Sports, recreation and fitness participation is trending upward in the wake of the pandemic. That’s the big takeaway from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s (SFIA) 2022 Topline Participation Report. The document tracks participation rates of Americans aged 6 and older across 120 different sports, fitness and outdoor activities, and it includes a section dedicated to the impact of COVID-19 on participation rates.
“2021 showed pandemic-friendly activities like tennis, golf, running, hiking, yoga, skateboarding and surfing continue to be popular, while other categories that declined in 2020 are starting to recover,” Tom Cove, SFIA’s president and chief executive officer, said in a statement.
Indeed, compared to 2016, activity has increased 7.8%, which means that 16.8 million more people participated in sports and fitness over a five-year span. Lower inactivity levels in 2021 were primarily driven by the 18-24 and 25-34 age groups, with youth inactivity (age groups 6-12 and 13-17) also decreasing for the fifth year in a row.
While these activity numbers are encouraging, there is still a lot of work to do as over 72 million people are still inactive, SFIA officials noted.
Across the seven sports categories tracked by SFIA, water sports saw the largest year-over-year increase in participation at 2.3%, followed closely behind by outdoor sports with a 2.2% increase. Team sports saw a year-over-year increase of 1.8%, but participation remains lower than pre-pandemic levels with approximately two million fewer people participating in team sports in 2021 than 2019.
Meanwhile, pickleball has been fastest-growing sport over the past two years, with 39.3% participation growth. Yoga has grown 12.8% in that same timeframe, making it another fast-growing activity during the pandemic.
SFIA leaders noted “substantial participation impact through major events,” citing the 2020 Summer Olympics that took place in 2021. Participation in gymnastics, fast-pitch softball, team swimming, and court volleyball all increased by more than 8% — which is almost double the amount of growth the next highest team sport saw.
SFIA’s Topline Participation Report was released less than two months after the association’s 2021 U.S. Trends in Team Sports Report, which examined participation and market trends in team sports and featured in-depth data analysis of age group participation and specific takeaways.
That report showed that the total number of Americans participating in a team sport dropped by 3.8 million players. In contrast to previous years, team sports participation in 2020 skewed heavily toward casual or recreational participation, which saw an increase versus core participation. More than 80% of touch football, grass volleyball, basketball, ultimate, and beach/sand volleyball players participated in casual games.
Basketball — which lends itself to solo practice, small-sided games and social formats, as well as competitive play — was the most played team sport in America in 2020, and its 11.4% growth was by far the largest of any team sport. Amid the pandemic, four other team sports grew in 2020, including indoor soccer, outdoor soccer, ultimate frisbee and flag football.
“As much as any sports and fitness category, team sports participation was negatively affected by the unique environment forced upon our country by the pandemic,” Cove said in a statement. ”As was to be expected, team sports that were able to be played outdoors and in a less organized fashion did better in 2020. At the same time, there is encouraging news that the average number of team sports played increased, suggesting more experimentation and perhaps, more overall growth over a long period of time.”
Another positive trend SFIA found was an increase in coaches’ training; trained coaches help provide better experiences for players, which can lead to a higher retention rate.
The data contained in SFIA’s two latest participation reports suggests that sports and recreation activities are bouncing back from the pandemic — which offers plenty of reasons for optimism.
“As we continue to face challenges with an ongoing, unpredictable pandemic, we are encouraged to see folks returning to health clubs and heading back out to the courts and fields, and continuing the active lifestyles they adopted during the pandemic,” Cove said.
The 2022 Topline Participation Report is free to SFIA members and available to the public for $349, while the 2021 U.S. Trends in Team Sports Report is free to SFIA member and available to the public for $649.