More Americans than ever are watching the World Cup, making soccer seem like sport's flavor of the month. But at the high school level, it's a different sport that's truly taking off.
Between the 2008-09 and 2012-13 school years, participation in high-school lacrosse grew 19 percent among girls (to more than 77,000 players) and 15 percent among boys (to nearly 102,000 players), according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations analyzed by BuzzFeed. Over the past decade, the trend is even stronger, with participation more than doubling over that time.
Among sports with at least 10,000 high schoolers, lacrosse has had the highest growth rate since 2009. Other growth sports include 8-player football (up 12 percent), cross country (up 8 percent for both boys and girls), soccer (up 8 percent for girls, up 7 percent for boys), and girls bowling (up 7 percent).
"There are two main reasons for the trend," said Rick Burton, the Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University, about the rise in popularity of lacrosse. "One is that lacrosse is being developed as a gender neutral sport. It's a virtually identical game between men and women. Two, it's an active, contemporary game. It's not based on set plays with limitations of where people can play."
Despite lacrosse's reputation as a preppy, Northeast-centric sport, the sport grew the most in the Midwest and South. Between 2009 and 2013, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio saw the largest percentage increases in participation. And there's an opportunity for much more growth: In 32 states, fewer than 1,000 students played high-school lacrosse during the 2012-13 school year, according to the NFHS data.
"It's been a major sport in upstate New York and the Baltimore area for the past 40 years," Burton said. "There are now a critical mass of people who were on the East Coast moving to the Midwest."
In raw numbers, of course, lacrosse still has a long way to go before catching up with soccer — which sported approximately four times as many high school players as lacrosse last school year — not to mention football (1,086,627 boys in 2012-13), basketball (538,676), or baseball (474,791).
The explosive growth of lacrosse seems to have trickled up to the collegiate level, too. Sixty-four colleges started new lacrosse programs in 2012-13, according to the NCAA.