Team Trends

From 10 To 1 The Year in Team Sports



NIL & High Schools

With Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) issues reaching all the way down to high schools, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) attempted to get ahead of the curve with a course that detailed the expectations and realities of NIL in the current interscholastic landscape. The NFHS had previously and publicly expressed its concerns about NIL reaching the high school landscape and the impact it could have on high school sports.

Meanwhile, at the college level the NCAA Division I Board of Directors sought to take the lead in regulation and enforcement and voted unanimously to clarify how schools can be involved with NIL activities. Team dealers and vendors looking to play the NIL game needed to take notice of these new guidelines, which included things like Education/Monitoring for current students, school support for student-athlete NIL activities and school involvement with collectives and other NIL entities.

Both were admirable attempts to get ahead of the NIL curve, which, if 2023 proved anything, is moving faster than anyone can anticipate.  


Welcome to the Hall

While there were not any pure team dealers as part of the Sporting Goods Hall of Fame Class of 2024, two of the soon-to-be-inducted members certainly have had an impact on the team business. The four iconic figures set to enter the Hall next May include Rawlings’ Mike Thompson and Cathy Pryor, of Hibbett Sports. The other two inductees will be Glenn Barrett (OrthoLite) and Karsten Solheim (Ping Golf).

Thompson’s 40-year career at Rawlings includes his current role as the company’s chief marketing officer, where he has spearheaded the creation and management of both the sports and digital marketing departments at the company.

Pryor, a 32-year veteran of Hibbett Sports, served as SVP–store operations and was instrumental in the company growing from 28 stores to more than 1000 and $1 billion in sales. Moreover, she served the industry for eight years on the NSGA Board of Directors and was its first female Board Chair from 2019-20. She was also on the Sporting Goods Industry Hall of Fame Committee for more than a decade.


Girls’ Flag Scores Big

Proving its growing popularity and strength in team sports, flag football became officially California Cool when the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), the statewide body that governs high school athletics in the country’s largest state, voted to make girls’ high school flag football a fully sanctioned sport.

The vote in California was a reflection of the growing level of interest in flag football in the local recreational youth leagues and the growing level of support from the NFL. The three NFL teams in the state – the Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Chargers and San Francisco 49ers – are committed to supporting girls’ high school flag football in California.

The move added California to a growing list of states that have included varsity girls’ flag football in high school athletic programs, including Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Nevada.

New York supports flag football, too. Soon after the CIF decision, New York State’s public high school athletic association approved plans to stage its first state high school championship for girls’ flag football in the spring of 2024.

Previousy, in late 2022 the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) had approved girls’ high school football as an official sport, which means that the sport moved from the spring to the fall in 2023.

“This is an opportunity to showcase the skills of our girls in our high schools,” explained David Hines, AIA executive director. “This is not the old powder-puff football. These kids can play. They can run. They can catch.”


Girls Take it to the Mat

Speaking of girls’ sports, the numbers certainly told the story behind the impressive and welcome growth in girls’ wrestling across the country.

• Since 1994, the number of women who are wrestling in high school has grown from 804 to more than 31,000 and in 2022 the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) adopted women’s wrestling as its 28th championship sport.

• In 2020, the National Junior Collegiate Athletic Association (NJCAA) announced that it would recognize women’s wrestling as an emerging sport.

• More than 100 colleges/universities in the U.S. now sponsor a varsity girls’ wrestling program.

• Since 2004, women’s wrestling has been a recognized Olympic sport.


Sports, Inc. Moves

Fall Show

After years of a happy – if somewhat costly for some gambling members – annual existence in Las Vegas at the start of Thanksgiving week, Sports, Inc. announced it would be moving its Fall Team Dealers Show beginning next year because the high-priced Formula 1 race was moving into the group’s traditional time slot – and bringing with it huge influx of auto racing fans and the accompanying hotel and transportation crunch.

The schedule now calls for the show to relocate to Phoenix, AZ, in 2024 (November 18-20) and then to Tampa, FL, in 2025 (November 10-12). The 2023 Fall Team Dealers Show had already been moved up by one week, to November 14-16, to accommodate the F1 crowd.


Youth Sports Rebound ...

After suffering – and surviving – more than two years of pandemic-fueled disruptions, team sports began to see a return to pre-COVID participation numbers. The takeaway from a Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s (SFIA) 2022 U.S. Trends in Team Sports Report released in early 2023: Team sports participation trends in the U.S. are solid, but not spectacular, but at least they are improving.

The SFIA data reveals that while team sports participation numbers are increasing, they are not quite back to pre-pandemic levels — yet. The number of team sports participants increased by just 1.8 percent from 2020 to 2021. In 2020, there were 67 million team sports participants in the U.S. and that number grew to 68.3 million in 2021.

While that still lags behind the 70.8 million U.S. team sports participants back in 2019, fortunately, there are positive signs for the future of team sports participation in the U.S. Tops among them is that the number of participants in the 6-to-12 age group increased from 17 million in 2020 to 17.6 million in 2021. They are the future of team sports.

“The number of 6-to-12-year olds playing (team) sports not only increased in 2021, but it is the highest we have seen in the last five years,” pointed out Tom Cove, SFIA president and CEO. “After free play and recess, team sports are often the first regular physical activity in which children participate and the experience can be the foundational connection to a lifetime of sports and fitness participation.”

