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Weakness in Participation Could Foreshadow a Stumble in Sports Travel

8 Jan, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

When the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA, the trade of industry sports and fitness brands, suppliers, retailers and partners), released its annual State of the Industry Report, it was easy to get distracted by the sheer number of statistics, each tracking the growth (or lack thereof) of different sports.

Look more closely, however, and you come across some key points that owners and rights holders of sports competitions should know, all of them providing a vision for what 2020 should be like – and the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that stand to affect the industry at every level. Many points are the stuff that long-range plans are made of since they include formidable obstacles to growth.

Bad news in the type of sports activity going on: The quality of participation in sports is decreasing. SFIA notes, “A decade ago, the majority of Americans playing sports were Core participants — avid participants whose elevated involvement with the game contributes significantly to purchases of equipment, footwear, and apparel. But a rising tide of Casual participants has shifted the balance.”

The translation: More people are identifying as Casual participants in the sports. The problem for the sports travel industry: Core vs. Casual also is an index of whether athletes are willing to travel and compete in their sport. Two people may identify as runners, but the Core runner may register in races and travel to attend them, while a Casual runner may rarely, if ever, race. If sports are evolving into a group of athletes who rarely complete, the industry could see an across-the-board decrease in the number of registrations for events.

A few other factors are expected to compound this problem:

Inactivity is a continuing cause for concern: In 2018, over 82 million Americans were inactive—measured by individuals who self-reported doing no physical activity in a 12-month period. This is up roughly 700,000 over the previous year. The country’s rate of inactivity has risen over the past five years, too. (There is a faint spark of optimism, though, in that youth inactivity rates are decreasing).

It can negatively impact the sports event economy: The potential for these trends to send the event industry into a tailspin is very real. When asked what most concerns them heading into 2019, industry members overwhelming placed inactivity and a decline in sports participation at the top of their list.

Lower-income families are opting out of sports: The SFIA report notes, “Faced with the rising costs of equipment, league fees, and insurance, low-income Americans are increasingly opting out of sports participation. A household earning under $25,000 is almost 30 percent less likely than a household earning between $75,000 and $99,999 to participate in fitness sports and half as likely to participate in team sports.”

And we’re not just talking about travel sports: Team sports like football and basketball, where equipment fees are typically absorbed by leagues and schools, have historically offered equal opportunity to low-income participants. However, as insurance rates have risen, fees have gone up, rendering them unaffordable to families on a limited income.

That’s not to say the industry hasn’t seen growth. Some sports are trending up, and if event owners pay attention to those, they can see where the money supply is headed. SFIA’s research noted growth on several fronts:

The fastest-growing sports and activities can tell us a lot: The top-25 fastest-growing sports have one thing in common: they all have strong programs to bring in new athletes. They’re not expending their efforts trying to fight with other sports for ascendancy, nor are they blaming others for any past declines. And they’re not only marketing their events like crazy, they’re making them accessible and inviting to new participants. Here are the take-aways:

  • In order of growth, Cardio Tennis, pickleball, day hiking, BMX, cross country skiing and trail running were at the top of the 25-activity list. The interesting thing here is that many of these sports are drawing in adults, rather than youth – or at least, in addition to youth. Pickleball has established itself as an up-and-coming income generator for cities interested in hosting events for the 50-plus crowd. And Guillermo Rojas of USA Cycling noted in a recent SDM article that BMX is attracting cyclists in their 40s and 50s.
  • Rowing machine: Tournaments, meets and other competitions are gaining in popularity (the C.R.A.S.H.-B Sprints, for example, attract more athletes each year) and fold into the functional fitness trend
  • Rugby: Growing at multiple levels and currently an Emerging Sport for Women under the NCAA framework, the sport is popular on the club and rec scene as well as in small colleges, which have their own conference
  • Kayaking (recreational): The rise of kayak bass fishing is one factor that is driving growth. The fact that kayaks have a lower purchase price in general (inflatable models are even available) and are easy to transport and store are also in their favor; the potential to get more anglers outdoors on the water and to get them active (kayaks require paddling or pedaling) is even more beneficial
  • Fly-fishing: Quiet, meditative and solitary, this activity has grown particularly among women
  • Yoga: Experiencing growth like never before, the activity is exploding in popularity across a variety of demographics and is making headway into the competitive world. USA Yoga, for example, has regional events and a national championship series.
  • Stationary cycling: Spin classes are popular at gyms; in a separate statistic, road cycling was one of the top 25 most-participated-in sports and activities in 2018 – so there may be crossover
  • Stand-up paddling: One of the fastest-growing trends on water, SUP is a competitive boon. As with kayaking, the skills are easy to learn, and the equipment is easy to transport and store

The SFIA report, which incudes more detailed statistics, comparisons to previous years and an extensive amount of data on individual and team sports, as well as insights from industry leaders, is available free to SFIA members. Others can purchase it at this link.

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