Nebraska, Creighton volleyball coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth tweeted, “VB is negatively affecting BB participation. I’m grateful for the depth of VB talent in this state, but not at the demise of BB.”

Booth said in an interview that club tournaments have become so important that some athletes won’t participate in high school basketball in order to avoid letting down their club volleyball coaches and teammates with potential absences. With girls basketball participation down 28% since 2002 in Nebraska, Booth said she encourages multisport participation.

The number of girls basketball teams has dropped 12% in Nebraska over the last two decades, which is a result of school closures, consolidations and cooperative sponsorships, according to the Nebraska School Activities Association.

Trent Singer is the High School Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow him on Twitter @trentsinger.