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Want to Know Which Sports Will Grow? This Report has Answers

20 Mar, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

One of the multitudinous inspirational posters available states, “You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.”

For sports planners looking to capitalize on what might be growing, it’s imperative to look at what has shown growth recently. A new report may help provide the road map to that more productive future – if its initial revelations are any indication.

The Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) recently released its annyual participation topline summary, detailing data on growth (and decline) of a huge variety of sports, fitness and leisure activities. Here are a few of the more salient points:

In the team sports category, basketball and baseball, the two sports with the largest total participation base, are showing the strongest gains. Also, niche sports, such as lacrosse, ice hockey, beach volleyball and gymnastics, experienced increases at the core level (which is the best reflection of athletes committed to the sport) but decreases in casual/overall participation.

Increasingly, Americans are headed outside for their workout. Among the sports showing at least a seven percent gain are trail running, cross-country skiing, stand-up paddling and hiking. SFIA believes this reflects America’s interest in an “active lifestyle” and sharing time with family, as well as engaging in activities that encouraged unplugging and getting away from the Internet -- a phenomenon known as the 'digital detox.'

When it came to what Americans were interested in doing, many reported interests in outdoor activities such as camping, biking, and fishing. For the first time, stand-up paddling drew interest; ranking the top activity for 25 to 44 age groups. (This interest is being reflected elsewhere in the industry, with ski resorts making significant investments in infrastructure to support off-season outdoor activities.)

Among other activities, such as racquet and paddle sports, the biggest gains were reported in pickleball (a 5.5 percent gain over 2017) and Cardio Tennis (a 12.4 gain over 2017). Tennis made a very slight gain (less than one percent) over last year but has yet to get back to the high it recorded in 2016. Interestingly, squash (an indoor pursuit) grew its core participation by 9.4 percent, possibly as a result of the participation initiatives it launched during its unsuccessful campaign for a place in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. (It lost out to breakdancing which, ironically, does not appear at all on the SFIA report).

Indoor fitness venues (including sports clubs, college health and workout facilities, fieldhouses and more) have been staying busy; nearly every equipment-based category experienced growth, including treadmill, elliptical, stationary cycling, rowing machine, kettlebells and many others. (It is possible this relates to the growth of CrossFit and other functional fitness programs).

There was some good news on the on the success of various efforts to get the youth inactivity rates down. Those rates, for ages 6-12 and 13-17, continued to decline moderately for the fourth consecutive year. Unfortunately, overall inactivity rates were unchanged, at a stagnant 27.3 percent, and lower household incomes continue to be associated with lower physical activity rates.

And the less parents make, the more likely it is their children will not take part in physical activity of any kind; nearly half of American households making under $25,000 per year reported being totally inactive last year. (This unfortunate statistic bears out what SDM theorized in its article that analyzed data from its 2018 awards program, which was that the increasing cost of organized sports, coupled with a declining number of programs being offered at the parks and recreation level, was leaving more and more children out in the cold when it came to sports.

“We remain very concerned with the strong link between income disparity and physical activity rates,” said Tom Cove, President & CEO of SFIA. “Our society cannot allow sports and physical activity to be available only to those with the most means to pay for it.”

There’s plenty more statistical information about sport growth, as well as reflections from SFIA’s leadership, in the report, which tracks 120 activities at both core and casual levels, reveals all seven major categories (Fitness Sports, Individual Sports, Outdoor Sports, Racquet Sports, Team Sports, Water Sports and Winter Sports).

The 2019 Topline Participation Report is free to SFIA members and available to the public for purchase here

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