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The Growth of High School Fencing in the U.S. 1975-1976 through 2016-2017

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All-Time High

Despite the small number of high schools in the U.S. with fencing teams, participation in high school fencing over the past year or two, has never been higher – increasing at rates above the national average for all high school sports and establishing records for both girls and boys participants. Based on data from the 51 National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), which includes the District of Columbia, the number of participants in high school fencing reached an all-time high in 2015-2016 for boys at 2,196 and in 2016-2017  for girls at 1,944.

The record participation levels for boys and girls reflect the fact that several Divisions of the USFA have taken a strong leadership role in the expansion of high school fencing.  This has also been aided by the growth in the number of competitive fencing clubs in recent years. As a result, the USFA is now offering a new membership category for fencers competing at the high school level who are not fencing at sanctioned local, regional or national events.

In light of the growing interest in high school fencing, NFCR has provided a brief analysis of high school fencing over the past couple of decades.  The data is drawn primarily from the High School Athletics Participation Survey of NFHS¹. The survey has been compiled since 1971 by the NFHS through numbers it receives from its member associations. Please note that the NFHS’s universe is limited to member high schools of the state organizations. Not all schools are included in the membership of the state organization. In addition, the data does not include high school students who fence for clubs and are not members of a high school fencing team. By all accounts, a growing number of high school student-fencers are competing in non-school (club, etc) sports programs across the country. Despite the data limitations, the survey provides useful information on trends in sponsorship and participation in high school fencing.

High-School Sponsorship & Participation

The long-term growth of participation in high school fencing for boys and girls is illustrated in the following graph. Since 1975-1976 participation in high school fencing for boys has grown at the compound annual rate of 1.9% per year compared to 0.3% for all high school sports for boys. This compares with a compound annual growth rate of 4.5% per year for girls participating in high school fencing and 1.8% for all high school sports for girls.

The growth in participation over the past four decades can be divided into three distinct periods. The first, 1978-2000 is characterized by a period when boys participation was 80% higher on average than girls and growth rates were poor to moderate. The period, 2001-2008 is characterized by rapid growth with participation in high school fencing for boys and girls growing respectively at the compound annual rates of 10% and 12%.  Despite the dip in 2010, the final period, 2009-2017, is characterized by moderate growth in the order of 1% per year.

Despite above average long-term growth in both sponsorship and participants, boys and girls fencing teams are only sponsored by 108 and 107 high schools respectively as illustrated in the following tables. Boys fencing is ranked 26th in sponsorship (number of schools) and 26th in participants (number of athletes). Girls fencing fares a little worse and is ranked 31st in sponsorship and 35th in participation. The following table provides a comparison of the ten most popular high school boys sports programs with fencing in 2016-2017 and highlights just how small the fencing program is compared to the mainstream sports of basketball, baseball, and football. Further comparisons between the participation of boys in high school fencing and other sports are provided in the table at the end of the post.

Comparison of the Ten Most Popular Boys Programs with Fencing          2016-2017

 Rank High Schools Compound Annual Growth Rate Since 1975-1976 Participants Compound Annual Growth Rate Since 1975-1976
1 Basketball 18,214 -0.1% Basketball 550,305 -0.7%
2 Track and Field – Outdoor 16,699 0.0% Track and Field – Outdoor 600,136 -0.2%
3 Baseball 15,979 0.4% Baseball 491,790 0.4%
4 Cross Country 15,087 0.9% Cross Country 266,271 0.5%
5 Football – 11 Player 14,099 -0.2% Football – 11 Player 1,057,407 -0.1%
6 Golf 13,223 0.6% Golf 141,466 -0.7%
7 Soccer 12,188 3.1% Soccer 450,234 3.4%
8 Wrestling 10,629 0.2% Wrestling 244,804 -0.9%
9 Tennis 9,725 0.3% Tennis 158,171 0.1%
10 Swimming and Diving 7,342 1.3% Swimming and Diving 138,364 0.2%
 26 Fencing 108 1.3% Fencing 2,156 1.8%
Total 4,563,238 0.3%
Source: High School Athletics Participation Survey – National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS)

Girls participation increased for the 28th consecutive year with an additional 75,971 participants and set an all-time high of 3,400,297. Track and field registered the largest increase in participants for both boys and girls, with an additional 12,501 boys and 7,243 girls.

