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Female Participation Is Key To Team Sports Future

Date: 9/27/12

Positive ‘Churn Rate’ Boosts Participation in HS Football & Baseball

SILVER SPRING, MD – September 27, 2012 – Overall participation in team sports in the U.S. is down, but there are positive forces at work which could ‘turn the tide.’  That was the major theme of a webinar hosted by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) this afternoon, which focused on the major findings of SFIA’s latest participation report - U. S. Trends in Team Sports (2012 edition).

Nate Heckman (Principal; Stitch Marketing + Research), who helped compile the study for SFIA, gave a “30,000-foot view” of the team sports market in the U.S.  Overall, total participation in team sports since 2010 is down 4.4%.  Since 2008, there are 3.6 million fewer participants in team sports which he acknowledged is a “big concern.”  He also revealed that 15 team sports had four-year lows in participation, but three sports (gymnastics, lacrosse, and ultimate Frisbee) had four-year highs in participation.


Heckman said participation in team sports among young females (age 6-17) is on the upswing, participation in team sports among older females (age 18+) is moving in a positive direction, and participation in team sports by young males (age 6-17) is steady.  The biggest negative in team sports participation is in the adult male (age 18+) category.  For years, this age group has helped drive team sports participation, but the number of older males playing team sports is dropping.  Why?  Heckman believes time restrictions may be playing a role.  He also feels the bigger issue is an increase in participation in ‘fantasy sports,’ where men are electronically engaged in more sports, but playing fewer of them. 

Heckman made a reference to casual and ‘core’ participants.  He noted that increases in casual participation “help build the base” and that increases in ‘core’ participation “help to move the marketplace.”  He said that basketball (67%) and baseball (69%) have the two highest percentages of ‘core’ participants in relation to the total number of participants.

Some of Heckman’s other findings include:

  1. Children who participate in outdoor activities are significantly more likely to end up playing team sports in life;
  2. Today’s team sports participants are most likely to increase spending on ‘Travel to Take Part in Sports/Recreation’ and for “Team Sports Outside of School.’
  3. While team sports participation is on the decline, manufacturers sales of team equipment is up 1.2% since 2010.
  4. Outdoor soccer is the “most steady of all team sports” from the point of view of overall growth, popularity, and participation.

Heckman closed by saying that “fewer participants could be offset by avidity and deeper purchasing amongst those who do participate.”


Neil Schwartz (Director of Research and Business Development; SFIA Research) opened by saying that team sports represent the “activity gateway” for people who want to be active in life.

According to Schwartz, the majority of children aged 6-11 who play team sports are playing in some type of sanctioned league.  For children aged 12-14, many children start playing more on school-based teams.  The big exception is baseball where local leagues provide the setting for most baseball players.  For athletes age 15-18, most of them play on some type of high school team.

Schwartz then talked about ‘The Leaky Bucket’ effect in tracking sports participation.  He specifically referenced the all-important Churn Rate, which compares the number of people who start playing a sport with the number of people who leave a sport.  While overall participation in tackle football and baseball is down in since 2010 (which means a negative Churn Rate), overall participation in high school tackle football and baseball is up during that same time period. 

While focusing on children’s (age 6-17) participation in sports, he shared the peak ages for participation in eight different team sports:  gymnastics (age 6), soccer (age 6), baseball (age 8), swimming for competition (age 9), basketball (age 12), court volleyball (age 14), tackle football (age 15), and track & field (age 16).

In one of his final thoughts, Schwartz said that one of the big factors affecting sports participation for teenagers is their amount of personal ‘screen time,’ i.e. the amount of time they spend on computers, on their ‘smart phones’, and watching television.  He indicated that the time teenagers dedicate to sedentary activities definitely impacts their time playing sports and being active.  


Two of the special guest presenters in the webinar were Kathy DeBoer (Executive Director; American Volleyball Coaches Association) and Ann Carpenetti (Managing Director of Game Administration; U.S. Lacrosse).

DeBoer said that volleyball and basketball have been two of the big recipients of the Title IX legislation which was passed 40 years ago, as participation has grown significantly since 1972 when that federal legislation was passed.  In recent years, DeBoer said high school volleyball has had “good growth numbers.”  And, since 2007, beach volleyball has seen a great deal of growth as 1.4 million players have entered the game, of which 800,000 are females.  And, beach volleyball is now a sanctioned varsity sport at a growing number of colleges.

Carpenetti mentioned that three of the ‘hotbeds’ of participation in lacrosse are the states of New York, Maryland, and the greater Philadelphia area.  The fact that the number of college opportunities is growing is encouraging more youngsters to start playing the sport.  Since 2006, participation in lacrosse has grown by more than 60% for both boys and girls.  To accommodate the rising number of players, Carpenetti says U.S. Lacrosse is training more coaches every year so that all players can have a safe and fun experience in the sport.

The team sports featured in U.S. Trends in Team Sports (2012 edition) include baseball, basketball, cheerleading, field hockey, football (flag), football (tackle), football (touch), gymnastics, ice hockey, lacrosse, paintball, roller hockey, rugby, soccer (indoor), soccer (outdoor), softball (fast pitch), softball (slow pitch), swimming for competition, track & field, ultimate frisbee, volleyball (beach), volleyball (court), volleyball (grass), and wrestling.

To request a copy of U.S. Trends in Team Sports (2012 edition), access www.SFIA.org.  This report is available free-of-charge to full members of SFIA and the editorial media.

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