The Team Sports Game
Good and Bad News
Outdoor soccer is the only team sport that had an increase in core participation.
There’s both good and bad news for the team sports business in the latest team sports participation report from SFIA.

There is certainly both good news and bad news for the team sports business when you take a deep dive into the recently-released SFIA 2023 U.S. Trends in Team Sports Report, which tells the story of the team sports world as it heads into 2024. A quick snapshot:

1. The number of team sports played per participant has declining since 2017.

2. Basketball is the most popular team sport people for players in the following age groups: 6-17, 18-24, 25-44, and 45+.

3. Youth team sports participation (6- to 12-year-olds) inched up 1.1 percent year-over-year in 2022 to 17.8 million and is up 5.3 percent, or 900,000 players, since 2018.

4. The 18- to 24-year-old team sports participants represent a huge sell-in opportunity for team sports brands and retailers. There are 10.2 million team sports participants in the segment.

5. The percentage of “core” players in the 18-to 24-year-old segment exceeded casual players for the first time since 2019.

SFIA’s annual study examines participation and market trends in 2022 in team sports and features in-depth data analysis of age-group participation and specific takeaways. This year’s report also breaks down data on team sports coaches and training and provides predictions on the future growth of specific sports. The report provides detailed information on 23 different team sports.

Mixed Participation Results

According to the SFIA, the number of team sports participants in the U.S. was 70.8 million in 2022, which is the same number as there were in 2019, which reflects the highest annual participation in team sports in the past 10 years. In 2020, the first year of the COVID pandemic, there were 67 million team sports participants. That low figure was driven by the closure of sports facilities and the shutdown of leagues and teams.

While the number of team sports participants has rebounded and has exceeded 70 million, the SFIA study reveals that the number of “core” players has not rebounded, which suggests that while Americans are playing team sports, they are not playing them as much.  

On the surface, having 70.8 million team sports participants can be viewed as a positive, but there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Total team sports participation, which counts an individual twice if he or she plays two different team sports, was 128.9 million occasions in 2022, but remained 3.5 percent, or 4.7 million participants, below the peak year of 2016 when there were 133.6 million occasions of people playing a team sport.

Another area of concern is the ratio of core versus casual sports participants. The number of core team sports participants, those playing 13 or more days for some team sports or 26 or more days/annually for other team sports, continued to slip as the number of casual participants increased by 7.9 percent to 45.3 million, its highest total over the last five years.

What’s more, year-over-year, core participation in team sports fell to 25.4 million, down 3.4 percent and 12.7 percent, or 3.7 million, below the 29.1 million core participants recorded in 2019.

Football is one of the seven team sports that suffered a decline in core participation.

Declines in Core Players

Seven major team sports – baseball, tackle football, lacrosse, indoor soccer, slow-pitch softball, track and field and wrestling – suffered double-digit declines in core participation between 2019 and 2022. For most team sports, player retention and converting casual players into core players is key to reversing this downward trend.

“The demonstrable interest in playing team sports in America is fueled by a variety of factors, including wanting to be physically active, but also the recognition that playing team sports is good for mental health,” says Tom Cove, SFIA president and CEO. “At a base level, young people are returning to youth sports because it is a great opportunity to have fun with their friends. We should not lose sight of this simple fact as we strive to deliver appropriate sports programming.”

Among the other findings of the report:

• Aggregate team sports participation also trended positively in 2022, increasing by 3.6 million participants. This means, for example, if a participant plays soccer and baseball, they count twice in the numbers. This year’s was the largest in the last decade, and the first time in five years this number did not decrease.

• This positive trend is due to the largest team sports – basketball, outdoor soccer, flag football and tackle football – all having increased levels of participation. Efforts to promote early sport sampling and less single-sport specialization should be encouraged.

• There’s very promising news to report among children ages 6-17. The SFIA research shows that both the 6-to-12 and 13-to-17 age groups saw total team sports participation levels increase from 2021 to 2022. Foundationally, this is good news for the sports and fitness industry for two reasons, First, the health of team sports depends on youth participation much more than other categories, like running and health club activities. Second, from a longer-term view, youth sports participation is historically a gateway for Americans to be physically active over their lifetimes.

“It is great news that youth team sports participation levels have increased, which creates a good foundation for team sports and is the first step in cultivating a love to play at a young age,” adds Cove. “The important part now is taking those new participants and converting them into core team sports players and allowing their passion and commitment to sports to be fulfilled.”

As an aside, outdoor soccer is the only team sport that had an increase in core participation from 2019-2022.

“Soccer is poised for a terrific future, starting with it being the only sport to grow in core participation in past three years, and then welcoming massive attention and excitement from global soccer events taking place in the United States in 2024 (Copa America), 2025 (FIFA Club World Cup), 2026 (FIFA Men’s World Cup), and 2028 (Los Angles Summer Olympic Games),” adds Cove.

Two other growth areas: Flag football (male and female) and volleyball.