In 2021, 232.6 million Americans took part in sports and fitness activities, the most since 2016, according to the new State of the Industry Report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association and Sports Marketing Surveys USA. Additionally, the majority of sporting goods manufacturers reported year-over-year profitability growth, and more than three-quarters of executives at those companies feel that their industry has a strong future.
The year-round survey has been fielded annually since 2008 and consists of a nationwide sample of 18,000 respondents from proprietary online panels representative of the U.S. population for people ages 6 and older.
Basketball remained the most popular sport, with 27.1 million participants, and its average annual increase of 4.1% across the previous five years was also tops among major-league team sports.
The hottest sport in the country continues to be pickleball, with 4.8 million playing it last year, marking a surge of 39% during the pandemic and an average annual increase of 11.5% since 2017.
Pickleball trailed only softball in terms of year-over-year growth (+14.8%), and 75% of the sport’s core players (defined by SFIA as players who play eight or more times per year) are age 55 and older.
The four sports beyond pickleball that saw the biggest year-over-year increase in participation skew toward younger athletes and usually involve travel: fast-pitch softball (up 15.3% over 2020); gymnastics (+10.9%); indoor volleyball (+8.1%); and swimming on a team (+8.0%).
“MLB expanded their work with USA Softball, and created a softball division for the Jr. Home Run Derby. Nike expanded their specific fast-pitch product line, and the attention given to collegiate softball by ESPN and others has created a spotlight on the game,” said LeagueApps President Jeremy Goldberg, whose platform is used by amateur sports organizations to streamline tasks such as registrations, schedules and document sharing.
Nine- or 18-hole golf and tennis were the most popular individual sports, with 25.1 million and 22.6 million participants, respectively. Each sport’s governing body reported that more than three million of those players were doing so for the first time ever.
The increase in sports participation led to a record year-over-year 15.8% bump in wholesale prices of athletic footwear, apparel, sports and fitness equipment, accessories, and licensed products, according to information from the study’s more than 300 industry C-level executives.
“We’re a mature, legacy business,” said SFIA President and CEO Tom Cove. “Even when you have a new Nike release or a Peloton, there’s almost never a double-digit growth. The industry is just so huge that one thing or trend on its own rarely causes a significant change.”
Fifty-nine percent of manufacturers reported year-over-year profitability growth for 2021 — below a high-water mark of 81.7% in 2014 but the best since 2015 — and 79% of sporting goods executives believe that their industry has a strong future (see chart), the highest level of optimism in the six years that the question has been asked.
Source: State of the Industry Report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association and Sports Marketing Surveys USA