Americans More Active Despite Team Sports’ Decline: Data Viz

There’s a seemingly unbridgeable cultural gap between the Gen Zers glued to their phones and the Boomers who deplore them, but the two groups agree on one thing: an increased commitment to physical activity.

According to the annual Topline Participation Report from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), Americans are more active now than before the pandemic. The percentage of Americans who reported doing no physical activities at all decreased over five years, from 27.3% in 2017 to 22.4% in ‘22. The three age brackets with the largest decreases are 6-12, 13-17 and 65+.

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More significant for sports equipment and apparel industry is SFIA’s measure of “core” participants, meaning those who take part frequently enough to reflect a passion for the sport or activity. These customers are more likely to consider brand and quality differentiations when making purchases. Core rates increased for the fifth straight year, with 51.7% of the country now participating in at least one particular physical activity frequently.

Racquet sports are hot, with participation rising at least 20% among every generation since 2019. Pickleball’s 158.6% increase is so large that including the sport in the scatter plot visualization below renders the rest of the chart unreadable.

You’ve no doubt read before that pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America. While that is the case, the sport is still in its adolescent stage—tennis’s base is nearly three times as large. In fact, tennis added approximately 6 million new participants since 2019, slightly more than the 5.5 million gained by its up-and-coming rival racquet sport.

Enthusiasm has also increased for outdoor fitness activities such as bicycling (+10.6% over the past three years), walking (+3.0%) and hiking (+19.9%) as well as conditioning exercises that can be done at home, such as yoga (+10.4%) and pilates (+11.6%). The data, however, paint a more complex picture regarding traditional team sports, which have only partially recovered from the large drop sustained in 2020.

SFIA CEO Tom Cove writes in the report that “team sports’ recovery has been driven by casual participants.” Indeed, while total participation bounced back to 23.2% in 2022—nearly equal the 2019 level of 23.4%—core participation decreased for every team sport that SFIA tracks other than outdoor soccer. School teams and rec leagues shut down during 2020, and many players failed to return.

Flag football and tackle football, in particular, are worth keeping an eye on. Casual participation is up for both since 2019, but a staggering number of players are flocking from tackle football—core participation is down nearly 25% over the past five years and more than 45% over the past 15 years.

The NFL has actively promoted flag football in recent years, including introducing it to the Pro Bowl and eyeing a potential 2028 Summer Olympics bid, but this investment has not yet translated to a rise in avid players. Core flag participation is down 15% over the past half decade, and has not increased at all among youth aged 6-17.

In addition to outdoor soccer, with its outlier increase in core participation, the only other sport to emerge from the pandemic unscathed is basketball, which experienced a +34.4% explosion in casual players since 2019.

Even basketball and soccer can’t compete with the socially distanced sports that used health and safety concerns as a slingshot for popularity growth. Although folks 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. That momentum was maintained through 2022, as participation increased more than 25% year-over-year.

Moving in the opposite direction of socially distanced sports are workout activities that necessitate in-person classes or elaborate equipment. Stationary cycling, cross-training workouts and cardio kickboxing participation have each dropped more than 20% since 2019.

It is difficult to change people’s habits once they are set–or in this case re-set by the pandemic.  Just look at the resistance of many white collar workers to a return to the office. In aggregate, sports participation data points from the first “normal” year after the pandemic reach the same conclusion.

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