Northfield junior guard Luke Labenski drives toward the basket against Rochester Century during a boys basketball game in January of 2020. In terms of percentage of overall growth, the cities of Rochester and Northfield have increased in size the most of all the nine communities in the Big Nine Conference since 1950. (Michael Hughes/Northfield News)

I’ve had a weird fascination with demographics for pretty much my entire life. Random? Sure, but for some reason the statistical data and trends relating to what types of people inhabit certain communities has always intrigued me.

Growing up, I started memorizing populations of towns and cities in Minnesota and gradually expanded this somewhat trivial knowledge to just about every major city in the United States. Ask me the size of Sacramento, California and I’ll tell you off the top of my head it’s about 502,000 people. Google says 508,529, so you get the point.

I suppose it probably should go without being said — or, typed, in this case — but another major passion of mine is sports, and when this world collides with demographics in even the smallest way, I become hooked. This can include things like enrollment trends in Minnesota public schools and how the continued expansion of communities on the periphery of the Minneapolis and St. Paul suburban area impacts the Minnesota State High School League classification process.

Triggered by research I was conducting for the first couple installments of a multi-piece series highlighting Owatonna’s “Teams of Distinction,” I recently dove into demographic information about communities that have high schools within the Big Nine Conference.

During this process, I inadvertently fell down a rabbit hole (do we ever “advertently” do this?) and eventually emerged having mined an entire spreadsheet’s worth of data, numbers, trends and information.

I find this stuff really, really interesting — and when properly contextualized — can be helpful in understanding the overall culture of these communities.

Here are the highlights of what I discovered:

Considering I called this place home for the first 22 years of my life, I’ve always been aware that Winona — nestled along the banks of the Mississippi River to the north and east and encased by rolling bluffs on the south and west — has basically sustained the same population for decades. There’s literally no place to build new homes based on its land-locked geography. At one point, it was one of the three largest cities in the entire state and has grown by just 5% in the last seven decades (25,031 to 26,594).

However, what I didn’t know until recently was that Austin has followed a strikingly similar trajectory over the last 80 years. The city has grown by just 8.4%, or 2,133 people, since 1950 and was the third largest city within the Big Nine at that point. Austin’s near 10% increase in population in the last 70 years might sound like a decent amount, but just wait until you see the rest if the numbers.

Predictably, Rochester paces the entire group in terms of overall growth — swelling from roughly 30,000 in 1950 to 118,000 in 2020 — but not by as wide a margin as I would have originally guessed. In fact, there are two Big Nine cities on the list have "major" growth in the last 70 years.

Northfield is second, increasing from 7,487 in 1950 to its current population of 20,742. Interestingly, Owatonna lands at No. 3 after more than doubling its population since 1950 from 10,191 to 25,704.

The fourth and final municipality to at least double in size in the last 70 years is Mankato, which isn’t much of a shock considering it houses the state’s third-largest public university, Minnesota State University. Though MSU’s student body doesn’t count toward Mankato’s census, it profoundly affects the city’s population, especially when you consider the undergraduate enrollment has ballooned from 1,600 in 1950 to 15,000 in 2019.

Aside from Rochester at the top, each of the eight remaining cities within the Big Nine have shuffled in terms of where they stand when ranking the cities by population. Owatonna experienced the most drastic shift, elevating four spots from eighth in 1950, to fourth in 2019. Mankato and Northfield each jumped two slots and the remaining cities (outside of Rochester) fell one or two positions apiece.

Often running parallel to population trends are public high school enrollments, and these, too, have radically shifted in the last 70 years. Though actual student body data from 1950 isn’t readily available online, there are a few concrete facts that reflect the overall diversification of these communities.

For instance, Rochester and Mankato were home to just one public high school apiece in 1950 and none had surpassed 1,000 students at that point.

Today, nine of the 12 high schools in the league have an “actual” enrollment of more than 1,000, but only seven surpass that number according to the MSHSL, which takes into account a portion (40%) of the student-body that receives free/reduced lunch to calculate enrollment for athletic classification. For example, if a high school has an “actual” enrollment of 1,000 and 30% — or 300 — of its students qualify for free/reduced lunch, you’d take 40% of 300 (120) and subtract this from 1,000. What comes out is 880, and is the number used by the MSHSL to decide which level (Class A, AA, AA, etc.) this school will compete in the postseason.

According to 2019 data from, Rochester Mayo boasts the largest enrollment in the Big Nine at 1,739 while John Marshall is a close second at 1,730. Owatonna is next at 1,508 and is followed by Century at 1,501. Even when taking into account the reduction due to the MSHSL enrollment formula, those four were the only schools that competed at the largest state classification for every sport besides football until this year when Northfield was elevated to Class AAAA in basketball.

Student body numbers, or more specifically higher enrollments, have proven to have a discernible impact when it comes to success in certain sports. This is a major reason why the MSHSL added a seventh Class in football prior to the 2012 season because no sport reflects a greater correlation between raw participation and on-field success. This isn’t always the case, but, in general, the more athletes you have to choose from in football, the better your odds.

This numbers game was reflected in great detail when breaking down the overall success of Big Nine Conference teams during the 2019-2020 academic year. Five of the seven total schools in the league with at least 1,000 students accounted for the top five programs in terms of overall athletic success.

Using an admittedly unscientific, yet fair, method of rankings teams, Owatonna edged-out Northfield and Mankato West for the top spot with Rochester Mayo and Rochester Century rounding out the top five. Those schools have an average enrollment of 1,315 and no fewer than 1,101 students.

Zooming out to the state level, and the lists of recent MSHSL champions is saturated with schools in the upper-tier of respective enrollment classifications. In football, Minnesota’s largest high school, Wayzata (3,276 students) won the 2019 Class 6A football championship while other sports that require huge numbers such as track and field (Hopkins, boys; Rosemount, girls), soccer (Edina, boys; Maple Grove, girls) were won by schools with an average enrollment of 2,248.

Reach sports editor Jon Weisbrod at 444-2375, or follow him on @OPPJonW. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

Load comments