The Surge in Sports Participation: Why Teens Play and Why They Don’t

Matt Hay

July 2018

The Surge in Sports Participation: Why Teens Play and Why They Don’t

In the past decade, there have been frequent reports about the decline in sports participation. But in a reverse of that trend, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) recently revealed sport participation is growing again. While the SFIA study details what participants are playing, we thought it important to understand why the growth is occurring, so in June 2018 Fuse surveyed 2,000 US teens to find out.

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The Fastest Growing Sports and Why Teens Play Them

According to the SFIA, the five fastest growing sports are:

  • Lacrosse
  • Rugby
  • Field Hockey
  • Ice Hockey
  • Cheerleading

In some cases, the growth of these sports has been due to expanding its geographic footprint. For instance, lacrosse, a sport traditionally most popular in the Eastern U.S., can largely attribute its growth by way of its Western expansion. To further promote this growth, the NCAA recently approved a $1.3 million-dollar budget to expand Division II men’s and women’s lacrosse tournaments in 2019, adding conferences and reworking regions to encourage additional growth in the Western U.S.

The increased visibility of rugby has been central to its growth for the last several years. In 2016, the sport reported an increase in U.S. high school athletes playing rugby ten times more than the decade prior. Today, there are over 800 college teams in America. Prominent events have likely contributed to this rapid growth, including the All Blacks visit to Chicago in 2014, the debut of rugby sevens at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and USA’s hosting of the 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament in San Francisco.

In Fuse’s study, these five fastest growing sports correlated most closely with why teens say they choose to play sports. Those top three reasons are:

  • Fun – 83% say they participate for fun
  • Exercise – 75% play as a form of exercise
  • Success – 72% say they play for the sense of success and accomplishment it gives them

While sports like track & field, swimming, and baseball remain popular, they did not correlate as strongly with “fun, exercise, or success” in our study.

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Participation at an All-Time High, But Why Teens Quit If They Do

Total high school athletics participants reached an all-time high in 2017 at nearly 8 million, with increases reported across both boys’ and girls’ programs. Today, more than 60 sports are offered by public high schools in the U.S. with basketball topping the list as the most popular boys’ and girls’ sport. For girls, the three most popular programs were basketball, track & field, and volleyball. And although football remains the No. 1 participatory sport for boys at the high school level, the number of participants had a small decline, even with the increase in total number of schools offering the sport.

While it’s certainly great news that high school sports participation is up, it’s also important to understand (and try to correct) why so many teens quit playing sports. The top three reasons teens stop playing sports are:

  • Lost Interest: 38% 38%
  • Didn’t Like the Coach: 22% 22%
  • Wasn’t Fun Anymore: 21% 21%

These explanations easily outnumbered the often-discussed reasons like over-involved parents, large time commitment, and costs of playing. Again, we perceive this as relatively good news, as it seems that teens are leaving sports for similar reasons they stop their participation in other extracurricular activities. If that’s the case, youth and high school sports doesn’t appear to be any more “flawed” than music, the debate team, or the student newspaper.

bouncing basketball

The Critical Role of the Casual Participant

A key factor in 2017 sports participation growth was “casual” participants. SFIA defines casual participation as playing as little as one time per year. Casual sports participation 2017 growth included:

  • Basketball up 14%
  • Flag Football up 10%
  • Baseball up 6%

While casual sport participation may not seem as important as “core” participation (core participation is defined differently for each sport, but high school team sports is an example of core), it’s key to the overall health and physical fitness of Gen Z. Nearly 60% of our survey respondents consider themselves casual participants – and most are participating in three or more sports throughout the year.

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Taking Action

To create and activate the most relevant experiences for youth and teens, brands need to understand the cultural shifts happening across the sports landscape.  From regional sports growing nationwide to reaching casual participants, the time is now for brands to capitalize on surging and emerging sports.

Contact us to learn more about teens and young adults or visit our Thought Leadership blog.