Girls' Sports

Roaring Back

DePauw University Tigers Greencastle Insiana women's NCAA softball

There is no denying that participation and sales for most team sports, male and female, experienced setbacks during the key pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 — but 2022 thankfully marked a bit of turnaround. Now as 2023 picks up steam, supply chain issues are still causing some headaches, but the problems are easing. Moreover, schools have returned to in-person learning and team sports are back in full swing. The steady progress has been embraced throughout the U.S. and the situation is still improving. 

The SFIA 2023 Topline Participation Report recently found that team sports participation continued to recover from the large drop it sustained in 2020 due to the pandemic. The team sports participation rate increased to 23.2 percent, which is just under the 2019 level of 23.4 percent, according to the study. 

At the high school level, the NFHS noted that following two years of interruption by the COVID-19 pandemic, it was able to finally compile its High School Athletics Survey for the 2021-22 school year — its first official report since 2018-19. 

“Given what has occurred in our country the past three years, we believe a decline of only four percent in participation totals from 2018-19 is pretty remarkable,” reports Dr. Karissa Niehoff, CEO of NFHS. “We know some states that were able to complete surveys in 2020-21 reported participation increases this past year. So, we are very optimistic that trend will continue in the years to come as schools fully recover from the effects of the 2020 shutdown.” 

This eagerly anticipated revival is a boon to team dealers and is certainly having a positive impact on female team sports. “Over the past five years, our team business has raced up and the growth is continuing as more girls continue to play sports,” says Scott Treiber, owner of Sports Paradise in Medford, NJ. “The women’s business will soon mirror the men’s and will keep trucking along. The business is really crazy now, in a good way.”

Zeke Garretson, co-owner of Garretson’s Sports Center in Greeley, CO, is also psyched about his women’s team business. “We’re enthusiastic about women’s sports and it’s a greater percentage of our sales each year. We’ve recovered from COVID and are back to normal,” he says. “Our men’s business is a little bit bigger than our women’s, but the women’s has been growing. Women are getting more skilled and that in turn boosts popularity.”

At Columbus, IN-based Hoosier Sporting Goods, owner Michael Bodart has seen no drop-off in his women’s business. “Women’s is already an important part of our business and as our overall business grows, this will grow, too,” he says. “In fact, the women’s business is a bit bigger than the men’s business for us.” 

Betsy Frye, owner of Holyoke, MA-based Holyoke Sporting Goods, is also pleased. “Last year was not very organized after two years off. This year, things are very organized and girls are excited to be playing sports. Women’s sports will continue to expand — we can only go up from where we were during COVID,” she says. “Years ago, there were limited choices in product. Now every company has women’s uniforms, so girls don’t have to wear boys’ clothing anymore. It’s nice that girls have their own stuff and that girls are no longer just an afterthought.”

Photo: Ailura, Wikimedia Commons

Corner Kicks

As the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup draws near, anticipation and excitement build for the Beautiful Game.

The big news in soccer focuses on the ninth FIFA Women’s World Cup that will be co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand from July 20-August 20, 2023. What began as a 12-team tournament in 1991 has now expanded to include 32 nations for the first time.

This iteration could be vital to the sport’s health for the next few years. Not only is the tournament’s size and scope (10 stadiums in use) unprecedented, the competition will take place across two sports-mad nations and will likely generate more hype and coverage than what was seen in France four years ago. 

“The Women’s World Cup is far and away the biggest single women’s sporting event in the world,” says Aaron Heifetz, U.S. Soccer’s director of communications for U.S. Women’s National Teams. “When young girls see the World Cup and our successful team, they’re inspired by the players. The World Cup is a vehicle for inspiration and participation. It’s a cultural phenomenon.”

Heifetz points out that women’s soccer is the fastest-growing sport at the elite level around the world. “In many countries, soccer is the number one sport, so it’s already simmering, and the addition of eight new teams to the Women’s World Cup will be a huge boost for women in countries qualifying for the first time,” he explains. 

“In the U.S., soccer will keep growing at the elite level and girls will see more opportunities to make a living with soccer. Also, lots of colleges have women’s soccer teams now and this will fuel growth at the high school level.”

For dealers, the question is whether the World Cup will boost sales and participation. 

