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While basketball, baseball, and outdoor soccer still attract the most team-sports athletes in the US, overall participation in these and other traditional team sports is down this year, according to a report by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA).

The analysis, “US Trends in Team Sports,” for 2009, found that the popularity of traditional team sports in the America is being undermined by four key factors: The struggling economy, the growing popularity of developing sports, overall declines in ‘pickup’ play, and a rising interest in single-sport specialization by many athletes.

1. Economy Making Fees Unaffordable: The struggling US economy has been one of the biggest factors affecting team sports play, according to SGMA President Tom Cove, who said that many families have not been able to afford the basic fees for their children to play in local recreational sports programs or to play on some travel teams.

2. Developing Sports Gain Appeal: The increased popularity of developing sports such as lacrosse, rugby, paintball, and ultimate frisbee has attracted athletes who used to play traditional sports such as football, basketball, and baseball.

3. Decline in Pickup Sports: The continued overall decline in ‘pickup’ and sandlot play in neighborhoods and parks continues to hurt overall participation numbers, the report found. However, while ‘pickup’ and sandlot play for team sports, as a whole, is down across the country, some team sports are showing an increase in ‘pick-up’ play. In 2008, there were seven team sports where casual/pick-up play exceeded organized/sanctioned play. Those sports were basketball, ice hockey, field hockey, touch football, lacrosse, grass volleyball, and beach volleyball. SGMA suggested that this is the result of athletes and their families feeling the pinch of the economy and choosing less expensive ways to play sports by using public facilities such as parks for ‘pick-up’ games of basketball, grass volleyball, beach/sand volleyball, and touch football, for instance.

4. One-Sport Focus Increases: The three-sport athlete in high school is a dying breed, according to SGMA, which reported that young athletes, especially in high school, are now focusing their attention on just one or two sports throughout the year as opposed to playing one sport in the fall, one in the winter, and one in the spring.

Rich Luker of the Luker Company, an analyst of community trends in the US said that the second half of last year caused many Americans to hit the ‘reset button’ on how they live, which in turn affected team sports. “Concern about high gasoline prices and the mortgage crisis impacted sports participation patterns and how American families spent money to support their athletic interests,” he noted.

Luker added that sports that cost more or took more involvement to play took a ‘hit’ and many people were more focused on life essentials than on exercise or enjoying athletic competition. “The financial challenges? families faced last year caused them to look for easier, inexpensive athletic outlets.”

The SGMA also said several other economic factors are driving the team sports business:

  • Retail Changes: Continued consolidation is taking place at the team dealer level as large regional team dealers are rolled up into larger, national organizations.
  • Product Innovation: New brands with innovative products are looking for shelf space as established brands are moving to reinforce their existing franchises with team dealers in the footwear, protective and uniform categories.
  • Rules and Standards: Changes by the governing bodies of sports are creating challenges for manufacturers as the governing bodies seek to control the sport venue and manufacturers continue to seek ways to differentiate their products.
  • School Budget Considerations: Despite signs of economic recovery, reduced budgets are coming into effect as schools finalize their team equipment purchases for the 2009-2010 school year. While the core team business will continue to be a strong engine driving the sporting goods industry, SGMA believes the next 12 months will be a challenging period of time for those in the team sports business.

Additional report findings and sports facts:

  • Sports that have had significant gains in participation since 2007 are court volleyball (up 17.2%), indoor soccer (up 11.8%), rugby (up 11.8%), and beach volleyball (up 7.5%).
  • Overall play in high-school sports rose again. A record 7,429,381 high-school students played high-school sports in the 2007-08 school year.
  • ?Nearly 45% of all basketball players are over the age of 25.
  • Females account for the majority of participants in cheerleading, fast-pitch softball, gymnastics, and court volleyball.
    The average age of a flag football player (23.9) is three years younger than the average age of a touch football player (27.0).
  • Of the three forms of volleyball (grass, beach, and court) grass volleyball is the one with the oldest average participant age (33.2 years).
  • ?The combined category of baseball/softball leads in overall equipment sales – at $602 million (at wholesale) in 2008; football is #1 for wholesale sales of team uniforms ($358 million); baseball is #1 for wholesale sales of team footwear ($321 million).
  • Since 1990, female participation in high school lacrosse has more than quadrupled.
  • In paintball, 55% of the players are under the age of 25, while 45% of the players are over the age of 25.
  • Of all the team sports featured in the SGMA study, rugby has the highest percentage of first-time players – 44%.
    Football is the #1 sport for high school boys while basketball and track & field are running ‘neck and neck’ as the two most popular sports for high school girls.

About the research: The team sports featured in the report include basketball, cheerleading, field hockey, football (flag), football (tackle), football (touch), gymnastics, ice hockey, lacrosse, paintball, roller hockey, rugby, soccer (indoor), soccer (outdoor), softball (fast pitch), softball (slow pitch), track & field, ultimate frisbee, volleyball (beach), volleyball (court), volleyball (grass), and wrestling. Data for the report was compiled from from various sources, including the US Census Bureau, NCAA, NFSHSA, NCYS, Pop Warner Football, AAU, Little League Baseball, USA Volleyball, USA Softball, Dixie Baseball/Softball, PONY Baseball/Softball, Babe Ruth Softball, RBI, American Legion Baseball, American Amateur Baseball Congress, USYSA, USA Hockey, and ESPN Sports Poll.

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