SFIA’s recently released U.S. Trends In Team Sports Report noted that participation in 16 of 23 team sports tracked by the Association has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, and only one sport, soccer, showed Core Participation gains in the 2019-2022 period. However, the SFIA report offered more encouraging findings in team sports trends.

The total team participation rate in the U.S. (ages 6+) increased 3.7 percent to 70.8 million, the same level as in the pre-pandemic 2019 year and the largest number playing team sports in the last decade. The recovery came after two years that saw participation numbers depressed by facility shutdowns and the breakup of teams.

Aggregate team sports participation, which counts an individual twice if they play two different team sports, increased 2.1 percent to 128.9 million in 2022. Although the figure remained 3.5 percent below the peak year of 2016, when 133.6 million people played a team sport, the 2022 increase was the largest in the last decade. 

In the Executive Summary section of the SFIA report, Tom Cove, president and CEO of the Association, observed, “In general, playing multiple sports is a good thing, allowing for sampling, different seasons, and lessening the negative impacts of early specialization.”

Also encouraging are healthy team sports participation gains among ages 6-to-12 and 13-to-17. Cove said, “This is foundational for team sports and offers a tremendous opportunity for the team sports community and industry to work together on delivering high-quality experiences to kids and their families.”

However, it is noted in the report that most team sports have not returned to pre-pandemic participation levels. The overall team sports participation increase is due to the largest team sports— basketball, soccer (outdoor) and football (flag and tackle)—driving growth in participation numbers.

Team sports declining in the teens over the last three years included rugby, down 16.2 percent; roller hockey, 15.3 percent; lacrosse, 11.4 percent; track & field, 10.8 percent; and paintball, 10.0 percent. Grass volleyball was down 9.8 percent since 2019.

Among the team sports declining in the mid-single-digits over the last three years were cheerleading, 6.5 percent; ultimate Frisbee, also 6.5 percent; volleyball (beach/sand), 6.2 percent; football (touch), 6.3 percent; volleyball (court), 6.1 percent; and softball (fast-pitch), 4.3 percent. 

More modest declines in team sports participation since 2019 were found in ice hockey, declining 3.4 percent; gymnastics, 2.8 percent; and baseball, down 2.1 percent.

The seven sports that gained in participation since 2019 were led by basketball, up 13.0 percent; soccer (outdoor), 9.3 percent; football (tackle), 6.5 percent; football (flag), 4.7 percent; wrestling, 4.7 percent; soccer, 3.0 percent; and swimming on a team, 2.9 percent.

Of more significant concern in the report were the number of occasions playing team sports and the number of Core Participants (more than 13 or 26 times a year, depending on the sport), continue to decline as the number of Casual Participants increased 7.9 percent to 45.3 million, its highest total number over the last five years. Year-over-year, Core Participation fell to 25.4 million, down 3.4 percent year-over-year and 12.7 percent, or 3.7 million below the 29.1 million Core Participants recorded in 2019.

Seven major sports—baseball, tackle football, lacrosse, indoor soccer, slow-pitch softball, track and field, and wrestling—declined in the double-digits in Core Participation between 2019 and 2022.

The SFIA is hopeful that the drop in Core Participation could be attributed to the impact of the pandemic when teams had to discontinue play due to the closure of schools, parks and other playing venues, including rinks and indoor soccer facilities. Cove wrote in the report, “This break up of teams and leagues drove kids and families out of the routine of team sports and, even more importantly, took away one of youth sport’s greatest attractions, namely being able to have fun with friends.

SFIA further noted in the report that while the Core Participation declines on top of an aging U.S. population are concerning for the future of team sports play, “it is our expectation that these recent trends are more of ‘a moment in time,’ rather than an inherently bad trend.” Still, the findings underscore the importance of player retention and converting casual players to core players. SFIA said, “It is important to acknowledge that the U.S. team sports community needs to get people engaged through good experiences, and that, in turn, will help drive growth.”

Cove noted that the healthy growth rates in casual play point to a strong generic interest in the U.S. to play team sports, but the focus should be on converting those interests into routines and commitments to play on a team.

“We would note the ‘team’ does not necessarily have to be highly competitive, costly or time-consuming,” added Cove. “Recreation and drop-in leagues that offer a structured chance for kids to energize their sports curiosity or nascent interest may be the answer to fulfilling the latent demand our numbers suggest exists. The road to transforming casual interest into core play will succeed to the extent players join teams and have fun, and we all have a role in keeping our eyes on that basic prize.”

