By David Brackman
About 485,000 of the nearly eight million high school athletes in America go on to play sports at more than 1,350 NCAA colleges and universities. Slightly more than half of them are men.
That’s roughly six percent of high school players (or one out of every 16) who advance to the NCAA’s three divisions in more than a dozen sports in each of the men’s and women’s divisions. (Only about one out every 50 get to the top level, Division I.)
The odds of playing in college may seem long, but chances of playing in college vary widely by sport. The NCAA has published a table with the raw data for 14 of the men’s sports it sponsors; we’ll try to make sense of the numbers, which are quoted are from the 2018-19 school year and include information from the NCAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations, in this article.
With rosters of 100 or more players and 85 full scholarships for each school to award at the highest level, football is by far the most popular sport at the college level, just as it dominates the high school scene across America. Nearly 75,000 football players are listed on NCAA rosters across all three levels, meaning almost 30 percent of all male NCAA athletes play on the gridiron.
Baseball, with more than 36,000 NCAA players, ranks second in popularity at the NCAA level, beating out track & field (28,914), soccer (25,499) and basketball (18,816).
The highest percentage of high school boys moving on to an NCAA college in any sport is in lacrosse, at 12.8 percent. That’s better than one in eight high school players advancing to the NCAA level. Ice hockey at 12.3 percent of players making the transition, comes in second, followed by baseball (7.5 percent), football (7.3 percent) and swimming & diving (7.2 percent).
Wrestling is the toughest sport for high schoolers to crack into at the NCAA level, with only three percent of high school players moving on and only a third of them competing in Division I. Only 0.7 percent of high school volleyball players played at the Division I level, the lowest percentage for any sport for either gender, with less than 500 at the top level.
As with the women, the only NCAA men’s sport that has a majority of a its high school athletes participating at the Division I level is water polo, although water polo ranks last in number of NCAA men’s athletes with 1,072.
The fourth-most popular sport for high school boys, baseball is second in number of NCAA participants after football. A total of 36,011 ballplayers were listed on NCAA rosters, representing 7.5 percent of 482,740 high school players. About 11,000 players suited up at each of the top two levels, D1 and D2, with around 14,000 in Division III.
The third-most popular high school sport for boys, with more than 540,000 players, saw a scant 18,816 (3.5 percent) playing in the NCAA, making it the second-toughest sport to transition from the prep to college level after wrestling. Only one percent of all high school basketball players, about 5,500 in all, made it onto Division I rosters and a similar number played in Division II.
About 5.3 percent of high school harriers (14,303 of 269,295) moved on to an NCAA school. Just over a third of the college runners (about 5,000) competed at the Division I level.
Due to large rosters, football is the most popular sport in terms of participants at both the high school and NCAA levels. More than a million prep players suited up in 2018 (1,006,013 to be exact) and 73,712 (about 7.3 percent of all high school players) played in the NCAA, with nearly 30,000 (about 40 percent) at the Division I level, 19,000 in Division II and 25,000 in Division III.
Of 143,200 high school golfers, 8,485 (5.9 percent) moved on to the NCAA level. About one third of those elite players participated in Division I, but that’s less than 3,000 at the top level.
Ice Hockey players have a better chance of playing at the Division I level than participants of any other sport except lacrosse. With 4,323 players distributed among the three NCAA divisions from a pool of 35,283 high school players, the college probability rate for prep players is 12.3 percent. But ice hockey is one of the smallest NCAA sports (many schools do not sponsor intercollegiate hockey), ranking No. 12 among the 14 profiled here in terms of participating players; only about 1,800 players are on Division I rosters.
At 12.8 percent, high school lacrosse players have the highest likelihood of moving on to an NCAA program, with 14,603 of 113,702 prep players earning a college roster spot. That’s better than one in every eight players moving on. But less than 25 percent of them participate at the Division I level, while about 57 percent are Division III players. Lacrosse also has the highest percentage of high schoolers moving to NCAA Division II (2.5 percent) and Division III (7.3 percent).
The fifth-most popular high school boys sport saw a total of 25,499 of the 459,077 (5.6 percent) prep players moving on to the NCAA, ranking the sport seventh in likelihood of a player advancing among the 14 men’s sports listed. Less than 25 percent of the college players competed at the Division I level.
Swimming & Diving
Swimming & Diving had 136,638 high school participants and 9,799 (7.2 percent) of them moved on to college, making the sport the fifth-best for the transition. About 44 percent of them participated at the Division I level. Nearly 40 percent of the college swimmers competed in Division I.
Of 159,314 high school tennis players, 7,785 (4.9 percent) moved on to an NCAA college or university. About one third of NCAA tennis players engaged at the Division I level.
Track & Field
The second-most popular sport in number of participants with 605,354 at the high school level, track & field ranks third among NCAA college participation with 28,914 athletes, a 4.9 percent transition rate. About 40 percent of all college men’s track & field athletes participate at the Division I level.
At 3.7 percent, volleyball is one of the toughest sports for boys to move on and have an NCAA career; only wrestling and basketball are more selective. A total of 2,355 volleyball players appeared on NCAA rosters out of 63,563 high schoolers. Volleyball is an emerging sport for men and as a result, it is the toughest sport of the 14 listed to play at the Division I level, with just 0.7 percent of all high school players (about 450) competing at the top Division I level.
Of the 14 sports listed, water polo ranked last in number of participants at both the high school and NCAA levels, with 22,475 and 1,072 respectively, for a 4.8 percent transition rate. About 56 percent of the NCAA players competed in Division I, but that’s only around 600 roster spots.
As mentioned above, wrestling is the toughest sport for transitioning from high school to the NCAA, with just 3.0 percent (7,300 of 247,441) moving up. About one third, or 2,500, of NCAA wrestlers compete on Division I mats.
Note: Information about gymnastics, rowing and other men’s sports was unavailable. NAIA and NJCAA school opportunities were not included in this article. The numbers above also do not factor in players who participate in multiple high school sports or in club sports. Although many athletes combine high school and club sports in some way, some athletes opt out of high school sports entirely and only play club sports. See our article about high school and club sports and their respective representation percentages at the NCAA level.
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