Youth sports participation statistics compiled since 2009 show significant losses and gains across a wide spectrum of sports. The best available data stems from a multi year youth team sports tracking study done by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association from 2009 to 2014 which is presented and discussed herein.
The Big Picture
Taken as a whole, for the 17 sports tracked by SFIA, there was a 9.09% drop in overall participation with total participation dropping from 50.2 million to 45.7 million kids, or 4.5 million kids. During this time frame the number of sports losing participation was nearly double that of gaining in participation; 11 sports showed a decrease while 6 sports showed an increase. The range of change was dramatic, from a 100% increase in youth rugby to nearly a 42% decrease in wrestling.
With no disrespect to other sports, what many feel are the core youth sports of baseball, basketball, football, soccer and volleyball collectively followed the national trend of a 9% overall participation decline. Here too, there was a wide range of change, with youth tackle football losing nearly 18% while youth fast-pitch softball gained 1.6%.
SFIA also found that kids are playing fewer types of sports each year with the average number of team sports played per participant dropping 5.9% for 6-17 year-olds. from 2.14 sports pear year to 2.01. This does not sound that substantial, but this modest change alone accounts for a significant portion of the overall decline.
Sport-by-Sport: Bright Spots and Blemishes
As indicated above, 6 sports increased in participation while 11 sports showed declines. The chart in this section shows the participation level change on a sport by sport basis. As you can see, some sports enjoyed significant gain while others saw moderate to significant decrease. There is tremendous focus on injuries and in particular concussions, so we wanted to look at how the participation levels change when viewing sports based on the degree of player on player contact.
While there is some debate and argument over what constitutes a contact sport, we considered significant contact where player-on-player contact was pervasive and continuous throughout the game or where there was a high incidence of contact with the playing surface. We concluded these sports to be: field hockey, football, ice hockey, lacrosse, rugby, wrestling and gymnastics. This categorization showed that contact sports (per our definition) experienced an 11.6% participation decline versus and 8.1% decline for non-contact sports. While the relative difference between the two is 3.5%, as percentage difference between the two, contact sport’s decline was 42% greater than non-contact sports. Many feel that injury awareness is a big culprit in the change, but there are contact sports, such as ice hockey and gymnastics showing healthy increases. A great article on ice hockey's turnabout can be found in Are the Kids Alright, in the Sports Business Journal.
Declines in Participation Correlated by Other Reports
The Physical Activity Council, an organization made up by sports governing bodies and advocate groups including SFIA, USA Football, among others, found similar declines in team sports for the same age groups and period of time. The National Report Card on physical activity gave grades A-F and Incomplete on various measures of physical activity issuing a D- on Overall Physical Activity, a D on Sedentary Behaviors, and a C- on Organized Sports Participation.
While it is clear there is a decline in youth sports participation, as noted above there are sports that are bucking the trend and gaining participation: ice hockey, lacrosse, gymnastics, rugby and fast-pitch softball. In addition, the US Department of Education in projecting a moderate increase in school enrollment extending out several decades. Since youth sports pulls from the same age cohort of elementary and high school enrollment, it is clear that nationally youth sports is not facing a major population decline, which would be hard to reverse. As discussed in our blog post: Is Baseball Too Boring for Today’s Kids, many feel the solution to reversing the decline must involve rules change, more attention to injury prevention and detection, positive parent involvement, less emphasis on single-sport specialization, greater affordability, and even improved marketing. To sum it all up, youth sports is facing the challenge of getting kids and parents re-energized about playing youth sports and playing a greater variety of youth sports.
Resources for Sports Participation Data.
Sports Business Daily
Physical Activity Council Report
National Report Card on Physical Activity
US Census: Projection of Population Size 2014-2060:
The Good Father: Parental Expectations and Youth Sports.