The top 10 girls sports remained the same from the previous year: track and field, volleyball, basketball, soccer, fast-pitch softball, cross country, tennis, swimming and diving, competitive spirit squads, and lacrosse. The number of high schools sponsoring girls fencing teams has grown at the compound annual rate of 2.7% per year over the past forty one years as noted in the following table. This compares with soccer, cross country and golf which grew faster at 7.5%, 4.3% and 3.3% per year respectively over the same period. Further comparisons between the participation of girls in high school fencing and other sports are provided in the table at the end of the post.

A Comparison of the Ten Most Popular Girls Programs with Fencing      2016-2017

 Rank High Schools Compound Annual Growth Rate Since 1975-1976 Participants Compound Annual Growth Rate Since 1975-1976
1 Basketball 17,934 0.4% Track and Field – Outdoor 494,447 0.5%
2 Track and Field – Outdoor 16,658 0.6% Volleyball 444,779 1.5%
3 Volleyball 15,992 1.1% Basketball 430,368 0.1%
4 Softball-Fast Pitch 15,440 2.1% Soccer 388,339 9.0%
5 Cross Country 14,880 4.3% Softball-Fast Pitch 367,405 2.4%
6 Soccer 11,823 7.5% Cross Country 226,039 5.0%
7 Tennis 10,121 0.9% Tennis 187,519 1.2%
8 Golf 10,076 3.3% Swimming and Diving 170,797 1.6%
9 Swimming and Diving 7,721 2.0% Competitive Spirit Squads 144,243 N/A
10 Competitive Spirit Squads 6,541 N/A Lacrosse 93,473 7.2%
 35 Fencing 107 2.7% Fencing 1,944 4.4%
Total 3,400,297 1.8%
Source: High School Athletics Participation Survey – National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS)

Fencing has been a part of high school culture in states like New Jersey and New York for at least half a century. Over the past six years, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Fencing Association has added five new high school fencing teams and expanded from four to five districts. According to the NFHS  database, the states with the most consistent commitment to high school fencing include New Jersey, New York, California, and Ohio as illustrated in the growth of participants from each state. The number of high school participants in New Jersey has grown from 864 in 1994-1995 to 2,490 in 2016-2017, a compound annual rate of growth of 4.9%. This compares with 5.1% for New York. 

The “chicken-or-egg” question is often asked: “What came first, the clubs or high school fencing teams?” The symbiotic relationship between fencing clubs and high school fencing teams is undeniable. The synergy between clubs and high school fencing teams has produced a combined effect greater than the sum of their respective efforts to expand fencing’s population. The increased effectiveness that results when clubs and high school fencing programs work together is clearly demonstrated in the growth of high school fencers in New Jersey.  In turn, this cooperation has provided the critical mass of clubs and high schools needed to maintain the growth of high school fencing in the state.

While New Jersey and New York have significant high school fencing programs, there are also sizable programs in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Illinois. Comparatively new fencing programs have emerged in Connecticut, Minnesota, Louisiana, Texas, Washington DC, Kansas, Indiana, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Intercollegiate (NCAA) and Interscholastic (High School) Participation

The apparent disparity between the growth in intercollegiate (NCAA) and interscholastic (high school) participation in fencing is clearly illustrated by the following two graphs. Not all high school fencers are included in the data as explained earlier and not all college fencers are included in the NCAA data. The total number of high school participants has grown at the compound annual rate of 5.3% per year between 2000-2001 and 2016-2017 while the number of intercollegiate fencers has declined by 1% per year over the same period.

Please refer to an earlier post, “Fencing’s Shrinking Share of NCAA Schools Sponsoring Championship Sports Teams 1981-82 to 2014-15” which examines in detail the number of colleges and universities sponsoring fencing teams.

With a high correlation between the growth in high schools sponsoring fencing teams and high school fencing participants, the growth in total high school teams mirrors the growth in participants at 5.3% per year since 2000-2001. Similarly, the growth in intercollegiate teams has remained relatively flat over the same period as illustrated in the accompanying graph.