The numbers tell the story of the state of team sports as we head into 2024.

• As has been the case for many years, basketball is still the most-played team sport in the U.S., with 27.1 million participants in 2021.

• Outdoor soccer has overtaken basketball as the top sport for 6-year-olds in 2021.

• Among 23 team sports, the biggest year-over-year changes in participation on a percentage basis belonged to fast-pitch softball (+15.3 percent), gymnastics (+10.9 percent), court volleyball (+8.1 percent) and swimming on a team (+8.0 percent).

• Five team sports – flag football, grass volleyball, fast-pitch softball, court volleyball and basketball – had increases in core participation over a five-year average for 6-to-17-year-olds. Eleven other sports had increases in total participation over a five-year average for 6-to-17-year-olds, as well.


… And School Sports, Too!

Continuing the positive participation news, team dealers and their vendors looking for some good news as the 2023-24 school year kicked off needed look no further than an uplifting late-summer report from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). The bottom line: Participation in high school sports eclipsed 7.8 million in the 2022-23 school year, reflecting a sharp increase from the previous year as the NFHS completed its High School Athletics Participation Survey for a second time after the pandemic interrupted its collection of data.

A total of 7.8 million participants competed in high school sports in 2022-23, an increase of nearly 240,000 and up more than three percent from 2021-22. The total includes 4.5 million boys and 3.3 million girls, according to figures obtained from the 51 NFHS member state associations, which includes the District of Columbia.

This year’s total marks the first upward movement in participation data since the all-time record of 7.98 million in 2017-18, which was followed by the first decline in 30 years in 2018-19 and the two-year halt in data collection related to the pandemic.

Among the highlights:

• The top 10 sports remained the same for both boys and girls, with boys’ tennis leapfrogging boys’ golf as the eighth-most popular sport, while girls’ basketball and girls’ competitive spirit each moved up a spot.

• On the boys’ side, eight of the top 10 sports registered increases in participation, while nine of the top 10 sports for girls added participants.

• Eleven-player football remained the most popular boys’ sport, with the total climbing back over one million participants. The total of 1,028,761 marks an increase of 54,969 and 5.6 percent from the previous year.


Thirty Years and Counting

This event is a bit personal for the editor, because when the calendar flipped to 2023 it marked the completion of 30 years of me covering the sporting goods and team sports industry for a variety of trade magazines, most of which don’t exist any longer. When I attended my first NSGA Management Conference and Team Dealer Summit in Arizona in 1992 the world of sporting goods was vastly different than it is today.

There was no BSN Sports as it exists today, but there were many team dealers and sporting goods stores with family names above the doors – Oshman’s, Chick’s, Koenig’s, Kesslers, Modell’s – that no longer exist. And there was an upstart called The Sports Authority and a small chain in upstate New York called Dick’s Sporting Goods that showed some promise.

Many of the brands that dominated those two shows are long gone. It hurts to see Starter reduced to a downstairs brand at Walmart. Nike was already the big dog, challenged by Reebok and Adidas in America. We know who won that game.

In the magazine game we have evolved as well. Back in the early ’90s there were six thriving weekly and monthly publications. Now, not so many. I have been fortunate to have played a role in the evolution of the trade press from print to the world of digital publishing and social media.


Pickleball, Anyone? Everyone?

We have said it before and we will say it again here: Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. and team dealers need to jump on board. All those picklers – and schools, recreation programs, town facilities and private clubs – need to buy their nets, balls, court markers and paddles from somewhere. Why not from team dealers?

“The pickleball category 1000 percent has a place in the team market,” Zach Meller, EVP and chief strategy officer at Champion Sports, told Team Insight. “The growth of the game has made it viable as a competitive, leisure and must-have for schools, camps and towns/municipalities.”

Need more convincing? How about this:

• There were 8.9 million participants in 2022, an 85.7 percent increase from 2021 and a 158 percent jump from 2019.

• In 2022, the number of new pickleball participants exceeded the total number of participants in 2021.

• Pickleball is a multi-generational sport. The average age of a pickleball player is 35, while the age group with the most participants is 25-34, with the 18-24 and 65-plus age groups following closely behind.

• There are currently 51,937 pickleball courts in the U.S. Sixty-five percent are outdoor (33,710), and 35 percent indoor (18,227).

Plus this: To celebrate National Pickleball Day in August, the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum unveiled the first pickleball bobbleheads. And everyone knows that one true sign of making it is having your own bobblehead.


Team Sports Go For Gold

The pickleball news above was about to be named the Top Team Sports Story in 2023 until word came just last month that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) officially approved baseball/softball, cricket (T20), flag football, lacrosse (Sixes) and squash for inclusion in the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. That’s huge news for the world of team sports and is bound to ramp up participation.

“The choice of these five new sports is in line with the American sports culture and will showcase iconic American sports to the world while bringing international sports to the United States,” IOC president Thomas Bach said. “Their inclusion will allow the Olympic Movement to engage with new athlete and fan communities in the U.S. and globally.”

Baseball/softball, cricket, and lacrosse return to the Games after most recently being medal sports at Tokyo 2020, Paris 1900 and London 1908, respectively. Flag football and squash will be making their Olympic debuts.