“Yes, people always pay attention to the World Cup and it helps build awareness for women’s soccer,” says Zeke Garretson, co-owner of Garretson’s Sports Center. “It helps drive demand for women’s-specific product, but we don’t rely on it to raise sales.” 

The World Cup is not as important as other things, such as travel teams, though. “Our biggest sales come from schools, followed by club teams. Both help drive sales of spirit packs to fans and boosters. Parental participation in kids’ sports also helps fuel sales,” he says.

David Zighelboim, president of Miami, FL-based Soccer Locker, believes that the World Cup will help goose sales and participation and will certainly help build awareness, but there’s one caveat: “We’ll have a little spike, but only in U.S. Women’s products.” 

For Women’s World Cup items [most notably replica jerseys], he only invests about five percent of what he invests for Men’s World Cup products. “The Women’s World Cup is marginally important to my business. Girls and moms don’t wear replica jerseys as casual apparel like guys do and in general girls are more reluctant to wear what guys wear,” he says. 

The women’s team soccer business has done well at Soccer Locker over the past year and it’s growing. “Kids are starting at four-years old and there are a lot of girls playing — it has really picked up,” Zighelboim says. “The women’s business comprises about 25 percent of our business overall and it will remain steady.” He adds that the women’s business is important on the team side, but is not as important on the retail side.

Aaron Kirsch, director of operations at California Pro Sports in Harbor City, CA, finds that Women’s World Cup years are always good because they influence uniform designs. “There are now a lot of retro throwback looks such as collars on jerseys,” he observes.

Kirsch is seeing more demand for women’s soccer product and coaches and players are demanding women’s-specific uniforms. “The World Cup has a positive impact on what we do, but we don’t leverage the retail end as much as we could,” he admits. n

Fast Girls’ Soccer Facts

• The USWNT has won four World Cup titles, the most of any nation.

• The 2022 SFIA Soccer (Outdoor) Single Sport Report found that more than 4.8 million females play outdoor soccer and the biggest contingent (1.8 million) is the 6-12 age group. 

• Among the Top 10 high school girls’ sports, soccer moved ahead of basketball to claim the number three spot behind track and field and volleyball, with softball remaining fifth, according to the NFHS 2021-22 High School Athletics Survey. 

Photo: JJ Harrison (

Bank Shots

As women’s basketball seeks to regain its former dominance in participation, team dealers report solid sales. 

Although female hoops participation declined during the pandemic, the sport is ready to grow and is receiving support from many quarters, particularly USA Basketball. The organization has launched multiple initiatives to help meet the challenge to increase participation and amplify the women’s game. 

“This year, for the first time, we are partnering with the NCAA on the U.S. Open Basketball Championships at the NCAA College Basketball Academy,” says Renee Felton, USA Basketball’s head of communications. “Additionally, we will host the U.S. Open Basketball Championships separately for a younger age group. USA Basketball will also continue our Coach Academy, Gold Camp and Open Court programs, among others,” 

Felton notes that, as always, USA Basketball focuses on winning gold medals with all of its national teams, including 3x3 teams. 

“Further, we focus greatly on the area of SafeSport to keep our athletes and other participants safe,” she says. “We are expanding Women in the Game and launched the Torch Program designed to connect and mentor young people of color. Our youth basketball initiatives continue to focus on coach education and training to spread our player development curriculum and ensure positive environments for play. In addition, we will expand USA Basketball youth clinics and camps.” 

Overall, remarks Felton, “USA Basketball hopes to also be a unifier in the game, providing guidelines to better align health and safety regulations, age and grade segmentation and rule sets across the county with better structure and increased standards in youth basketball. Our expectation is to see continued growth of our sport, especially expanding and enhancing the ecosystem of 3x3 basketball in the U.S.”

On the dealer front, Zeke Garretson, of Garretson’s Sports Center, likes what he sees in women’s basketball. “Women’s basketball is important for us. Women have really learned how to play the game and it’s an integral part of high school and college,” he says. “Softball is the biggest women’s category for us, followed by basketball, volleyball and soccer. Basketball and volleyball have big growth potential.”

Holyoke Sporting Goods’ Betsy Frye is also upbeat. “In youth basketball, there are as many girls as boys participating in our area,” she says. “This year, it’s almost back to pre-pandemic levels.”