Among the sports that stood out was basketball, which benefited because people can play the game informally in large numbers. Basketball is the most popular team sport among all age groups that the SFIA documented, followed by baseball and outdoor soccer for the 6-to-17, 18-to-24, and 25-to-44-year-olds. 

Basketball participation approached 30 percent among 12- and 13-year-olds in 2022, suggesting that 88 percent of kids who played unorganized basketball during the pandemic have continued their regular play.

The report noted that soccer is poised for growth and expected to benefit from the massive attention it will receive in the U.S. in 2024 (Copa America), 2025 (FIFA Club World Cup), 2026 (FIFA Men’s World Cup), and 2028 (LA Summer Olympics). Outdoor soccer participation is the strongest, at more than 15 percent, among 11- and 12-year-olds.

SFIA also sees “very promising” growth opportunities for flag football (male and female). Flag football has the highest level of participation among 12- and 13-year-olds.

SFIA also sees growth for volleyball (court), which recovered with a 4.4 percent gain in team sports participation in 2022 after being impacted by gym restrictions earlier in the pandemic.

Among school-age groups, Overall Participation rates were highest among 6- to 12-year-olds, at 62.6 percent, followed by 13- to 17-year-olds, 57.3 percent and 18- to 24-year-olds, 35.9 percent.

Youth team sports participation, 6- to 12-year-olds increased 1.1 percent year-over-year in 2022 to 17.8 million and is up 5.3 percent, or 900,000 players, since 2018. The age group has enjoyed a post-pandemic bounce of 220 basis points in total participation to 62.6 percent last year.

In the 13- to 17-year-old age range, the total number of team sports participants, counting an individual’s two sports twice, increased by 6.8 percent in 2022. While a rebound from 2020 and 2021 levels, the figure represents a 3.1 percent drop from 2019’s 12.9 million total participants. SFIA’s study suggests “some teens used the time away from team sports during the pandemic to gravitate to other extracurricular activities they are more interested in.”

Team sports participation within the 18- to 24-year-old age range rose by 700 basis points in 2022 to 36 percent from 29 percent in 2021, and the number of core players in the age group exceeded that of casual players for the first time since 2019. 

Basketball (+16.1 percent), track and field (+11.2 percent), and fast-pitch softball (+9.8 percent) had the largest year-over-year increase in participants in 2022. With many in the group earning their first paychecks, 18- to 24-year-olds “represents a huge sell-in opportunity for team sports brands and retailers,” according to the SFIA.

When the SFIA looked at the broader age groups, it found that the Top 5 team sports were

  • basketball, baseball, soccer (outdoor), football (tackle) and track and field among 6- to 12-year-olds;
  • basketball, baseball, soccer (outdoor), football (flag) and volleyball (court) among 18- to 24-year-olds;
  • basketball, baseball, soccer (outdoor), softball (slow-pitch) and football (flag) among 25- to 44- year-olds; and
  • basketball, baseball, softball (slow-pitch), soccer (outdoor) and volleyball (court) among those over 45.

On the future of team sports in the U.S., the report outlines five predictions: 

  1. Total team participation is up, but the industry’s success largely depends on converting casual team athletes into core players.
  2. Soccer participation, both core and total participation, is poised to grow dramatically over the next decade. With a strong, established infrastructure, it is attractive to young players and will receive increased exposure when the U.S. hosts major soccer events from 2024-2026 and possibly in 2028 if FIFA were to award the U.S. hosting rights for the 2027 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
  3. Flag Football, a sport named as an Olympic sport for the LA 2028 Olympics, will gow for girls. The SFIA expects more U.S. states to organize flag football championships yearly, and more schools will participate in those championships. The Association also expects significant investment and support from major players in the space.
  4. A U.S. recession will affect some team sports and activities more than others. Perceptions of the cost of a sport will determine how well it fares during an economic dip. With that in mind, park and recreation and school activities will likely be favored over team travel during recessionary periods.
  5. Professional league initiatives will significantly impact the development and growth of their respective sports. Major League Baseball has its RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program, and recently, likely through the urging of the National Football League, the 2028 LA Olympic Games proposal to put flag football on its sports program agenda.