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Lacrosse, Bowling Among Nation's Emerging High School Sports

By Bill Boyle on July 16, 2014 bowling article Print

Over the years, many sports have been popular mainstays in high schools across America – tried-and-true sports such as football, basketball, baseball, track and now, soccer.

A number of additional sports are in the process of emerging into the mainstream. Although presently small in number, they have fervent followings and someday might end up with the same participation levels as the tried-and-true sports.

Other emerging sports may never have widespread appeal, but they add tremendous depth and breadth to the educational experience of students across the nation.

In Illinois, fostering the development of emerging sports is of high importance to the Illinois High School Association (IHSA), which has created an emerging sports policy.

Beth Sauser, assistant executive director of the IHSA, said the policy was created because the association didn’t have a good gauge about how many sports were being offered in Illinois schools.

Now, the schools in Illinois file an annual report listing their emerging club sports and activities. The 2007-08 list includes boys and girls ice hockey, boys and girls lacrosse, girls field hockey, as well as competitive dance, drill team and pom poms.

Sauser adds that there are no limits to the sports or activities that can be on the emerging sports list. “We are listening to what our kids are telling us and what the schools are telling us,” Sauser said. “What we need to do is track the interest levels of kids.”

The goal, according to Sauser, is to be ready as these emerging sports continue to grow. The association requires that 10 percent of the state’s 750 member schools (75 schools) sponsor a team before a state tournament is authorized.

Sauser estimates that lacrosse will be the next sport to move from the emerging sports list to the sanctioned sports list. As of January 30, 31 schools in Illinois offered girls lacrosse and 37 schools offered boys lacrosse.

Illinois already sanctions a large number of sports and activities, with boys bowling and water polo added in the past five or six years and competitive cheerleading in the past three years. Illinois also sanctions interscholastic activities ranging from chess to journalism to water polo.

Growth Models

As sports emerge, many follow one of several growth models, including the development of club sports in suburban areas. Lacrosse has grown this way in many states, beginning in suburban schools and growing to widespread acceptance in schools in other areas.

In Utah, suburban schools began offering soccer programs many years ago. The number of schools offering programs steadily expanded throughout the state and in 2007, the Utah High School Activities Association sponsored the first state tournament for the small, rural schools.

If the suburban club model is followed in Colorado, rugby may be the next emerging sport. “The suburban schools are pushing very hard in rugby,” said Paul Angelico, associate commissioner of the Colorado High School Activities Association.

Another factor that influences the growth of emerging sports appears to be the support of an enthusiastic advocacy group.

“The bowling community is trying very hard in Colorado,” said Angelico, which is why he believes that it will be sanctioned in coming years. Angelico explains that the advocacy of the bowlingcommunity “makes it very easy to adopt bowling as a new sport.”

The growth of sports is often influenced by the growth of ethnic communities. The growth of soccer, in particular, is driven in many areas by corresponding growth in Spanish-speaking communities. In many areas with new and emerging soccer programs, coaches are as likely to yell instructions in Spanish as in English.

Geography or regional issues limit the growth of many sports, such as snowboarding or rodeo. “We have a few calls each year wondering when we are sanctioning surfing,” said Emmy Zack of the California Interscholastic Federation, who adds that the calls come from a very limited geographic area.

Sanctioning Process

Florida has recognized eight new sports since 2003, and all have followed one of the growth models. These new sports include bowling, competitive cheerleading, flag football, lacrosse, soccer, boys volleyball, water polo and girls weightlifting.

Robert Hernberger, director of media relations for the Florida High School Athletic Association, explains that the process of moving the eight new “recognized” sports to the status of “sanctioned” sports might take several years. After the designation of lacrosse as a recognized sport this year, Hernberger said it might be several years before another sport is added.

John Andrews, director of special events for the Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA), explains that the process of becoming a sanctioned sport in Alaska is arduous. Sports have a five-year window to become sanctioned. Four of the six regions in Alaska need to sponsor an event before it can be sanctioned. At the current time, the fledgling flag football program is sponsored in just one region.

Some emerging sports may never have national appeal because of geographic, cultural or regional issues. The ASAA sponsored Eskimo games for one year, in 1980. While the Native Youth Olympics are still held in Alaska each year, they include participation from elementary school students to adults. As a result, the ASAA does not sanction them.


