Study: Nearly 230 Million Americans Were Active in 2020, Up by 8 Million

March 15, 2021

The number of Americans taking part in at least one sporting activity has taken a step in the right direction.

The 2021 Sports, Fitness, and Leisure Activities Topline Participation Report, compiled by Sports Marketing Surveys and the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) shows that 229.7 million Americans were active in 2020, 8 million more than in 2019.

The figures come from robust research conducted among 18,000 nationally representative households, conducted by the research partnership of Sports Marketing Surveys (SMS) and the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA).

It means that just over three quarters of Americans took part in one of the 120 prompted activities during the year. It is a second consecutive year of growth. While that is cause for congratulations, it is also worth bearing in mind that that leaves almost a quarter of Americans doing no activity at all. Who are these people, and how can they find a sport or activity which they would enjoy and which might prove beneficial to their mental and physical health? That is the question that sports federations looking to boost participation and entry-level programs will be asking.

Generationally, there is both good and bad news to be discovered by digging deeper into the research. On the one hand, those aged 18-24 and 25-34 were the only two age groups where inactivity rose. Economic and work pressures affected this group disproportionately, as did the closure of college campuses, which ended the seasons for many who might otherwise have taken part in team or individual sports in particular. On the other hand, in findings that should be a beacon of hope for the sports and fitness industry, children were more likely to be active than at any point in the last five years.

Team sports remain key drivers of activity for America’s kids, as well as accounting for many of those sports that young people are most likely to want to play in the future. However, there are also opportunities for other sports to introduce a new generation. Those aged 6-12 are also likely to want to consider individual sports, including tennis and golf, as well as outdoor pursuits like camping and fishing. The same is true in the 13-17 age band, although fitness activities and workouts start to become more popular. In fact, the research highlights important differences in sporting preferences between boomers, Gen X, millennials and Gen Z. It is of particular note to see that outdoor sports, racquet sports, team sports and winter sports are all more popular among those born this millennium than previous generations. The research also underlines the importance of physical education in schools, showing the divide in adult activity levels according to whether people did or did not receive this in their childhoods. In fact, it is likely that the latter was one of the saving graces for team sports, with many coaches getting creative to encourage informal backyard practice to keep their players sharp at a time when many were playing fewer organized matches.

Age is not the biggest predictor of activity level. That remains income, with those who have higher household incomes more likely to exercise. There was good news in that sense too then that those from every income band are more likely to be active than they were this time last year. This is the first time that this has happened across all income groups.

What is increasingly clear is that the story of exercise, whether total participation, play occasions or demographics in 2020 was very different for different sports. Access to equipment and the closure of schools, campuses and fitness clubs created a system breakdown that cut certain people off from their usual exercise, and put many operators under severe financial pressure. For some Americans however, extra time saved by not commuting, for example, was used to do more of those activities they already did, or perhaps even to try something new. Some of the data on individual play occasions and demographics for sports on either side of the divide is eye popping. The same story, with certain categories like weights thriving while others struggled, played out at a retail level across the country too.

The leisure landscape constantly evolves, and this, combined with the ongoing effects of Coronavirus and the response, which has included wider digital, connected access to exercises that can be done from the comfort of the home, means that it is vital for those involved in sport to understand the micro-trends affecting their specific activity.

The topline participation report, which summarizes the overall situation is available for download from $349, and is free to SFIA members. Detailed reports on individual sports will be made available in the weeks and months to come.

Those interested in learning more about the research, or purchasing either an individual sport report, or SMS’ new dashboard service that makes interactive visualization and comparison between multiple sports easy, should contact [email protected].