“Our team business in general has been doing very well and the women’s is very strong,” adds Scott Treiber, of Sports Paradise. “In term of volume, lacrosse is the biggest, followed by basketball.”

Aaron Kirsch, at California Pro Sports, reports that although basketball trails lacrosse and volleyball, “basketball is stable and is a good winter sport for us.” He adds, “Women’s is something that we’re aggressively interested in going after. Our competition on the women’s side is very different than on the men’s side. Many women’s suppliers are dedicated to the women’s game.” 

Overall, Kirsch notes that his women’s business is comprised of 30 percent each for schools, club and rec leagues, and travel and elite teams, while retail sales and walk-in business account for the remaining 10 percent.

“Anytime we can find a vendor willing to invest in complementary pieces [offering both men’s and women’s versions of particular products], it’s a good thing,” says Kirsch. “We can fit men’s and women’s teams, but the more the brands acknowledge both men’s and women’s, the easier it is to trust those brands as a whole. It’s important to have a women’s item to match each men’s item.” n

Fast Girls’ Basketball Facts

• More than 6.6 million females participated in basketball in 2021, according to SFIA’s 2022 Basketball Single Sport Report.

• In the 2021-22 season, Texas boasted the highest participation in girls’ high school basketball (43,663 participants and 1536 schools), followed by California (30,142, 1414 schools) and Pennsylvania (21,030, 701), according to NFHS.

• In 2022, basketball, soccer, football (flag) and football (tackle) all posted nice three-year total participation increases of over 4.5 percent. Basketball had the highest three-year increase of 13 percent, according to SFIA.

Photo: KeithJJ/Pixabay, Wikimedia Commons

Sticking to It

Although still a regional sport, the continuing popularity of women’s lacrosse is helping to boost the team business.

For many years, lacrosse participation grew exponentially, but was recently stymied by COVID-19 along with most other team sports. Now, the momentum is returning and the sport is getting back into scoring position. 

As evidence, USA Lacrosse CEO Marc Riccio points to ESPN’s recent investment in lacrosse rights from every major lacrosse property, including the World Lacrosse Championships for men and women (featuring the U.S. national teams), Athletes Unlimited (women’s outdoor) and the men’s indoor National Lacrosse League. ESPN also holds the NCAA rights, which drew nearly 500,000 viewers for the men’s and 600,000 for the women’s D1 championships in 2022.

“ESPN’s support of lacrosse has been incredibly valuable. The partnerships drive awareness for the sport and consolidate our audience with one media platform,” says Riccio. “When USA Lacrosse hosted the World Lacrosse Women’s Championship last summer, ESPN networks carried more than 100 games from the event on its platforms, including six games on linear television. Prior to that, only one international women’s game had been carried on linear in the United States.” 

The extensive exposure surrounding the elite and pro level games will boost awareness and excitement, which will undoubtedly trickle down to the high school and youth levels, helping to fuel participation. 

Furthermore, lacrosse is up for consideration to be added to the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. Inclusion would have a significant impact on the lacrosse’s visibility and credibility in the U.S., and promoting the sport internationally would help provide funding opportunities for development programs.

“Lacrosse has upside as a gender-equitable, highly athletic, dynamic game,” states Riccio. “Research shows lacrosse has 800,000 core participants and over two million casual participants, yet it’s still only a sanctioned high school sport in 24 states. That represents a significant upside.” 

Although lacrosse isn’t a factor in all team markets across the country, it has proven to be popular in the locales in which it’s available in schools and where club and league play is offered. 

“Our women’s lacrosse business has been great. The men’s side is bigger, but only because the women don’t need as much equipment,” says Bob Bush, owner of Cheshire Sports Center in Cheshire, CT, which operates four stores in the state that specialize in lacrosse and hockey (including field hockey). “We service all types of teams, including clubs, schools and leagues and we also have a retail business. We’ve been involved in lacrosse since the 1980s.”

Although Cheshire Sports Center’s women’s lacrosse business hasn’t grown lately, it has been steady. 

“Over the next year or two, I expect to see more growth in leagues,” says Bush. “Girls are having more registration than boys right now, but that could change — or it might be a local phenomenon. We have some good leagues in the area, the sport is very easy to take up and both girls and boys really enjoy playing — that’s helping to fuel growth.”

Bush points out that his business has its own embroidery and screenprinting on premises, which allows for a quick turnaround. “Online stores have also been huge for us, and women’s cuts are in high demand.”