Soccer has experienced steady and solid growth year after year after year. Many emerging sports look to soccer as the model they would like to emulate. The first sanctioned soccer programs, for boys only, began in 1969 with fewer than 50,000 participants. Now, soccer boasts the fourth-largest number of participants of any sport, with 715,631 athletes in 2007. Soccer trails only football, basketball, and track and field in the number of participants for boys and girls combined.

Steady growth continues, with 1,482 additional soccer programs added in the United States between 2005 and 2007. Soccer is now offered in every state except South Dakota, which plans to add the sport in 2010-11.


In recent years, the sport that may be experiencing the most explosive growth across the United States is lacrosse. During a 10-year period between 1997 and 2007, the number of lacrosse teams grew from 1,048 to 3,068. In the same period, the number of participants grew from 45,050 to 126,295, which represents a growth rate exceeding 10 percent every year.

Long established in the northeast United States, interscholastic lacrosse is being added by a number of state associations around the United States. By 2007, 22 states offered boys programs and 23 offered programs for girls.

In Colorado, lacrosse began as a club sport in suburban schools and was first sanctioned in 1999. In that first year, 27 schools in four leagues competed for the boys title and 16 teams competed for the girls title.

Since that time, lacrosse has “grown like crazy,” said Colorado’s Angelico. The number of schools sponsoring boys programs has grown to 64 and they now compete in eight leagues.

Florida has recognized eight new sports since 2003, including lacrosse. There are 64 boys teams and 65 girls team that will compete for Florida’s first state lacrosse championship on April 18-19.

Flag Football

Flag football for girls may have the broadest geographic appeal of all, with successful new programs in Florida and Alaska.

Flag football has grown into one of largest sports in Florida, growing from 75 schools in 2002 to more than 160 in 2008. Hernberger adds that some of the growth in the sport might have come at the expense of long-established sports.

The level of competition is very high.  Hernberger said that many people laughed when the sport was first introduced and equated it with powder puff. “They are absolutely bona fide athletes,” explains Hernberger of the flag football athletes. “It is a very physical sport and they play it without pads.” Andrews explains that interest in flag football more than doubled between the first and second year of participation in the Anchorage area. Many schools are now fielding full varsity and junior varsity squads. The fledgling flag football program is sponsored in just one of the six regions in Alaska.


Another sport experiencing explosive growth is bowling. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of bowling programs grew from 1,423 to 4,101 and participation grew from 15,600 to 44,229. Boysbowling is offered in 20 states and girls programs are offered in 21 states.

In Illinois, boys bowling joined girls bowling in 2003 as a sanctioned sport. Participation has seen a steady increase since that time, growing from 111 schools in 2003 to 153 schools in 2008.

According to Sue Hinrichsen, assistant executive director for the IHSA, adding boys bowling has contributed to growth in the girls bowling program. “The growth in girls bowling is comparable to boys bowling in recent years,” Hinrichsen said. “Now when schools add bowling, they add both boys and girls teams. The schools feel the support of the bowling community when they go to competition.”


Weightlifting programs have experienced steady and significant growth in recent years. The number of schools with a boys program has grown by nearly seven percent a year in the most recent participation surveys, from 521 in 2004 to 620 in 2007. Programs are offered in nine states.
Similarly, the number of schools with girls weightlifting programs has grown by 15 percent a year in recent years, from 214 in 2004 to 318 in 2007. In total, nearly 28,301 students participated in weightlifting in the most recent participation survey, up from 21,938 in only two years.

Competitive Cheer

The number of students participating in competitive cheer was 97,324 in the most recent participation survey, covering 25 state associations. Many state associations are grappling with cheerleading issues, as the activity continues to evolve to a sanctioned competitive sport.


Snowboarding is a winter sport that has seen tremendousgrowth in recent years, but still has limited geographic scope for interscholastic competition.

Since snowboarding was first sanctioned in 2003, the number of participants had grown to 1,192 by 2007. Snowboarding is a popular interscholastic sport in areas of northeast California, where 29 boys programs and 27 girls programs are in operation.

While skiing is a long-established sport in Colorado, Angelico states that there is not an organized effort to add snowboarding to the sanctioned sports in the state.

Bass Fishing

One of the most interesting new activities in Illinois is bass fishing, which is still in the exploratory stage. (See article on page 30.)

Dave Gannaway, assistant executive director for the IHSA, estimates that the first bass fishing competition will take place in Illinois in the 2008-09 school year.

“This is an entirely different concept compared to the traditional club model followed by other emerging sports,” said Scott Johnson of the IHSA. The IHSA hopes that bass fishing competition will appeal to a portion of the high school population that is not currently participating in high school activities.