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What sport could be 'next' in the NCHSAA? A look at 11 contenders - FlagSpin

What sport could be ‘next’ in the NCHSAA? A look at 11 contenders

It’s not easy to get a sport governed by the N.C. High School Athletic Association. Only three sports have been added since 2000: the the tag-team of boys and girls lacrosse in 2010 and girls wrestling will be added in the 2023-24 season, (though the latter is admittedly more akin to adding a new division within an existing sport than adding a new one altogether).

For the most part, the NCHSAA and the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association offer championships in the same sports, with a handful of differences between the two: the NCISAA offers championships in 8-man football and field hockey, while the NCHSAA offers boys and girls indoor track, individual boys and girls tennis, and dual-team wrestling.

A quick look at other states in the southeast shows very few differences in the sports already offered championships by the NCHSAA.

South Carolina doesn’t have a sport that isn’t already governed by the NCHSAA. Tennessee has just one: bowling.

Virginia has two: field hockey and gymnastics. Florida has a few interesting ones — bowling, beach volleyball, boys volleyball, water polo, weightlifting, and girls flag football — and Georgia has by far the most — girls flag football, esports, bass fishing, dance, wheelchair basketball, rifle, slow-pitch softball, gymnastics, and wheelchair track.

Making matters complicated for emerging sports are the NCHSAA’s virtually unalterable bylaws regarding the adoption of a new sport. (Note: when you see the word “bylaw,” think “constitutional amendment” and you’ll get a better idea of just how hard it is to change one — you need 75 percent of all member schools to vote in favor of changing one for even a minor tweak.)

The bylaws state that a new sport must fit either one of two criteria for two consecutive years: have more than half of one classification offer the sport, or 25 percent of the total membership. Both are equally tall tasks. With four equally-sized classifications, you’d need about 107 total schools or 53 4A members (let’s assume any new sport will get its start 4A, because that’s where they are almost always first fielded) to get a new sport governed by the NCHSAA.

More schools join the NCHSAA each year, so the size of each classification will only rise and make those thresholds needed for a new sport harder and harder to obtain unless a different bylaw is changed to allow the NCHSAA to create more than four classes. Fewer teams in each class = easier thresholds to hit for these new sports. With metro area growth and charter school explosion, the NCHSAA’s only getting bigger.

With that in mind, we took a look at 11 sports that are either being currently being offered (or aren’t being offered but are otherwise interesting to consider) to see how close they would come to hitting those marks, and what impact it would bring to the NCHSAA. These are ordered alphabetically.

Parrott Academy vs Word of God Christian Academy - November 11,

Sport: 8-man football
NCHSAA schools that play it: 2
Likelihood it reaches threshold: Highly unlikely — but then again…
JMB’s take: For now, there still seems to be a stigma for NCHSAA teams dropping from 11-man to 8-man football, although my personal take has always been that 8-man football is not only a great experience, but it’s much better than flirting with no football at all. COVID essentially killed what would’ve been the first two seasons of it at the NCHSAA level between Columbia and Mattamuskeet, who are both fielding teams this year. I don’t think schools who are bad at 11-man will or should automatically turn to 8-man. It should be reserved for the schools who have such low participation that they want some peace of mind that they’ll be able to field the sport in some capacity. Even if 10-15 schools were to pledge to go to 8-man next fall, and another 10-15 schools who currently don’t field a football team decided 8-man was going to be the right fit for their student body, it’s unlikely you’d come close to hitting half of one classification (most likely 1A) needed for its own state championship. But no worries. Leaving the last week open as a “bye” week could allow for bowl-game-like end to the season, which would feel like a championship in much the same way Wayne Christian “won” the not-actual NCISAA D2 title in 2020.

Sport: Beach/Sand volleyball
NCHSAA schools that play it: About 30 or so
Likelihood it reaches threshold: Potential is there, but still probably 15 years at minimum
JMB’s take: Of all the sports on here, this one is tripped up the most by one of the most basic questions: where are you going to play and practice? Yes, 30-plus teams already participating is nothing to sneer at (and congrats to previous champions Croatan, Hoggard, and New Bern!), and although you only need two players for a “team,” the logistics don’t make sense for hundreds of schools who would otherwise have plenty of well-rounded indoor volleyball players who might find the outdoor game (which is 2-on-2 instead of 6-on-6) more their speed. North Carolina produces a number of D1 beach volleyball recruits each year, so the top players are finding ways to showcase their skills. Can the sport grow more beyond the Triad, Triangle, and coast? And if so, are schools willing to make them part of their varsity sport offerings? If the answers to both of those are yes, then maybe the facility part won’t be as big of a hindrance as I suspect.

