INDIANAPOLIS - Football is still king, but bowling appears to be the sport gaining popularity most rapidly among high school athletes.
More than half of all high school students in the United States are involved in organized sports, and football again had the most participants because of the large number of players on each team, according to an annual survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Bowling, however, showed the biggest gain from last year in the number of schools offering the sport.
"The states that have added it have said it's been a good deal for them, because it opens up another opportunity for a different set of students in high school," NFHS spokesman Bruce Howard said recently. "You usually don't have people come out for the bowling team that are involved in other activities."
The federation, based in Indianapolis, represents about 18,000 high schools with about 13-million students in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
In 2003-04, boys competed in bowling at 1,477 schools and girls played at 1,467 schools, an overall gain of 291 schools and almost 4,000 participants from the previous year.
For all sports, the number of high school athletes rose to 6,903,552, an increase of 58,456. It was the 15th straight year with an increase and the sixth straight year with a record number of participants. The 53.3 percent of high school students involved in sports also broke the record of 51.7 percent participation in 1994-95, according to the NFHS study.
"There are some financial concerns, and schools are trying to figure out how to keep programs afloat in some situations, but the interest level on the part of the kids still seems to be very high," Howard said. "I see no grave signal that anything is going to change."
More than 1.03-million boys played football at 13,680 schools, plus 1,527 girls at 242 schools. The boys showed an increase of 38 schools and more than 9,000 participants, while there were 50 more girls playing football but at 64 fewer schools.
"Certainly there are cases where schools have dropped a sport, but somehow it's made up for it in other areas with more kids participating," Howard said.
Overall participation increased by 49,515 to 4,038,253 for boys, the most since 1977-78, and by 8,941 to a record 2,865,299 for girls.
Howard said the totals, compiled from participation figures reported by each member state association, might include students who play more than one sport.
Basketball remained the most popular sport for girls, with 457,986 participants. Outdoor track and field was next (418,322), followed by volleyball (396,322), fast pitch softball (362,468) and soccer (309,032).
For boys, football was followed by basketball (544,811), outdoor track and field (504,801), baseball (457,146), soccer (349,785) and wrestling (238,700).