Image courtesy of Publix Sports Park – Michael Booini
When the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) released its most recent U.S. Trends in Team Sports Report, people put down their Starbucks and paid attention. After all, this was the first view of post-pandemic sports participation. Was it up? Down? Running in place?
All of the above. While the results do not show a complete return to pre-COVID participation numbers, there were some gains, and an overall positive trend in participation. The number of participants in team sports grew over the course of 2021 to 68.3 million, up from the 2020 statistic of 67 million.
There’s still ground to be regained – since the high-water mark in 2019 was 70.8 million – but if growth continues there could be a complete return. It wouldn’t surprise Tom Cove, SFIA’s President and CEO.
“Something we have seen writ large, is that the sports experience is a fundamental part of our national culture, family cadence, and individual passion. That is the thing that reassures me – we still have that positive attraction, and it translates into participation.”
The report turned up some interesting individual insights, but as Cove explains, when taken together, they paint a rich picture of the dynamic of sports in this country. Check out these insights, along with specific actions that you can take in your community
The number of team sports participants in the 6- to 12-year-old category grew from 17 million to 17.6 million, marking the largest year-over-year increase in five years. But, says Cove, “The challenge is keeping them engaged.”
Does your community have the facilities and programs needed to meet the rising demand and the changing consumer preferences? It might be time for an individual facility evaluation or a community wide recreation master plan.
Teens seemed to have reevaluated their sports commitments during the pandemic and many did not return. This correlates with research by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), which reported their first participation decline in years
According to a Fight Crime: Invest In Kids report, 2-6 p.m. are the hours in which youth are most at risk for committing juvenile crime. Studies show quality after school programs produce the best results for long-term crime prevention, increasing school attendance, improving test scores, and reducing drop-out rates. Partner with your parks department and private businesses to review your after school programs and employment opportunities for teens to prevent risky after school behavior for kids no longer engaged in sports.
The most-played sport is basketball, and Cove sees several factors at work here, the first being the flexibility of play formats. Basketball is really the only team sport that is consistently and regularly played on an informal basis, meaning you’ll see kids playing without any adults around, playing with older kids, in groups of boys and girls, playing two on two, three on three – or just shooting baskets by themselves. There is nothing odd about that, so kids aren’t self-conscious doing it.” The other element in play, he notes, is the availability of facilities and the fact that the only equipment needed is a ball. “There are free and easily accessible courts everywhere, plus people can have portable hoops on their driveway so that family members can play.”
Consider the opportunity of sports tourism. By building amenities with 6-8 basketball courts, your community can more easily access indoor court time and can host regional or national tournaments that can produce $500,000 – $2 million in economic impact per court.
Image courtesy of Hoover Met Complex
“In the rest of the world,” says Cove, “soccer is like basketball; kids will just get together and play, and that kind of organic activity is fundamentally important to a sport’s growth. In this country, though, soccer is played with a coach or in a league.” For six-year-olds, soccer is the sport of choice, and the upcoming World Cups and Summer Olympics are expected to provide further runways to growth.
Partner with your parks and recreation director, facility management partner, or local club operators to ensure there are enough soccer programming opportunities for pre-k and kindergarten-aged children. Consider a market study to determine new build or expansion opportunities.
The report sees sport specialization as risky, since it often leads to burnout and to an exit from activity altogether. “Single sport specialization at an early age is working against a healthy overall youth system,” says Cove. “On one hand, the mildly gifted athlete who specializes will improve. However, for someone to tell the parents, ‘Oh, your kid has this great opportunity, and it could lead to a scholarship,’ well, that’s not really healthy advice. A kid who is great at something at age nine or ten could be in a completely different place six or seven years later.”
Parks and recreation programs can offer great camps, clinics, and pick- up leagues for children of all ages to sample different sports. Multi-sport summer camps are a high-demand, parent-favorite in many communities and provide sport-sampling opportunities.
The report found a continued rise in female participation overall. Across the five-year average annual growth, the activities among 6- to 12-year-old girls with the largest growth percentage were tackle football, flag football, and touch football. Tackle football also gained yardage among 13- to 17-year old girls. Flag is an emerging sport for women at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) levels as well, providing opportunities for the future.
“I strongly believe that 10 years from now, girls’ flag football will be an extremely well-developed part of the American sports experience,” says Cove, pointing to the continued popularity of the NFL and the presence of flag football at the 2022 World Games.
Encourage your parks department or sports complex operating partner to consider piloting a girl’s flag football league and embrace the trend in your community.
Here’s a surprise: Participation among 18- to 24-year-olds is inching up. In some cases, this shift is propelled by college students participating in either club, intramural, or varsity sports; however, even after finishing high school or college, adults are finding their way into social leagues and organizations for kickball, softball, soccer, and more. Cove sees it as a natural progression.
“People grow up in sports and after graduation, they miss the social interaction. We believe this is huge, and it all goes back to the point of how important sports are in our lives.”
Get out there and get involved! From cutting the ribbon on opening day to throwing the first pitch, your local leadership voice paves the way for athletes of all ages.