SBJ/20090817/SBJ In-Depth

Basketball still tops in youth participation

Basketball is still the most popular team sport among children and lacrosse the fastest growing, according to the latest study conducted by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

The report, compiled from 41,000 surveys taken in January 2009, states that 26.2 million children ages 6 and older played basketball in 2008. Finishing a distant second and third were baseball with 15 million and outdoor soccer with 14.2 million.

Basketball benefits from the
low cost of equipment needed
to play the sport.

Basketball, which has topped the survey since SGMA started compiling the data in the late 1980s, benefits more than any other sport from the number of informal pickup games and the relatively low cost of equipment.

Lacrosse has grown steadily since the turn of the millennium, more than doubling from 518,000 participants in 2000 to 1.1 million in 2008. The only other sports measured by SGMA that posted substantial increases over the same span were paintball and cheerleading.

Fred Engh, founder of the National Alliance for Youth Sports and author of the book “Why Johnny Hates Sports,” attributes the spike in lacrosse participation to the influx of girls playing the sport.

“Like a lot of things, all of a sudden it catches on and it’s the ‘in’ thing to do, particularly with girls,” Engh said. “They now have a sport that they latch on to.”

Lacrosse is still primarily a regional sport, with most teams in the Northeast and Southeast, but it is slowly spreading to other parts of the country, Engh said. The 1.1 million who play the sport is equal to field hockey and about a third as many cheerleaders and wrestlers.

Ultimate Frisbee showed the second-largest year-over-year gain, a 21 percent increase from 4 million to 4.9 million participants. It was followed in percentage growth by indoor court volleyball (17 percent, from 7.0 million to 8.2 million). Rugby and indoor soccer each increased 12 percent from 2007.

SGMA did not chart sports such as indoor and outdoor soccer, rugby and ultimate Frisbee in 2000, so eight-year trends were unavailable.

Lacrosse participation has more than doubled
since 2000.

The team sports that fell the furthest in participation numbers over the eight-year stretch were roller hockey (down 60 percent), slow-pitch softball (down 28 percent) and ice hockey, beach volleyball and gymnastics (each down approximately 20 percent).

In its analysis, SGMA states that growth in team sports over the last five years has primarily come from increased female participation. However, SGMA found women are still 40 percent less likely to play team sports than the general population.

Soccer and lacrosse are widely viewed as the sports with the most growth potential over the next five years. Engh expects outdoor soccer to overtake baseball as the second most popular sport among kids. Jeff Hennion, chief marketing officer at Dick’s Sporting Goods, expects soccer and lacrosse equipment to lead sales of equipment for youth team sports.

Troublesome to directors of youth sports organizations is the declining total numbers of active children, which has been blamed on everything from the increasing number of leisure activities such as video games, to inadequate physical fitness programs in schools. Some directors also cite the rising cost of playing youth sports as a reason for the decline.

“It’s worrisome to all of us in youth sports,” said Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner. “I think it’s an ominous sign.”

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