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What began in quarantine, when fitness clubs shut down and most organized sports went on hiatus, propelling athletes into the outdoors, is continuing. According to the Outdoor Foundation, the five most popular activities are running, hiking, biking, camping and fishing – all of which saw bursts of growth in 2020 and 2021.
According to news published by the Outdoor Industry, more than half (54%) of Americans ages 6 and over participated in at least one outdoor activity in 2021, and the outdoor recreation participant base grew 2.2% in 2021 to 164.2M participants.
Sporting Goods Business noted a few unexpected figures. Females six years and older make up 46.5 percent of all outdoor participants. The difference between the number of male and female participants has been slowly inching toward parity over the past two decades, according to the Outdoor Industry.
Another interesting demographic has been that of participation by the senior crowd – age 65 and up – which grew by 2.5 million or 16.8 percent since 2019, the largest increase by percentage and by count in the participant base. The next oldest age group, 55-to-64, increased the second most with two million new participants for an increase of 11.7 percent.
The participation rate for homes with children increased for more than five years. The pandemic accelerated the trend. More families are participating in outdoor recreation, with families, on-average, participating at a higher rate than adults with no children (46 percent to 61 percent). The study showed that family participation is “critical to future participation.” Most adults who frequently participate in outdoor recreation started participating as children.
While overall, the frequency of youth participation has declined a bit, it is likely this has more to do with children returning to in-person school and to organized sports and does not speak to any negative association with the outdoors.
Camping saw enormous gains during the pandemic, and those have continued. Campers most frequently participate in other outdoor activities, but most outdoor participants participate in various indoor and outdoor activities. Among those participating in camping, 98.3 percent participate in other outdoor activities compared with 89.1 percent for biking, 85.0 percent for hiking, 83.3 percent for running, and 78.9 percent for fishing.
But those weren’t the only outdoor activities that have made gains in popularity. The U.S. Tennis Association notes that its sport is seeing a continued surge. According to the Physical Activity Council’s (PAC) participation report produced by Sports Marketing Surveys, which monitors more than 120 different sports and activities, more than 22.6 million people took to the courts in 2021, up approximately 1 million players and 4.5 percent from 2020. In addition, data from the Tennis Industry Association shows that racquet sales have increased in numerous areas, with an uptick of 22.7 percent in total units (3.4 million units) and 46.2 percent in total dollars ($122.9 million) last year.
Disc golf also saw enormous gains – and continues to see them. According to Brian Graham, Director of Membership & Growth of the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA), there are several forces driving this.
“The pandemic was very good to disc golf and our association because it is an outdoor sport that can be played with self-distancing. In fact, the PDGA doubled in size over the pandemic going from 53,000 active members in 2019 to 109,000 active members at the end of 2021. We just passed 112,000 active members this year and the year isn’t over. PDGA members are generally the more competitive type and represent only a small percentage of the millions of people playing disc golf recreationally around the world.”
And speaking of golf, that sport made gains as well. The National Golf Foundation reports that play increased significantly in the U.S. in 2020 and 2021. The 2021 increase over 2020’s pandemic-driven total was about +5 percent. The biggest driver was the 2021 spring rebound, with almost 30 million more rounds played in March and April than the previous year, when more than half of the nation's courses were temporarily closed due to coronavirus-related restrictions. While 2021 play didn’t quite keep pace with second-half surges in 2020, rounds still finished up 19 percent versus the three-year average from 2017-19.
One of the biggest winners of all – with no slowdowns seen – has been pickleball. USA Pickleball notes that pickleball grew in 2021 to 4.8 million players in the US, according to the 2022 Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) Single Sport Report on Pickleball. SFIA is the premier trade association for top brands, manufacturers, retailers and marketers in the American sporting goods and fitness industry.
This 14.8 percent growth from 2020 to 2021 follows on the heels of 21.3 percent growth the previous year and contributes to a 11.5 percent average annual growth rate over the past 5 years. Another noteworthy trend: the average player age is inching down. The average age for all players continues to drop, to 38.1 years old in 2021, a decrease of 2.9 years from 2020. Growth of total participants from 2020 to 2021 was the fastest among players under 24 years of age (21 percent).
Those who have taken their workout (and their competitive spirit) to the outdoors are continuing to boost the numbers of event participants – even at an amateur level. SGB Media notes that “Being physically active outside is the number one reason males (74.9 percent) and females (80.2 percent) participate in outdoor activities. Interacting with nature, going to neighborhood parks and traveling through natural environments are other favorite aspects of outdoor recreation activities for participants.”