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Volume 22 No. 23
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Team sports show growth trend in 2018

Tackle football continues to slide; baseball, basketball numbers up in annual study

Around 80 million Americans are inert, not participating in any of the 120-plus physical activities listed in the latest participation study from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, long considered the industry standard. The good news: That number has remained flat for several years.

“The bad news is that the inactive number is still alarmingly large at 27 to 28 percent,” said SFIA President Tom Cove, “but over the past three, four years, those inactive numbers are declining among youth.”

Basketball participation remained on an upward swing in 2018, growing 3.5 percent to 24.2 million players.
Photo: getty images

The newest SFIA participation report also shows some growth in traditional team sports. Of the big four team sports, baseball showed a participation increase of 1.5 percent to 15.9 million, while basketball participation was up 3.5 percent to 24.2 million. Cove attributed those increases, in part, to the impact of grassroots programs such as MLB’s Play Ball and the NBA’s Jr. NBA.

Tackle football continued to decline in participation. According to the study, 5.1 million Americans played tackle football at least once in 2018, a decrease of 1.3 percent. “Core” participants, defined as those playing more than 26 times over the year, declined 5.8 percent. The five-year average sees tackle football participation dropping 3.4 percent. 

The biggest change over the past five years has been an increase in casual participants vs. core participants, or those who stick to one sport. Especially among millennials, more people are doing more kinds of sports and fitness activities, Cove said.

Sports countercyclical to that trend include ice hockey, lacrosse, gymnastics and rugby, presumably because they all require high levels of basic skills and commitment. For example, rugby saw a 7.3 percent increase in those playing eight or more times (562,000) but a 9.1 percent decrease of those playing one to seven times (998,000). The five-year growth trend among all groups in rugby is strong at 5.9 percent, aided by more TV coverage and its acceptance as an Olympic sport.

Pickleball added another 200,000 casual participants, or those playing one or more times, and is now at 3.3 million. Cove insisted that it isn’t only former tennis players participating but acknowledged that the 1970s and ’80s tennis boom is certainly helping that new sport. Tennis itself, at 17.8 million participants, posted a gain of 0.9 percent.

Fast-growing sports of past years now showing precipitous declines include paintball, down 9.1 percent at 3.1 million participants, and Ultimate Frisbee, off 13.3 percent at 2.7 million players.

Cove said the biggest SFIA concerns were “specialization,” with more youths playing the same sport year round, and at dramatically earlier ages; and the increasing correlation of family income to fitness activity participation.

Surely some esports devotees are among those inactive Americans. Across the industry, many are trying to determine esports’ impact. For the SFIA, including esports in its study is particularly vexing since its mission is to promote sports and fitness. “No conclusions yet, but we’re trying hard to figure that out,” Cove said, adding that he will broach the subject at the next board meeting.