When the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) put out their annual participation numbers by sport for 2016-17, the numbers looked like what many would have expected. Boys wrestling continued its recent decline while girls wrestling set another all-time high. However, eagle eyed readers quickly pointed out that something was off with the NFHS numbers. While reporting will always be a little weird for sports that are not yet sanctioned in a majority of states, New York reported 260 girls wrestling in 2015-16, then 0 in 2016-17. Something wasn’t right which raised questions about the entire process. What happened with New York? How do these numbers get reported? Just how many high school girls are wrestling now? All these questions needed answers.
The NFHS largely passed the buck as to the accuracy of reporting, stating that they rely on the state organizations to gather the data. I contacted the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA) and after being directed to the person in charge of their state participation survey, I found out he was surprised to learn they were listed as having zero girls wrestling. He directed me to their survey results for 2016-17, listing 230 wrestlers under “Mixed Competition Totals”, the same spot that the 260 cited by the NFHS came from in 2015-16. While no one could tell me where the disconnect occurred, it appears likely that this was simply a clerical error somewhere in the process. With the NFHS relying on each state organization to do the reporting, inconsistency is a given. Some states are reporting their girls that wrestle as boys since girls wrestling has yet to be sanctioned as a high school sport there. Others are making the effort to divide them out despite not yet sanctioning them. How the states gather that information also varies.
Even 260 female wrestlers for New York seemed low, but it is important to remember that the Public School Athletic League of the City of New York (PSAL) is not included in the NYSPHSAA. The PSAL has had a lot of success growing girls wrestling, but they are not represented in these numbers. Luckily, there are other ways to assess how many girls are wrestling in high school. One is the Optimum Performance Calculator (OPC) that is used for weight management programs in many places. Looking at the High School Girls season for 2016-17, accessible through TrackWrestling, gives some idea of the numbers in the states that make use of it. In addition, gender is included in all OPC entries as key numbers, such as minimum allowable body fat, are different for males versus females. That means that searching through the High School Boys season for 2016-17, we can filter the list to find girls wrestling in each state that might not be listed in the girls season for a variety of reasons. There is some overlap between those listed under the girls season and the boys season so it isn’t as easy as simply adding the numbers together, but with a little work, we were able to find out how many girls were listed in the OPC. Here are the NFHS numbers, side by side with those we came to combing the OPC.
As you can see, neither method is flawless. New York has 575 females listed in the OPC compared to their 230 they tried to report to the NFHS and the zero that actually got into the publication. Many of the other states that reported zero did so simply because they only have wrestling sanctioned as a boys sport and they didn’t break out the genders of their participants, reporting them all as boys. The OPC helps in that regard, but it isn’t required everywhere. Washington had just 138 girls listed in the OPC, though we know they have a thriving women’s wrestling community. Thankfully, their NFHS reporting seems more accurate at 1514 athletes. Taking whichever number is higher between the NFHS report and OPC data (4th column) should get us closer to the true number of high school girls who wrestled last year. That total would be 17,795 somewhere in the neighborhood of 3000 wrestlers higher than either the NFHS or OPC total would suggest.
Even doing that may leave us short of the true number, though. Anecdotal evidence suggests as much. There were 89 girls wrestling in Indiana according to the OPC, but 93 showed up to the regionals for the first girls’ state tournament this year. Even if we believe that every girl in the OPC competed, the number is a little low. The difference is more dramatic for Minnesota which had just 51 girls in the OPC, but saw 93 Juniors and 178 Cadets, some of which might not yet be in high school, compete at their Women’s State Folkstyle tournament.
This discrepancy may be accounted for by girls wrestling exclusively for clubs outside of the scholastic wrestling system. To investigate that aspect, we requested the state by state breakdown of high school girls with USA Wrestling cards. While the governing body was quite helpful, they could only provide that data for all females, regardless of age. Here it is added to the previous table.
|State||NFHS||OPC||Highest Total||USA Cards|
This includes women of every age that hold a USA Wrestling athlete membership, not just high school girls. Still, comparing the numbers to those in the table above, we can gain some insight as to where the numbers might not reflect the growth of women’s wrestling. Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Utah all have far more USA Wrestling members than high school girls accounted for by the NFHS or OPC. This isn’t conclusive evidence that there are more high school girls wrestling in those states as it could simply mean that those states have thriving USA Wrestling programs that are attracting girls in younger age groups. However, considering what we saw with the Minnesota/USA Wrestling state tournament, it is likely that at least some of those states have more than the initial reporting accounted for.
The final answer as to how many high school girls are wrestling in the United States right now is impossible to nail down thanks in large part to the lack of state associations sanctioning the sport. It seems clear that the number is at least 17,795 and may be a fair amount higher than that depending on the population of girls that age exclusively wrestling for clubs. In the end, all we really know is this, the number of high school girls wrestling is growing and the participation numbers are higher than reported. As the sport gets sanctioned in more places, the NFHS numbers will become a more reliable indicator, but for now, this data should give us a better idea of what the landscape looks like.