Hoops slam dunk: Basketball adds to long streak as favorite major sport to play – Sports Business Journal

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Analysis shows baseball a distant second among team sports but still ahead of soccer, football and ice hockey
Basketball extended its now 14-year lead over baseball, soccer, football and ice hockey as the country’s most popular major participatory sport, according to a Sports Business Journal analysis of the 2022 State of the Industry Report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association and Sports Marketing Surveys USA.
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 age 6 and older.
A total of 27.1 million people age 6+ played basketball at least once in 2021, 11.5 million more than baseball, the country’s second-most popular major sport. Eight million claim to be core hoopsters — defined as playing at least 13 times per year — more than double the rate of baseball’s avid players.
To pad its lead, basketball added 480,000 core players 2016-2021 (up 3%), joining rugby (+29,000, or 1%) and flag football (+28,000, or 1%) as the only major-league-related team sports to show an increase during that time period of its most active players.
Pandemic-related restrictions, of course, negatively affected the participation rates of indoor and team sports.
While this analysis focuses on team sports, 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. For tennis, it was the sport’s highest rate ever, while golf had not topped the 25 million mark since 2012. 
As COVID restrictions abated in 2022, fast-pitch softball saw the biggest year-over-increase in overall participation (up 15.8%), as more than two million players hit the diamond. Gymnastics (up 10.9%, to 4.3 million) and court volleyball (up 8.1%, to 5.8 million), and swimming on a team (up 8%, to 2.9 million) also enjoyed a surge.
SFIA President and CEO Tom Cove, who has 33 years with the organization, said team participation will grow. “We’re pretty gung-ho in the immediate future of team sports,” said Cove. “Because kids are seeing that now, when you lose something you realize that maybe you took it for granted and you appreciate it more when you get it back. The data says there will be a pretty big bounce for team sports in the next couple years. All the leagues have really enhanced their ‘grow-the-game’ initiatives. It took them a while, but there is positive momentum for all the leagues.” (Watch our interview with Cove at the bottom of this story.)
Other notable highlights from the data:
■ One million 6- 12-year-olds competed in flag football at least 13 times in  2021, a survey-high increase of 29% compared to 2016. In fact, 57% of its most frequent players were ages 6-17.
■ Rugby saw similar growth among children, as the 160,000 who played the sport at least eight times in 2021 marked a 56% increase over 2016.
■ Seven of the 16 team sports saw an increase in the number of frequent female competitors: basketball (up 483,000, or 13%); track and field, (+90,000, or 12%); lacrosse (+43,000, or 14%); ice hockey (+40,000, or 21%); beach volleyball (+32,000, or 5%), indoor volleyball (+32,000, or 1%); and rugby (+13,000, or 19%). 
■ Each of the five major sports saw a double-digit decline, 2016 to 2021, in Asian Americans who participated in the sport.
Overall participation in baseball has topped 15.5 million in each of the past five years. The sport has seen an increase in participation of more than 20% since hitting a 14-year low of 13 million in 2012.
 Core participation (13 Times or more) had increased by about 300,000 from 2014-2019, to more than 9 million, but still lags well below the 11 million frequent participants that played in 2008. 8.2 million claimed to be a Core player in 2021, a year-over-year surge of 7.2% — the biggest jump of any major league — adding 550,000 players in the process.
■ Baseball’s growth among its Core players since 2016 has come from 18- 24-year-olds, as that demographic grew 30%, to 620,000. Additionally, 1.2 million Hispanics played at least 13 times last year, an increase of 3% since 2016.
■ 45% of baseball participants in 2021 were age 6-12, the highest rate among the major sports.
MLB’s baseball and softball development department was created in 2015 after Rob Manfred became commissioner in January of that year. Tony Reagins leads the department as chief baseball development officer. The department includes 25 full-time staffers and a host of part-timers as well.
“From Day 1, I think Commissioner Manfred has made it a priority to focus on young people playing baseball and softball,” said Reagins. “I think that he’s been true to the emphasis on growing the sport with youth in everything that he’s put forward.”
Casual participation (2-12 times per year) increased from 6.7 million to 8.1 million (up 21.5%) from 2019 to 2020.
Reagins called out the success of the Little League Classic and the “A Dream Fulfilled” youth baseball exhibition on the “Field of Dreams” movie site, featuring the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program (launched in 1989).
One example is the Dream Series, a showcase event focused on the dynamics of pitching and catching for a diverse group of high school elite athletes — predominantly Black athletes — from across the country during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. The event, established in 2017, is operated by MLB and USA Baseball.
Black players made up four of the first five selections for the first time in MLB draft history: No. 2 Druw Jones, (Arizona); No. 3 Kumar Rocker (Texas); No. 4 Termarr Johnson (Pittsburgh); and No. 5 Elijah Green (Washington). All four players are also alumni of the Dream Series program. In addition, six of the first 18 picks were Black (33.0%), with all being alumni of MLB Development programming.
“In 2015, we thought it was really important to encourage young people to play our sport, baseball and softball, in an informal way as a connection to the sport,” said Reagins. “And we launched the Play Ball initiative, where we go into communities that are less fortunate, that really, I wouldn’t say were forgotten by baseball, but baseball hadn’t really been connected to in the past.”
Additionally, in 2021, MLB began specifically partnering with Black churches around the country via Drive Thru Play Ball events where children received equipment to play the game at home, in their neighborhoods and in any other non-traditional baseball setting.
Reagins also pointed to a more unified effort with Minor League Baseball and its 120 affiliates since its restructuring was announced last year.
“We had 10 MiLB teams raise their hand to start an RBI league in their community,” he said. “So what we hope comes from that is that the other 110 to join and allow us to scale that program.”