Sport: Bowling
NCHSAA schools that play it: Approximately 11
Likelihood it reaches threshold: Later, rather than sooner
JMB’s take: Bowling has a lot to like — there are bowling alleys in every mid-sized town who would love to host high school events and welcome a new generation of devoted customers (this isn’t too dissimilar to why top-notch golf courses love having high school events during the week) and it’s easy to field a boys and girls team at the same time. But we’re talking about a sport that, by default, has all of its practices and contests off-campus and, unlike swimming, doesn’t come with the fanfare. Ultimately, I think that lack of passionate base will stunt the chances of it becoming governed by the NCHSAA. It’s not that anyone dislikes bowling, or that anyone doesn’t find bowling in the 200s to be impressive, it’s that schools probably don’t have too many students or parents or boosters demanding they be added as a varsity sport.

Sport: Boys Volleyball
NCHSAA schools that play it: 0
Likelihood it reaches threshold: Probably not in my lifetime
JMB’s take: I couldn’t believe my eyes when last year I read a headline by Chris Miller of the Jacksonville Daily News that there were two small Christian schools in his area that fielded boys volleyball. To my knowledge, they are the only two in the state! That said, it’s hard enough to find faculty members who coach the super-popular girls’ side of the sport. How would you find those to coach the boys’ side? And although I’ve known a few club boys’ teams to emerge in recent years, there still isn’t a wide-ranging grassroots campaign to get kids interested in it. For now, it remains a PE activity — a very fun one if no one calls the game too tightly.

Sport: esports
NCHSAA schools that play it: 0, I think?
Likelihood it reaches threshold: I can see it being an “activity/invitational” for many years first
JMB’s take: The NCHSAA has mentioned this in passing in recent years, but from my knowledge there is no official team that represents a school in the state. Every school can find gamers. Does every school want to call it a “varsity sport?” Probably not for now, but the growing popularity of esports at the professional level bodes well that there might one day be a way to incorporate it under the high school athletics umbrella.

Ravenscroft senior Melissa Funsten has announced her commitment to play field hockey at Davidson College. (Photo Courtesy: Chris Watters, Ravenscroft Schools)

Sport: Field Hockey
NCHSAA schools that play it: Approximately 23
Likelihood it reaches threshold: Well, it’s about halfway there..
JMB’s take: Believe it or not, field hockey has a decent chance to one day become an NCHSAA-governed sport. Of those 23 teams, only Carrboro isn’t currently 4A, so it’s 22 down, 31 to go? You’d likely need either a big buy-in from Wake County’s public schools or a bylaw change that made 4A much, much smaller to be able to pull it off. The neat thing about field hockey is that I don’t know of a school that has quit the sport after taking it up — truly impressive in a state where almost everyone is a beginner when they step onto campus in ninth grade. That’s a testament to how enjoyable it is for players, as well as how good of a job the cities with college programs — namely Winston-Salem, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Davidson — have done at growing the game in their own backyard. And perhaps that’s why the sport hasn’t caught on in the state’s largest county: only one college (Meredith) fields the sport.

Sport: Girls Flag Football
NCHSAA schools that play it: About 20*
Likelihood it reaches threshold: 50/50 in the next 10 years
JMB’s take: What school doesn’t do some form of a Powder Puff game? It’s a decent money-maker for some schools! But note the asterisk* above. In theory, about 20 schools have a girls flag football team because the Carolina Panthers established a grant that let Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools field them this past year. Without the grant, the number would be zero. So where will girls flag football go from here? It’s hard to tell what the lasting power will be if the sport isn’t bankrolled by the Panthers in the coming years to help continue to get it off the ground. The good news is that, if it were to be governed by the NCHSAA, it’d be treated as its own sport and wouldn’t need to be separate division within tackle football. The bad news is schools across the state would essentially have to create an entire program out of whole cloth. But there’s definitely some potential here — fans can’t ever seem to get enough football, and schools already have a number of athletic females who’d like to play the game they like to watch in a less physical environment than the boys’ version.

