Using Statistics to understand youth Team Sports

Team Market Analysis

Mike May is the director of communications for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA), the national trade association for manufacturers of sporting goods equipment, sports apparel, athletic footwear and sports licensed products. May serves as a national spokesman for the organization on a number of issues including trends in sports participation, new product introductions, and the growing global interest in sports and recreational activities. May is the editor of SGMA's weekly electronic newsletter, In Brief. He also makes frequent appearances around the country on local and national television news programs as a guest discussing the latest innovations and product introductions in the sporting goods industry.

The growth in youth team sports since 2009 is now being fueled by America’s 13 and 14 year-olds, the peak ages of team sports participation for children. Nearly 70 percent of children (age six to 17) in the U.S. are playing team sports and three out of four teenagers are now playing at least one team sport. Those are just a few of the key findings of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association’s (SGMA) annual participation study on team sports—U. S. Trends in Team Sports (2011 edition).

“The U.S. is truly a team sports-driven society,” SGMA President Tom Cove says. “While children represent the foundation and the roots of the team sports experience in the U.S., millions of Americans are also connected to team sports in a variety of ways—as athletes, coaches, parents, administrators, sponsors and fans.”

According to SGMA, five team sports have had strong gains in participation since 2009. They are beach volleyball (up 12.3 percent), gymnastics (up 19.7 percent), field hockey (up 21.8 percent), lacrosse (up 37.7 percent), and rugby (up 50.7 percent). Four more traditional mainstream team sports experienced single-digit growth in overall participation: baseball (up 5.2 percent), basketball (up 9.6 percent), outdoor soccer (up 2.8 percent), and tackle football (up 1.6 percent). In 2010, sports participation among 13 and 14 year-olds increased by 22 and 14 percent, respectively, versus 2009.

“Team sports bring us together as young children. They teach us to socialize, solve problems, resolve disputes, experience the benefits of hard work, understand different personalities and gain self-confidence and direction,” said Neil Schwartz, director of business development for SGMA research.

Pulse of the market

Team sports in the U.S. (for people of all ages) are being organized, supported, coached, and funded by people across the country that range from local volunteers to retail team dealers, from politicians to event organizers and high school athletic directors. They all have an important role to play in this process.

“Each of the pillars of youth sports—fitness, access, nutrition and safety—is vital to raising a healthy nation,” said Congressman Mike McIntyre (D-NC), a member of the Congressional Caucus on Youth Sports. “We’ve got to motivate our kids to stay active and eat right. Fitness and nutrition can prevent a range of chronic disease, including diabetes, heart disease, cancer and stroke. Ensuring access to sport and fitness opportunities is vital to connecting our nation’s youth with the vast benefits that come from participating in sports.”

With this emphasis on health, the question of participation is not so much about why, but about how to make the activities accessible. Todd Miller, founder of in Washington, D.C., found a way to make that easier. “While driving my kids around to find team sports (opportunities) in the Washington, D.C. area, I was struck by what a difficult process it was. Combining my passions for sports and technology, I launched to aggregate all the information on local sports and put it in one place.”

The online tool allows sports providers, both non-profit and for-profit, to communicate their offerings that were previously promoted by word of mouth. Parents and kids can search for activities by location, day of the week, skill level and time, Miller reports. It also provides team sports dealers a resource for connecting with local teams and activities, for keeping up-to-date on what’s in season and to help determine market needs at any time.

Browsing through the site and seeing the plethora of activities available provides a steady indicator that the market is as healthy as its participants. Even despite a tumultuous economic climate, Wayne Ryan, athletic director and varsity girls’ basketball coach at Summers County High School in Hinton, West Virginia, reports that the school has not had to cut back or eliminated any sports programs. “In this small town, our teams are a source of pride, so businesses in the community are very good to us.”

Age of activity

Outside of the opportunities for club sports, it’s a well-known fact amongst decorators that scholastic sports present one of the most obvious target markets for team sports sales. In order to understand that demographic, let’s take a look at the breakdown and what drives the younger participants.

Consider the following statistics:

The Youngsters: Gymnastics has the highest percentage of six- to 12-year-olds, as 48 percent of all gymnasts are in that age group.

Teens at Play: Track and field has the highest percentage of 13 to 17 year-olds, as 44 percent of all track and field athletes are in that age group.

The College Scene: Ultimate frisbee has the highest percentage of 18 to 24 year-olds, as 31 percent of all ultimate frisbee participants are in that age group.

“As for youth sports, I see a number of trends, including a tendency toward more competition and specialization at younger ages,” said Steve Viarengo, general manager—team sports for the Active Network. “The days of the three-sport athlete seem to have passed; kids get dialed into their sport much earlier. In terms of competition, soccer, for example, used to be more recreational. Now, kids play not just the team across town, but on a regional level; and not just in the fall, but in spring and summer, as well.”

Getting to that level, according to SGMA, has everything to do with participation in physical education (P.E.) classes as children. The Association reports a strong correlation between taking and enjoying a physical education class in school as a child and the odds of participating in any team sport.

As school districts eliminate or reduce physical education classes for young students, it will have a potentially negative impact on enrollments and interest in locally organized youth sports opportunities, such as tackle football, outdoor soccer, basketball, baseball and lacrosse.

At the buzzer

While team sports remain the initial ‘entry point’ for most youngsters who want to experience athletic competition, the key to this market’s survival is that it continues to aggressively market presence and availability to athletes of all ages. Apparel decorators that understand the challenges and realities of this segment are those that will win bids in the competitive market. 

Core Participation by Age: This Graphic demonstrates the mix of ages among all core participants in each sport. 

Teams Not Always Organized. This chart shows the mix of venues used among all participants in each sport, indicating the opportunity more specialized, targeted sales.