■ Overall, 12.6 million Americans played soccer in 2021, an increase of 1.2 million players (10%) since its 14-year low that was established in 2018. Participation has risen three straight years.
■ Core participants (those who play 26 or more times per year) has been stagnant at  approximately 5 million since 2018 (excluding 2020, where 900,000 sat out), and is down 23% from its peak in 2010.
■ The sport added 38,000 Core players ages 13-17 year old since 2016 (up 19%, to 242,000). In terms of percentage increase, only rugby (+53%) saw a bigger jump.
■ 43% of Core players are female, (up from 38% in 2016), the most among the major league sports.
■ 18- 34-year-olds now make up 18.6% of all Core players, up 3 percentage points from 2016.
■ Hispanics make up 1/5 of the Core players, up from 17% in 2016.
Since 2007, each MLS team has had its own youth academy aimed at developing homegrown players. Many academy graduates have gone on to play professionally, either in MLS or elsewhere. In 2020, MLS launched a youth league called MLS Next in the U.S. and Canada that now includes more than 600 teams and 13,000 players across six age groups (from under-13 to under-19). The organization also plans to provide more opportunities to more players to broaden the pool of talent exposed to its player pathway. No-cost and low-cost programs will be introduced around the country to reduce barriers for new players.
While participation still lags behind the nearly 14 million who played between 2008 and 2011, the uptick over the past three years is an encouraging sign.
■ 2.3 Americans claimed to be a player in 2021, a jump of 23% since the sport’s low point in 2008, down 14% from its high of 2.7 million in 2016.
■ 1.1 million were Core participants (13+ times/year) in 2021, flat from annual totals 2008-2011, but down 18% from its peak of 1.3 million 2016-2019.
■ Viewing the demographics as a pie chart, 84% of all Core players in 2021 were white, up significantly from 73% in 2016. Only 177,000 of Core players in 2021 were non-white, a drop of 184,000. Additionally, women made up 21% of the 1.1 million Core players last year, up from 14.6% in 2016.
■ From 2016 to 2021, Core participation growth came primarily from women (up to 234,000 players, or +21%), and age 13-17 (up to 242,000, or +19%).
The NHL has several initiatives aimed at promoting participation, both in organized ice hockey and more informal forms of play like street hockey. The league’s Learn to Play program has provided more than 140,000 children ages 5-9 head-to-toe gear at no charge and six to eight weeks of on-ice instruction for a nominal fee. Rob Knesaurek, NHL vice president of industry growth, said 50% of participants in the program continue to play hockey, a figure he attributes to the involvement of NHL clubs in creating a memorable experience for the kids. He added that the league is also focused on increasing the number of girls and children of color in the program.
■ Overall, approximately 7 million Americans competed in flag football in each of the previous two studies, a 26% increase over the 2015 study. From 2016-2021, that growth came primarily from a 24% increase (to 1.6 million) in the number of players age 6-13; Black players (up 92,000, or +21%); and Hispanics (up 61,000, or +16%). Additionally, 35% (973,000) of the sport’s players are Black or Hispanic, the biggest such share among the major sports.
■ 5.2 million played tackle football in 2021, a 33% decrease from the 14-year high set in 2008. The 2.6 million core participants (26+ times/year) last year marked a 14-year decline of 39%.
■ The decline came primarily by the shedding of 800,000 core participants (-23%) 2016-2021, including 429,000 (-17%) players age 6-17.
■ Despite a participation decline by every age, gender and ethnic group, Black players make up 24% of the 2.6 million core players compared to 21% in 2016.
The NFL has pushed all teams to have a youth strategy, and the league has also tried to work directly with current and retired players who work in youth or scholastic football environments, said Roman Oben, the NFL’s vice president of football development and member of the SFIA board of directors.
One message Oben believes has gotten through is that football today has changed from when many retirees played — the game is more about athleticism and finesse than it was a generation ago, and it should be taught as such.
“I think we’ve been consistent about teaching proper technique, the language and drill selection of practice, and communicating to our legends that this isn’t the same game it was when I played in 1995,” Oben said. “It’s a lot more athletic, it’s a lot more passing, and more strategic, the defenses aren’t just going downfield for the collision, they have to defend horizontally and vertically.”
Oben believes the NFL’s work on health and safety messaging has broken through, and there’s less talk about banning football altogether now.
Flag football has shown signs of strength, both as a way of engaging girls and women as football players and as a way to keep casual players involved. “We look at this world that marginalizes the recreational participant, and flag football is the opposite. We take all comers, ” he said.
The NFL is excited about signs of growth among Latinos, Oben said. SFIA shows flag football participation among Latinos surged 440,000 last year (up 16% from 2016). “When you look at that southern [Interstate] 10 line — Jacksonville to Los Angeles —  there’s definitely a rise and increase in Latino participation.”
■ The number of Core participants has increased four straight years and grown 8% over that period. From 2016-2021, that growth came primarily from women (+483,000, or 13%); players age 25-34 (+354,000, or 18%); Blacks (+346,000, or 12%); and Hispanics (+261,000, or 14%).
■ 4.2 million, or 26%, of all core players are age 6-12.
In 2020, the Jr. NBA launched a lineup of virtual programming and online youth development events. They generated more than 210 million views from youth players and fans in 118 countries throughout the 2019-20 season alone. Jr. NBA Leagues, a new national network of youth basketball leagues for boys and girls ages 6-14, will begin in November. The initiative is aimed at addressing access and equity issues that were exacerbated during the pandemic.
“We know that those impacts are not felt equally, they are not felt equally across socioeconomic lines, across racial lines, and across gender lines,” said David Krichavsky, NBA SVP, head of youth development. “And so we felt that we needed to do more. That’s really where the initiative comes from.”
Staff writers Erik Bacharach, Ben Fischer, Eric Prisbell and Alex Silverman contributed to reporting for this package.
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