Team Sports Returning to Pre-Pandemic Levels
New SFIA report shows positive trends in sports and a high level of 6-to-12-year-old participation.
Team sports participation trends in the U.S. are solid, but not spectacular, but at least they are improving. That’s perhaps the best way to summarize the most current figures in the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s (SFIA) 2022 U.S. Trends in Team Sports Report. This study examines participation and market trends from 2021 in team sports and features in-depth data analysis of age-group participation.
This new SFIA report also breaks down data on team sports coaches and trainings and features a new section on young adult team sports participation, focusing specifically on team sports participants who are ages 18-to-24.
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,” points 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.”
Behind the Numbers
The numbers tell the story of the state of team sports as we head into 2023.
• 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. Basketball has proven throughout the pandemic to have maintained high participation, as it is easy to play solo, in social formats and in small-sided games. And, basketball has always had a low cost of entry.
• While basketball continues to maintain its popularity, outdoor soccer has overtaken basketball as the top sport for 6-year-olds in 2021. With the recent energy and excitement around both the men’s World Cup in Qatar in late 2022 and the women’s World Cup this summer in Australia and New Zealand, the SFIA expects soccer participation to continue to grow in the future in the U.S. Of course, the 2026 men’s World Cup soccer tournament will be returning to North America in 2026, which will be a boost to the sport.
• 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). Participation in those four activities was likely enhanced by those sports being contested in the Summer Olympics in Japan in 2021.
• 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.
“While a lot of people were back participating in sports, it is important to remember that many spring season team sports were not at full strength in early 2021 due to the Omicron COVID variant,” says Cove. “While conclusive evidence remains to be drawn, early indications suggest 2022 participation may reach, if not surpass, 2019 numbers as organized spring sport activities fully returned for the first time in two years.”
SFIA Report: 10 Takeaways
1. Dynamic Duo. The top two team sports for age groups 6-17, 18-24, 25-44 or 45+ are basketball and baseball.
2. Polar Opposites. The sport with the largest percentage of non-organized play is grass volleyball and the sport with the largest percentage of organized play is fast-pitch softball.
3. Youth Matters. There are currently 17.6 million team sports participants in the U.S. who are in the 6-17-year-old age group, while there are 11.7 million team sports participants in the U.S. in the survey of 13-17-year-olds.
4. Equal Interest. Among young adults age 18-24, there are an equal number of core team sports participation enthusiasts in the U.S. as there are casual team sports participants — 4.5 million.
5. School Sports Suffer. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), overall participation in high school sports during the 2021-22 school year was four percent less than during the 2018-19 school year.
6. Top Five Team Sports. The top five most popular team sports in the U.S., based on overall participation, are basketball (27.1 million participants), baseball (15.6 million), outdoor soccer (12.6 million), flag football (6.9 million) and slow-pitch softball (6.0 million).
7. Fantastic Five I. The top five most popular team sports in the U.S. for those ages 6-to-17 are basketball, baseball, outdoor soccer, tackle football and track and field.
8. Fantastic Five II. The top five most popular team sports in the U.S. for those ages 25-to-44 are basketball, baseball, outdoor soccer, slow-pitch softball and flag football.
9. Power of Team. Team sports participants in the U.S. are, statistically, far more likely to play outdoor sports, fitness sports, individual sports, racquet sports, winter sports and water sports than non-team sports participants.
10. Outside Interests. The top five activities for team sports athletes are walking for fitness, bowling, treadmill, running/jogging and free weights.