As previously noted the following tables provide comparisons between the participation of boys and girls in high school fencing and other sports. Note the dramatic growth in boys and girls participation in archery which has been attributed to the premiere of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” in 2013 and the subsequent Hunger Games movies.  The growth in boys and girls participation in high school fencing has been relatively consistent over the past five and ten years as demonstrated in the accompanying tables.

Readers can filter or search the list in the following tables. You may click on a column heading to sort the data based on that criteria.

Growth in Girls Participation in High School Sports 1994-1995 to 2016-2017

Sport1994-19952001-20022006-20072011-20122016-2017Compound Annual Growth Rate 10 Years to 2016-2017Compound Annual Growth Rate 5 Years to 2016-2017
Total Athletes224046126811692898722320229034002971.6%1.2%
Archery Athletes63n/an/a6774588n/a46.6%
Drill Team Athletesn/an/an/a443410992n/a19.9%
Flag Football Athletesn/an/an/a626011254n/a12.4%
Wrestling Athletes804n/an/a823514587n/a12.1%
Weight Lifting Athletes2396354571108479120705.4%7.3%
Competitive Spirit Athletes30090n/an/a108307144243n/a5.9%
Riflery Athletes563n/an/a9851261n/a5.1%
Lacrosse Athletes13083351865477174993934735.5%4.5%
Football (Athletes)295n/an/a16041992n/a4.4%
Judo Athletes23n/an/a409495n/a3.9%
T&F Indoor Athletes35204464155607259990724222.6%3.8%
Baseball Athletes309114114129981145-2.1%2.8%
Water Polo Athletes2129147921779118749208261.6%2.1%
Fencing Athletes5239011827177119440.6%1.9%
Air Riflery Athletesn/an/an/a433473n/a1.8%
Ice Hockey Athletes64764427350883395992.7%1.7%
Cross Country Athletes1335511601781833762122622260392.1%1.3%
Swim/Dive Athletes1064671412181436391604561707971.7%1.3%
Golf Athletes38704599016628371086756051.3%1.2%
Volleyball Athletes3401763951244058324189034447790.9%1.2%
T&F Outdoor Athletes3602234156774441814687474944771.1%1.1%
Bowling Athletes7152130292093125348265882.4%1.0%
Soccer Athletes1913502952653376323709753883391.4%0.9%
Badminton Athletes759299071088812150126571.5%0.8%
Tennis Athletes1391571601141766961808701875190.6%0.7%
Equestrian Athletes298n/an/a14301465n/a0.5%
Canoe Paddling Athletes213n/an/a14101430n/a0.3%
Skiing (Cross Country) Athletes370149823839465746702.0%0.1%
Softball (Fast Pitch) Athletes283226355960373448367023367405-0.2%0.0%
Field Hockey Athletes5435960737638816060760549-0.5%0.0%
Skiing (Downhill) Athletes391345914190465746050.9%-0.2%
Basketball Athletes426947456169456967435885430368-0.6%-0.3%
Gymnastics Athletes2027721034189291911917915-0.5%-1.3%
Snowboarding Athletesn/an/a452310245-5.9%-4.6%
Team Tennis Athletesn/an/a259263722325752-0.1%-7.1%
Dance/Drill Athletesn/an/an/a2434810368n/a-15.7%
Rowing/Crew Athletes8582508268562612434-1.0%-17.2%
Softball (Slow-Pitch) Athletesn/a172541251113406462-28.1%-49.0%
Sources: High School Athletics Participation Survey - National Federation of State High School Associations and National Fencing Club Rankings.

