Americans More Active in 2020 as Solo Sports Gain During Pandemic: Data Viz

Lev Akabas
·4 min read

Decades from now, when we think back to what life was like in 2020, hunkering down inside will be the first thing that comes to mind for many. Americans, however, were more physically active in 2020 than in 2019, according to a new participation study, and it was a banner year for a number of socially distanced sports, such as golf and tennis.

The annual Topline Participation Report from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) reveals that inactivity rate among Americans dropped to just 24.4% in 2020, after sitting between 26.8% and 27.3% each year for the prior half-decade. Children and those in older generations were all much more active, although young adults were actually less active, as they found themselves with fewer recreation sports opportunities and less income to spend.

All income groups were more active, and yet the income disparity regarding exercise is still quite pronounced; 41.4% of those with a household income under $25,000 were inactive, as opposed to just 14.4% of those with a household income over $100,000.

In a year when “social distancing” was probably uttered more times per hour than it had been during all of previous human history, it is no surprise that people turned to individual sports for exercise. Behind skateboarding, which saw a 34.2% boom in total participants, tennis was a big winner. Adult tennis racquet shipments increased more than 43% during the warm months of 2020’s third quarter, per the TIA Quarterly USA Wholesale Equipment Census.

Understandably, team sports suffered in 2020, with volleyball, gymnastics and softball taking some of the biggest hits. Of 23 team sports measured by SFIA, just two—ultimate frisbee and basketball—had increases in “core participation” (i.e. number of Americans who played frequently). Due to gym closures and league cancellations, however, the driving force behind basketball’s rise was not core participation but casual players, which rose by a whopping 23.6%.

Basketball’s accessibility and flexible number of players made it perfect for the unique pandemic conditions. SFIA CEO Tom Cove writes in the report that “a considerable percentage of team sport participation in 2020 can be attributed to recreational or backyard play, which is counter to the trend of the past decade.”

Zooming out to multi-year trends, basketball still ranks as the second-fastest-growing team sport, topped only by flag football. The latter’s increase in popularity has gone hand-in-hand with the fall of tackle football, which has seen participation drop for five straight years.

The fastest-growing sporting activity overall in recent years has been golf, although not in the traditional sense. While people are only hitting the links slightly more often, driving ranges and similar golf entertainment venues took off during the pandemic after several years on the rise.

Non-sport physical activities show noteworthy trends as well. The percentage of the population that participates in fitness or conditioning exercises has increased from 62% to 67% over just the past five years.

Unfortunately, gym rats found out in 2020 just how important gyms and fitness clubs were to their overall health and ability to stay active. Exercises, for which in-person classes are useful or equipment is essential, such as stationary cycling, cross-training workouts and cardio kickboxing, saw the biggest drop-offs.

On the flip side, conditioning exercises that can easily be practiced at home gained popularity. Yoga, for example, experienced a bigger increase in core participation than any physical activity other than surfing.

And, speaking of surfing, all outdoor activities did well in 2020; a larger percentage of the population hiked, fished, biked and walked than they did in 2019. Notably, people across all age and income brackets said they intend to participate in hiking and fishing in the next 12 months as well.

In the cases of golf and tennis, the pandemic gave a jump start to sports whose participation had remained stagnant in recent years. For yoga and basketball, on the other hand, the need for people to stay active under unusual circumstances accelerated an already growing participation base.

Coupled with the significant decline in TV viewership, these numbers suggest that the pandemic may in fact counterintuitively be getting Americans off of their couches and back out into the world.

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