On the West Coast, Aaron Kirsch, at California Pro Sports, is also seeing strength in the women’s game. “Lacrosse is growing continuously and in Southern California it’s one of the fastest-growing sports. More girls are playing than boys and the [female side] is beginning to grow and develop their programs. There are more players and more opportunities,” he says. “Lacrosse is our top female sport and club lacrosse is big for us.” n

Fast Girls’ Lacrosse Facts

• USA Lacrosse is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2023. The organization serves more than 400,000 members and has invested more than $300 million into the sport’s development.

• In July 2022, the USA downed Canada 11-8 to win the World Lacrosse women’s championship in Towson, MD, becoming the first nation to win that title on home soil. More than 100 games appeared on ESPN networks worldwide.

Diggin’ It

Driven by the club scene, women’s and girls’ volleyball participation continues to spike.

There’s no doubt that volleyball is a leading female team sport and the enthusiasm that it generates is expected to continue. 

“Volleyball continues to be a very popular sport with girls and women in the United States,” points out B.J. Hoeptner, USA Volleyball’s communications manager, adding that USA Volleyball expects participation to grow over the next several years as three different developing professional leagues raise the sport’s profile in the United States. “USA Volleyball will continue to strive to bring volleyball to underserved communities through its support of the Starlings organization.” 

Starlings Volleyball USA is on a mission to positively impact the lives of at-risk girls through the sport of volleyball. The organization began in 1996 with a single team at Lincoln High School in San Diego, CA, and now operates in more than 70 cities and Native American reservations nationwide. About 40,000 girls have participated in Starlings programs thus far and Starlings players have earned more than 750 college scholarships. Just as impressively, 90 percent of Starlings players have graduated from high school.

“Volleyball isn’t affordable for many families, even those at the middle-income level. Starlings gives young ladies an opportunity to continue playing and competing after the high school season,” states Deitre Collins Parker, head women’s coach at San Diego State University

All of this is having a positive impact on the women’s business. 

“Club volleyball is big for us,” says Aaron Kirsch, of California Pro Sports. “Many of the clubs are connected to the school business and the coaches are the same.” 

Regarding women’s uniforms, “a more fitted and athletic fit is always requested and that usually includes shorter shorts, closer-fit tops and a fit for every body type,” he says. “For example, many volleyball players are tall so they need taller cuts — they might wear a size small in the waist, but the leg length needs to be proportionate to their height.”

At Sports Paradise, Scott Treiber points out that women’s volleyball has exploded at the club and high school level in his area. “Volleyball has had the fastest growth for us, percentage-wise. We’re getting more demand for women’s-specific produc,” he says.

Hoosier Sporting Goods’ Michael Bodart is just as enthusiastic. “We’ve seen no drop-off in women’s team sports,” he exclaims. “Volleyball and basketball are stronger now than ever. The success of those two sports locally helps fuel participation and that impacts our sales.” 

Bodart credits volleyball travel teams as being “the big hero” due to the large travel organization in the area and he says that travel accounts for about 75 percent of the women’s team business. 

“The biggest opportunity for us is in women’s volleyball. We service a large club in our area that has 15 to 20 teams,” he explains. “The challenge is the availability of styles — there’s not always a lot to choose from, which is more of a design issue. The older girls especially prefer a ladies’ fit and sublimation is key.”

The volleyball business is holding steady at Holyoke Sporting Goods, which services all of the local schools for uniforms. “Most volleyball around here is played at the high school level, but there is also recreational volleyball, including a YMCA co-ed league,” says Betsy Frye. “Unfortunately, there’s no youth volleyball in the area, other than grammar school.” n

Fast Girls’ Volleyball Facts

• On the high school scene, volleyball continued its rise in popularity among girls’ sports and was the only Top 10 sport to register an increase from three years ago, according to the NFHS. 

• With 454,153 participants, volleyball is only 2500 participants behind track and field for the top participatory high school sport for girls, reports the NHFS. Additionally, the emerging sport of girls’ sand/beach volleyball increased from 2237 to 6489 participants. 

• Female court volleyball participation in 2021 totaled 3.8 million, according to the SFIA. Meanwhile, beach/sand volleyball had 2.1 million female participants and grass volleyball logged 1.5 million female participants.