Lev Akabas- Sportico - Mar 2nd 2024

According to the annual Topline Participation Report from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), 13.6 million Americans last year tried their hand at the hot new racquet sport. That puts pickleball in the same league as baseball (16.7 million) and outdoor soccer (14.1 million) and just ahead of downhill skiing (13.1 million).

Flourish logoA Flourish chart

The pickleball takeover began in 2022, when participation grew by 86% year-over-year, but the fad carried over into 2023, with a 52% jump over the prior 12 months. More significant for those in the pickleball equipment and apparel space is that there was a 111% increase in “core” participants, meaning those who take part frequently enough to reflect a passion for the activity (defined by the SFIA as eight or more times in a year for pickleball).

While the biggest winner for the second straight year was the sport named after the thing that comes with deli sandwiches for some reason, many other sports grew their bases as well. Off-course golf outings, such as hitting at the driving range, exploded in popularity during the pandemic as folks searched for socially distanced activities, but the trend continued in 2023 with another 19% boost in participation. Two other individual sports that can be done casually for social purposes, ice skating and bowling, grew their total participation by 13% and 12%, respectively.

The percentage of Americans who took part in a sport or physical activity in 2023 increased for the fifth straight year to land at 78.8%, up from 72.7% in 2018. The cohort of Americans that has been most proactive in getting off of their couches has been folks aged 65 and over, whose activity rate climbed from just 59.3% five years ago all the way to 72% in 2023.

Last year, we wrote about how core participation for nearly every single team sport that the SFIA tracks declined between 2019 and 2022. Students and young adults were failing to return to rec leagues after they shut down during 2020 and 2021. In 2023, some of those players whom the pandemic left behind returned, as core participation increased for 13 of the 23 team sports. Indoor soccer and team swimming led the way with increases of 6% each, and flag football was next at 4%.

Flourish logoA Flourish chart

The NFL has actively promoted flag football in recent years, including playing it in the Pro Bowl and pushing for its inclusion in the 2028 Summer Olympics lineup. Therefore, it is noteworthy that there are fewer core flag football players in the country than there were eight years ago (-3%), even though participation numbers for tackle football have suffered much more (-31%). Nearly every team sport’s base of devoted players is still diminished from the pre-COVID era, however, as only two have more core participants than they did in 2019: outdoor soccer and basketball.

In contrast to core participation, total participation has increased over the past four years for a majority of team sports.

In fact, every sports category defined by the SFIA (fitness sports, outdoor sports, individual sports, racquet sports, team sports, water sports and winter sports) increased its overall number of participants in 2023. Although still the smallest segment, winter sports grew the most last year, as nearly one out of every 10 Americans partook. Snowshoeing (+17%), snowboarding (+10%) and cross country skiing (+10%) each increased significantly in popularity, while downhill skiing experienced a smaller 2% bump.

There were also some movers in the strength-and-conditioning category, as tai chi (+16%), pilates (+15%) and barre (+13%) all brought new members into the fold. Notably, those increases were mostly in the number of casual participants, while core participation rates moved only slightly.

“During the pandemic, participation in some sports, like pickleball, golf, tennis and hiking skyrocketed, but others, including many team sports and health club activities, suffered,” SFIA CEO Tom Cove wrote. “I am happy to report that this year the participation data is consistent, and consistently positive.”