Growth in Boys Participation in High School Sports 1994-1995 to 2016-2017

Sport1994-19952001-20022006-20072011-20122016-2017Compound Annual Growth Rate 10 Years to 2016-2017Compound Annual Growth Rate 5 Years to 2016-2017
Total Athletes353635939177314285705445257045632380.6%0.5%
Archery Athletes97n/an/a8125179n/a44.9%
Flag Football Athletesn/an/an/a2511210n/a37.0%
Equestrian Athletes89n/an/a188228n/a3.9%
T&F Indoor Athletes40679520006252269360821722.8%3.4%
Volleyball Athletes28716405674622449467572092.2%3.0%
Drill Team Athletesn/an/an/a547628n/a2.8%
Fencing Athletes108611051966192521560.9%2.3%
Rowing/Crew Athletes97120582626246427450.4%2.2%
Lacrosse Athletes2278346206715241006411118424.6%2.1%
Bowling Athletes7667125972329827441300542.6%1.8%
Soccer Athletes2728103391013779994117574502341.8%1.8%
Cross Country Athletes1638291909932160852484942662712.1%1.4%
T&F Outdoor Athletes4308074940225441805756286001361.0%0.8%
Skiing (Cross Country) Athletes401648783670426644401.9%0.8%
Baseball Athletes5402694516744774304742194917900.3%0.7%
Swim/Dive Athletes80089906981067381338231383642.6%0.7%
Basketball Athletes440503540597556269535289550305-0.1%0.6%
Water Polo Athletes10599137351850220721212861.4%0.5%
Canoe Paddling Athletes238n/an/a12761302n/a0.4%
Air Riflery Athletesn/an/an/a561564n/a0.1%
Badminton Athletes306041844073457345271.1%-0.2%
Tennis Athletes1327351394831569441598001581710.1%-0.2%
Judo Athletes142n/an/a739730n/a-0.2%
Ice Hockey Athletes2245434652359553573235210-0.2%-0.3%
Riflery Athletes17612401255020001934-2.7%-0.7%
Softball (Fast Pitch) Athletes8821842162513761329-2.0%-0.7%
Football (11-man) Athletes9314951023712110454810959931057407-0.4%-0.7%
Skiing (Downhill) Athletes553163535233580654510.4%-1.3%
Weight Lifting Athletes1497214293211911959218307-1.5%-1.3%
Golf Athletes133705163299159747152725141466-1.2%-1.5%
Wrestling Athletes216453244637257246272149244804-0.5%-2.1%
Competitive Spirit Athletes864n/an/a30322505n/a-3.7%
Gymnastics Athletes27452223224623531894-1.7%-4.2%
Team Tennis Athletesn/an/a2364236160255610.8%-6.7%
Snowboarding Athletesn/an/a740711501-3.8%-6.8%
Field Hockey Athletes33n/a40529787-14.3%-21.8%
Dance Drill Athletesn/an/an/a40296n/a-24.9%
Sources: High School Athletics Participation Survey - National Federation of State High School Associations and National Fencing Club Rankings.


¹ The NFHS, based in Indianapolis, Indiana, is the national leadership organization for high school sports and performing arts activities. Since 1920, the NFHS has led the development of education-based interscholastic sports and performing arts activities that help students succeed in their lives. The NFHS sets the direction for the future by building awareness and support, improving the participation experience, establishing consistent standards and rules for competition, and helping those who oversee high school sports and activities. The NFHS writes playing rules for 16 sports for boys and girls at the high school level.

Through its 51 member state associations and the District of Columbia, the NFHS reaches more than 19,000 high schools and 11 million participants in high school activity programs, including almost 7.9 million in high school sports. As the recognized national authority on interscholastic activity programs, the NFHS conducts national meetings; sanctions interstate events; offers online publications and services for high school coaches and officials; sponsors professional organizations for high school coaches, officials, speech and debate coaches, and music adjudicators; serves as the national source for interscholastic coach training; and serves as a national information resource of interscholastic athletics and activities. For more information, visit the NFHS Web site at www.nfhs.org.

2 Responses to "The Growth of High School Fencing in the U.S. 1975-1976 through 2016-2017"
  1. Rosa Hearne says:

    Wish you had access to Atlanta and Boston, where HS leagues are growing. Also, NYC PAL?

  2. Jim says:

    I looked at the numbers for all the states and Connecticut is not listed. I believe that this because fencing does not fall under the CIAC which is the governing body for high school sports in CT. We are not in enough schools for the sport to fall under them. Currently there are 26 high school teams in CT with almost 800 fencers.

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