The first half-century of Title IX — 1972’s gender-equality law that banned sex-based discrimination in federally funded educational institutions — saw women’s sports in America undergo a period of profound growth and evolution.
The succinct legislation1 essentially required school sports programs to offer equal opportunities to women, relative to their male counterparts, and the effect was immediate. The ratio of girls to boys participating in high school sports nationwide rose from 8 percent in 1971-72 (before the law was passed) to 53 percent a decade later, and the NCAA saw a similar rise (from 18 percent to 44 percent) at the college level. Ever since, it’s been a long, gradual climb toward equal participation — though there have been plenty of roadblocks along the way, and equal investment has been much harder to come by.
It’s informative to look at where the growth in women’s sports has come from on a sport-by-sport basis, and how that has changed over time. Here is total girls’ high school sports participation in four-year intervals for the dozen most popular sports of the last 20 years, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations:
Many of the most popular girls’ sports in 2018-19 — the most recent data in the NFHS survey — were ones that made huge initial gains right after Title IX and were already among the most popular by the mid-1970s. For instance, track and field, volleyball and basketball were the top three in 1975-76, and they remain the three most popular sports for girls to play today. (The order simply changed: volleyball has become slightly more popular than basketball over time.) So in a certain sense, the idea of which sports girls “should” be playing — or at least had the most access to — was already fairly entrenched at the time of Title IX’s inception and has stayed in place since.
But there are exceptions. Tennis was the third-most popular girls high school sport before Title IX, but in 2018-19 it ranked just seventh; though its participation has grown by 628 percent since 1971-72, its share of all girls’ high school athletes2 has dropped from 9 percent to 6 percent. Meanwhile, soccer has gone from a sport with just 700 total female participants in 1971-72 — representing just 0.24 percent of all American girls who played high school sports — to 394,105 in 2018-19, which ranked fourth among all sports and accounted for 12 percent of all female high school athletes. As my former colleague Ben Morris wrote during the 2015 Women’s World Cup, soccer has been one of Title IX’s biggest success stories, with the dramatic increase in girls’ participation directly helping to fuel American women’s dominance on the international stage in subsequent generations.
Maybe the most interesting bellwether of Title IX’s progress in growing women’s sports — and particularly in diversifying which sports girls have access to or see themselves playing — is basketball. As noted, it remains the third-most-popular sport to play at the high school level, with around 400,000 participants and a 12 percent share of all female high school athletes. But that share has been dropping steadily with time, from an enormous 45 percent in 1971-72 to just 23 percent a decade later, 15 percent in 2006-07 and now even less than that. Track and field is similar (it fell from a 26 percent share of all high school girls athletes in 1975-76 to 16 percent in 2018-19), and even volleyball went slightly down from its peak of 16 percent in 1990-91 to 13 percent three years ago. As other sports have seen their numbers increase, the top sports are having to share more of the athletic talent at their disposal — and there are more opportunities to showcase that talent than ever.
We can see this in how comparatively easy or hard it is for a high school athlete to go on and play in college. The NCAA doesn’t have complete participation statistics available before the early 1980s, but we can pick up the trail of data there. In 1982-83, the ratio of U.S. girls high school sports participants to Division I athletes on the women’s side was 53.4 — in other words, only one out of every 53.4 girls who played in high school could also expect to play in college at the Division I level. That number was 41.3 on the men’s side, meaning it was much more difficult to play in college as a female athlete than as a male one. (The disparity was slightly smaller when looking beyond DI to the NCAA overall, but it was still tilted toward being more difficult to make it on the women’s side.)
That trend changed over time, however, as it became easier to play in college on the women’s side starting in the mid-to-late 1990s. By 2019, the ratio of girls’ high school athletes to DI players was 39.2, meaning there were many more opportunities for aspiring athletes than there were roughly 40 years prior. (The same cannot be said of boys athletes, of whom 45.8 played in high school in 2018-19 for everyone who played in DI, a tougher ratio than existed in the early ’80s.)
This is reflective of a convergence in the number of women’s and men’s athletes at the college level, where the former was 88 percent of the latter at the DI level in 2018-19 — and participation parity has been achieved in a handful of popular sports, while approaching it in others.
|Track and field||0.60||0.66||0.80||0.95||1.06||1.13||1.19||1.22||1.25|
But the overall picture is not quite as rosy as it seems from these participation numbers at the top tier of the college sporting pyramid. As a naive estimate, we would expect women to outnumber men in most sports if opportunities were truly equal, since 1.3 women are enrolled in college for every man. Instead, we still see disparities in the opposite direction, particularly in the so-called revenue sports of basketball and football — the latter of which carries more athletes than any women’s sport by a factor of over 20 percent. This, in turn, has helped lead to some of the big financial inequities between men’s and women’s sports that have been laid bare in recent years.
Pure participation is also less equitable in Divisions II and III than in Division I. The overall NCAA ratio of female to male athletes is just 78 percent, and that includes DI’s higher number. It’s even less balanced in high school; out of the seven sports above, participation parity had been achieved or surpassed in just two at the U.S. high school level as of 2019.3
And the COVID-19 pandemic has already begun to hurt some of the gains made in women’s sports over the decades. The NCAA’s latest reporting shows that women’s athletic participation declined at the Division I level in 2020-21 by 0.72 percent, the first time it had gone backward year-over-year since 1989-90. (Men’s participation, by contrast, increased by 0.79 percent despite the pandemic.) The decrease was even sharper (-2.66 percent) across all of the NCAA’s divisions, giving last year the largest seasonal dip in women’s collegiate athletic participation since 1986-87.
As always, these statistics provide reasons for both frustration and optimism. It is true that women’s sports have grown by leaps and bounds over the past 50 years, and Title IX is almost certainly the biggest factor driving that surge. The numbers also show how much progress has been made in expanding the range of sports that attract great athletes, with sports such as lacrosse and competitive spirit (which itself does not always qualify for Title IX status) ranking among the fastest-growing for high school girls over the past decade, in addition to the tremendous rise of soccer since the early days of Title IX. Far more opportunities now exist for aspiring athletes to play at the college level, a sign that the rapidly developing talent pool on the women’s side is being more fully utilized.4
And yet, Title IX has only gone so far in creating parity in participation — much less parity of funding — or ensuring that women’s sports can weather a crisis like the pandemic without some athletes falling through the cracks. Apparently, some challenges require more than a half-century to be solved.