Sport: Gymnastics
NCHSAA schools that play it: About 30
Likelihood it reaches threshold: Somewhere between “never” and “tomorrow”
JMB’s take: For almost two decades, a state gymnastics championship has been held as a varsity sport for many schools east of Chapel Hill. That, like field hockey, has been a testament to the sustained interest of the sport. Yes, finding coaches in your faculty will be next-to-impossible but — and here’s a hill I will die on — gymnastics is the most turnkey-ready sport in the state. Think about how many girls quit doing gymnastics at age 10-12 because they’ve practically “grown” out of a sport where the only tangible future is if they’re heading for the Olympics or a college scholarship. Now think about if even half of those girls kept it up because they saw a different option in their future: competing for their high school team. You’d have teams in every corner of the state! Even in our state’s most rural areas, there’s a gym somewhere where girls are learning the sport at 6, 8, and 10 years old, which is probably why some of the dominant programs in the early gymnastics championships were Lee County and Harnett Central and not not metropolitans ones (though Green Hope did have a run of its own later). Of all the sports on here, there aren’t many that I could confidently say 200 schools have at least one athlete who has played the sport before. For some reason, however, the “state” championship for gymnastics has rarely featured schools from beyond Durham. I don’t know why that is, but if it were to shift, you could see the kind of boom needed to make gymnastics the first one of these 12 sports to be governed by the NCHSAA.

Sport: Lacrosse Sixes (6-man, technically 7-man if you include the goalie)
NCHSAA schools that play it: 0
Likelihood it reaches threshold: Give it some time! It just started!
JMB’s take: This is essentially what 8-man football is to 11-man football, a 6-on-6 version of lacrosse with a faster pace, higher scoring, and smaller field. It’s new even to the world of lacrosse, which means it’ll take awhile before it trickles down to the high school level. I’d argue that lacrosse’s major hurdles a decade ago in North Carolina were its lack of visibility and the money needed to buy equipment. Now, I’d argue that it’s finding enough numbers to field a team in non-metro areas. Could this form of the sport grow the game at more schools? It makes sense: a school may have 3-5 players who have played at the youth level, and 5-8 more newcomers who are willing to try, but that’s not enough for the traditional version of the sport. Starting a program with too few players sets up programs to fail. Unlike field hockey, lacrosse has seen a number of schools who have started the sport, then had to quit it, then never return. But 6-man lacrosse? That’s doable all of a sudden for a lot more schools in a lot more areas. If participation at a particular school continued to rise, there’s no doubt they’d switch to the standard version for much the same reason that every 8-man football team with a decent-sized roster has quickly tried to move to 11-man — it feels more legitimate.

Sport: Slow-pitch softball
NCHSAA schools that play it: 0
Likelihood it reaches threshold: Probably never
JMB’s take: You’re probably wondering why I even included yet another sport that nobody plays! Well, there’s at least a little NCHSAA history here. The NCHSAA offered slow-pitch from 1975-1998, including four seasons where fast-pitch was also offered (fast-pitch started in the 1994-95 season). In some states, it’s normal for a spring fast-pitch team to have about half of its team, including anybody new to the sport, to play for the slow-pitch team in the fall. I can’t envision there being much demand for it at NCHSAA schools, save for those who always struggle in fast-pitch because they’re in an area where almost everyone on the team is a beginner. But even still, most players still want to prove themselves against top pitching, and enjoy the challenge fast-pitch brings. Slow-pitch is fun to play with friends, but ultimately the demand is too low to see it making a comeback in this state.

Cheerleading: STUNT Competition 2017

Sport: Stunt
NCHSAA schools that play it: About 20
Likelihood it reaches threshold: Unlikely if a second county doesn’t take the plunge
JMB’s take: Look, I think cheerleading is a sport. There’s a NCHSAA cheerleading invitational where the winning teams get to call themselves state champs. But it’s not technically a “governed sport,” and some coaches don’t mind that because it means they don’t have to have the abide by allt hose strict rules that other sports do — after all, who wants extra paperwork and restraints on workouts if you really don’t need them? For those who want to see cheerleaders get their athletic accolades, somebody figured out a way to incorporate cheerleading competitions into a more “sporty” competition. Right now, it’s pretty much only Wake County that has picked up the sport, although Corinth Holders in Johnston County has also competed. It wouldn’t be hard at all for schools to find athletes — every school has cheerleaders! — but finding time to add another spring sport, and the only one that takes up the gymnasium, would be perhaps harder.

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Travis Burnett

Travis Burnett

A pioneer in the flag football community, Travis helped co-found the Flag Football World Championship Tour, FlagSpin and USA Flag. Featuring 15+ years of content creation for the sport of flag football, creating and managing the largest flag football tournaments on the planet, coaching experience at the youth and adult level as well as an active player with National and World Championship level experience.

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