At a recent webinar exploring SFIA’s 2023 Sports & Fitness Topline Participation Report, Tom Cove, president and CEO of SFIA, highlighted the substantial progress in improving America’s activity rates and detailed which activities benefited from the pandemic, including pickleball.

The Association’s report tracks over 120 sports and fitness activities and found that pickleball had the highest participation growth since the pandemic, surging 158.6 percent from 2019 to 2022. From 2021 to 2022, pickleball participation grew 85.7 percent to 8.9 million participants.

“Our position is pickleball is here to stay,” said Cove during the webinar. “It is not for just old people. It’s not just for people that aren’t fast enough to play tennis anymore. We see a lot of crossover, including golf.”

Pickleball is also seeing health growth in core participation (play eight times a year) and is lately benefiting from “glitz” as sports stars including Tom Brady, LeBron James and Kevin Durant have bought teams to draw eyeballs to the sport.

“There’s so much happening,” said Cove about pickleball.” There’s going to be some real shakeout. Issues such as not having enough places to play and the ball making a lot of noise create tension around the sport. But we think it’s different from other activities, such as in-line skates and paintball, that have blown up and come down. There are a lot of fundamentals that are much more sustaining than most things that have had this kind of meteoric rise.”

Overall participation rates in racquet sports have seen momentum, with tennis participation expanding 33.4 percent on a three-year basis. Said Cove, “We see racquet sports both globally and in the U.S. seeing the growth that they haven’t seen since the 70s’.”

Other activities seeing robust growth over the last three years include alpine touring, with participation improving 91.3 percent; golf (off-course only: driving range, golf entertainment venue, indoor simulator), up 56.9 percent; winter fat biking, 55.7 percent; snowboard touring, 45.2 percent; camping, 32.8 percent; surfing, 24.6 percent; birdwatching (more than 1/4 mile from home/vehicle), 23.4 percent; trail running, 20.5 percent; golf (on- or off-course), 20.2 percent; hiking (day) 19.9 percent; and kayaking (recreational) 19.1 percent.

Activities negatively impacted by the pandemic over the last three years include stationary cycling (group), with a participation decline 36.9 percent, followed by cross-training workouts, down 31.7 percent in the participation rate from 2019 to 2022; boot camp style training, 24.0 percent; stair-climbing machine, 24.0 percent; cardio kickboxing, 21.3 percent; adventure racing, 20.0 percent; elliptical motion/cross-trainer, down 18.2 percent; weight/resistance machines, down 17.1 percent; rugby, 16.2 percent; roller hockey, 15.3 percent; softball (slow-pitch), 14.6 percent; skiing (alpine/downhill/freeski/telemark) 13.6 percent; stationary cycling (recumbent/upright), 13.4 percent; lacrosse, 11.4 percent; triathlon (traditional/road), 11.0 percent; track and field, 10.8 percent; and Tai Chi, 10.5 percent.

The Association’s report showed that America’s inactivity rate declined for the second year in a row, reaching its lowest levels in the organization’s annual survey.

The inactivity rate, measured as not participating in any of the 100 sports and activities it tracks, decreased by 0.7 percent, or 2.1 million individuals, to 72 million individuals. Lower inactivity levels in 2021 were primarily driven by the 18-to-24 and 25-to-34-year-old age groups, with youth inactivity, age groups 6-to-12 and 13-to-17, also decreasing for the fifth year in a row in its survey.

Compared to 2016, activity increased 7.8 percent, or 16.8 million, in the five years. Participation rates in team sports and health clubs recovered in 2021 but remained below pre-pandemic levels due to the lingering effects of pandemic restrictions. And while more Americans participated in “some” physical activity, the rate of regular sport and fitness participation lagged in many categories and demographic segments.

Cove shared seven predictions in the webinar:

  1. Overall sport and fitness participation rates will continue to be strong. “People are more aware of the mental benefits, the health benefits, the family and social benefits. People want to be physically active. It wasn’t always like that. Ten years ago, we couldn’t have said that exactly because we were seeing increased levels of inactivity. So that’s good, but it’s not something that can be taken for granted.”
  2. Outdoor soccer participation will continue to increase. “Soccer participation has a number of positive factors, especially starting at the six- and seven-year-olds levels as well as some upcoming major events, such as the World Cups, to generate excitement.”
  3. Recession hurts some sports more than others. Cove said that while travel teams in team sports have seen a healthy recovery from the early stages of the pandemic, they’re vulnerable should a recession develop and families cut back on discretionary spending.
  4. Pickleball is here to stay. Cove sees no signals that pickleball is a fad with a broad range of the population picking up the sport. He said, “It’s girls and boys and old and young and former tennis players and people who’ve never played before. It’s here to stay.”
  5. Fitness Clubs and boutiques will continue on slow recovery. Cove said part of the challenge is that 20 percent and 30 percent of all fitness club doors closed during COVID, according to IHRSA. He believes the fitness industry will find a way to recapture former members of those closed clubs. Said Cove, “The fitness industry is probably the most innovative and creative of any sector we have. There are constantly new formats, new products, new activities, new emotional connections. Whether Zumba, Pilates, Orangetheory, F45, the list goes on. If you go all the way back to aerobics in the 70s’, aerobics was the game changer back then and still is a game changer for people. So, we’re pretty gung-ho about it. It’s just going to take a lot longer than say other things that come bouncing back, like pickleball.”
  6. Group-based fitness activities will continue to recover. Cove said the key for club operators is understanding why people return to group-based activities. He observed, “Is it simply to be healthy? Is it for social reasons? What kind of flexibility do they want? What are the cost considerations? What are the safety considerations? Older people are still thinking about COVID. All of those are going to be the factors as to whether they come back fast or slow and it’s sustained.”
  7. Yoga’s growth has stabilized. Fundamentally strong for the future. Cove said that although yoga participation decreased for the first time in the last decade, it has expanded for many years and has a “very strong” foundation among activities. Said Cove, “We anticipate it has a long runway of steady healthy growth.”