Pickleball Power Surge: SFIA's 52% Growth Revelation

As per the latest Topline Participation Report by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), a formidable 13.6 million Americans ventured into the domain of the sizzling new racquet sport last year. This catapults pickleball into a league akin to baseball (16.7 million) and outdoor soccer (14.1 million), positioning it just ahead of the thrills of downhill skiing (13.1 million). The numbers resonate with the dynamic ebb and flow of sporting preferences, illuminating pickleball's meteoric rise within the American recreational landscape.

In 2022, the burgeoning wave of pickleball surged with an impressive 86% year-over-year participation growth. This fervor transcended into 2023, showcasing a robust 52% escalation over the preceding 12 months. A paramount revelation unfolded within the pickleball domain – a staggering 111% surge in "core" participants, indicative of fervent engagement, defined by the SFIA as eight or more times a year.

While the reigning champion, christened curiously after a deli sandwich companion, claimed victory for the second consecutive year, a multitude of sports witnessed expansive growth. Off-course golf escapades, resonating with the rhythmic thud of drives at the driving range, surged in popularity during the pandemic, maintaining momentum with a commendable 19% boost in 2023. Two other social-friendly individual sports, ice skating and bowling, embraced a 13% and 12% surge in total participation, adding diverse layers to the sports landscape.

The broader American sports tableau exhibited a compelling narrative in 2023. The percentage of participants soared for the fifth consecutive year, culminating at an impressive 78.8%, up from 72.7% in 2018. Notably, the proactive demographic consisted of individuals aged 65 and over, whose activity rate catapulted from 59.3% five years ago to a commendable 72% in 2023.

In a reflective glance at team sports, a paradigm shift unfolded. Core participation, which witnessed a decline between 2019 and 2022, experienced a resurgence in 2023. Individuals, particularly students and young adults, who had distanced themselves from rec leagues during the pandemic, returned, fueling a core participation surge in 13 of the 23 team sports. Noteworthy spikes were observed in indoor soccer (6%) and team swimming (6%), with flag football following closely at 4%.

The NFL's fervent advocacy for flag football, showcased in the Pro Bowl and ambitions for Olympic inclusion in 2028, juxtaposed an intriguing fact – a 3% dip in core flag football players over the past eight years. This decline, though overshadowed by the -31% in tackle football participation, suggests a nuanced shift in sporting preferences. Notably, only outdoor soccer and basketball retained more core participants than their pre-COVID stature in 2019.

Contrasting the ebb in core participation, total participation witnessed an upward trajectory over the past four years for a majority of team sports. Across diverse sports categories defined by the SFIA – spanning fitness, outdoor, individual, racquet, team, water, and winter sports – a universal resurgence unfolded. Winter sports, albeit the smallest segment, stood out with nearly one in every 10 Americans participating. The trio of snowshoeing (+17%), snowboarding (+10%), and cross-country skiing (+10%) showcased significant popularity spikes, while downhill skiing experienced a modest 2% bump.

In the realm of strength and conditioning, intriguing shifts were noted. Tai chi (+16%), pilates (+15%), and barre (+13%) emerged as movers, drawing in new enthusiasts. Notably, these increments predominantly resonated among casual participants, with core participation rates experiencing only marginal shifts.

SFIA CEO Tom Cove encapsulated the post-pandemic scenario, noting, “During the pandemic, while some sports like pickleball, golf, tennis, and hiking skyrocketed, others, including many team sports and health club activities, suffered. I am happy to report that this year the participation data is consistent, and consistently positive.” This mosaic of insights paints a vivid picture of the evolving landscape of American sports participation.