Badminton gaining popularity
The numbers don't lie: More than 15,000 high school students are playing badminton. And, according to the most recent (2007-08) High School Athletics Participation Survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations, it's a number that's on the rise.
Yes, 15,000 pales in comparison to the more than one million teenagers who spend their time on the basketball court or the 1,109,511 who suit up for 11-man football, the most popular sport.
But for the seven "emerging sports" -- those sports for females that are vying for championship-level status with the NCAA -- 15,000 is an eye-popping number. Of the remaining six sports, three are tracked by the NFHS: archery (1,534), equestrian (1,528) and synchronized swimming (607). The other three are primarily played either at the club level (rugby, team handball) or in certain regions of the country (squash).
Of the 7,429,381 athletes who take part in sports at the high school level, however, 15,000 is only a small fraction. Even in states in which badminton is more prevalent, like California (where 185 schools compete) and Illinois (which has 88 girls' programs), the 11,361 female participants make up less than 5 percent of the total participants in overall girls' sports.
While badminton does continue to grow incrementally, it has been dramatically outpaced by lacrosse and bowling at the high school level, according to NFHS director of communications Bruce Howard.
"Bowling is an interesting sport for schools to look at to add, as it typically involves new students, instead of those who participate in other sports," Howard said. "Lacrosse, in some of these cases, grew into a varsity sport from being a club sport in many cases."
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Jeff Limke coaches badminton at Burnsville (Minn.) and has seen the effect that the introduction of a scholarship-level sport can have on participation. According to Limke, badminton became a sport at Burnsville in the mid-1980s to satisfy Title IX requirements.
"Ten years ago, badminton pulled in 80 to 90 girls each spring," he said. "When lacrosse was brought in as a varsity sport about five years ago, that number dropped to 60.
"Kids see an athletic scholarship as a way to go to college. That's part of lacrosse's sale pitch."
Although the NFHS does not sanction high school sports per se -- there are no official national championships at the high school level -- the organization does write rules for certain sports. Currently, the NFHS provides official rule books for 17 of the most popular sports; neither badminton nor any of the other six emerging sports are among those sports. (The NFHS also does not provide rules for golf or tennis; the USGA and USTA, respectively, are the recognized governing bodies for those sports.) The last sport to be recognized by the NFHS was lacrosse, Howard said.
"It's been the same for a long time," Howard said.
Badminton currently is the most popular high school sport that is not yet an NCAA-sanctioned championship sport, and according to the latest data from the NFHS, its numbers are close to NCAA sports like gymnastics (20,198). It should be noted, however, that these numbers do not include club participation.
Gauging national interest in the other emerging sports at the high school level is difficult because of the lack of participation figures for club sports.
Whether sports grow because they are given a higher profile at the college level (scholarships, national championships) or whether they become championship-level sports because of a groundswell of participation at the high school level is a bit of a chicken-or-egg question.
Howard points out that the NHL's expansion into nontraditional hockey locales did not spur growth in the sport at the high school level in those areas. But Limke thinks the NCAA's seal of approval would go a long way toward growing badminton.
"Here, badminton is a secondary sport," Limke said. "We don't ask for year-round dedication like sports like volleyball and basketball."
Limke has his work cut out for him in fielding a team and broadening the competition. Without a junior high school program to feed players, most of his team picks up the sport in 10th grade. In Minnesota, a state that fields 17 girls' badminton teams, badminton and lacrosse are two of the only high school sports that you can start in high school and have a chance for varsity. Limke recruits from gym class -- and from other sports like volleyball and tennis, where some of the fundamentals and footwork cross over.
After fielding a team, his next challenge is to try to grow the game to other schools locally. His message to both high schools and colleges is simple:
"It's cheap. You already have a gym, and the equipment isn't more than $50."
Plus, the former basketball player and coach adds, "It's a great cardiovascular workout. It's not as hard on your joints as other sports. It's a lifetime sport."
Teresa Muench, a senior on Limke's Blazers team, would love to see badminton more universally recognized. Muench, who played soccer throughout middle school and continues to play tennis, started playing badminton as a sophomore.
"I had never heard of it before high school," she said. "I started playing in gym class, and I was pretty good, so I decided to go out for the team."
Muench is considering playing at the college level; it's one of the questions she asks when she looks at prospective schools.
"I'd love to see a badminton championship," she said. "I've watched the Olympic matches online."
Whether badminton, or any of the other six emerging sports, will become an NCAA sport remains to be seen. To be approved, it has to meet a minimum number of schools participating. And it has to dispel some of its misconceptions, Limke said.
"People see it as this non-threatening, backyard sport," he said. "But once you get into it, you see the physicality involved, the attack strategy. It's one of the most competitive sports I've ever played."
Lauren Reynolds is a senior editor for ESPNRISE.com.
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