By Phil Brozynski
A friend and fellow writer insisted the other day that cross country was more popular in the Chicago area than volleyball. So I decided to do some digging.
While I could not find figures broken down by geographic regions of Illinois, the National Federation of High School Associations did have figures for individual sports broken down by state for the 2007-2008 school year.
According to figures supplied by the Illinois High School Association to the national federation, Illinois ranks fifth nationally in the number of athletes participating in interscholastic sports.
Illinois has 202,792 boys and 133,854 girls competing in high school sports, trailing only Texas, California, New York and Ohio. Football is the No. 1 sport in Illinois, with 51,334 boys, followed by baseball (24,663), track and field (24,517) and basketball (23,846).
And what is the No. 1 girls sport in Illinois?
Nearly 700 schools in Illinois field girls volleyball teams. Slightly more than 21,600 girls compete in volleyball. Basketball, with 17,804 participants, was second, followed closely by track and field (17,262) and softball (17,130).
Where was cross country? Girls cross country (8,753 participants) trailed soccer (15,919) and just barely nudged tennis (7,958) among Illinois female athletic participation. Boys and girls cross-country combined still fell short of volleyball.
If you add the 192 high schools which sponsor boys teams, volleyball whips cross country 28,666-18,519.
Now those are state-wide numbers, and not all small downstate schools sponsor cross country teams. But based on regional and sectional results on the IHSA web site, many do, particularly as co-ops.
And how many Chicago-area cross country programs sponsor four levels of competition like volleyball does?
Nationally, girls volleyball has 397,969 participants and ranks third in popularity behind basketball (449,450) and track (447,520). Cross country is sixth, with fewer than half as many participants (190,349) as volleyball.
Boys volleyball, on the other hand, did not break the top 10 nationally. But girls and boys volleyball combined still outdistanced cross country.
But the bottom line is this...volleyball is the most popular sport among girls in Illinois. Let's just hope the powers that be don't mess it up by expanding the state tournament to near-football proportions.