Sport adoption is driven by cultural trends outside the industry. We see the following factors being critical in driving the rise and fall of youth sports over the next decade and a half.
While schools and sports governing bodies struggle with how to regulate gender participation, today’s kids are largely in agreement that amateur youth sports should embrace all comers. Sports that have diversity and inclusion as part of their cultural DNA—like Ultimate—will thrive.
Gen Z are content creators and social media natives. Sports that are close-up and camera-friendly have an advantage. Capturing and sharing moments of athletic grace—and epic fails—through handheld and helmet-mounted cam- eras or autonomous tracking drones will be a major driver in a sport’s popularity.
EXPANDED FIELDS OF PLAY
Certain sports are more flexible than others regarding where they can be played. While baseball needs a specific field setup, sports like urban mountain biking are open to the athlete’s imagination. The resurgence of skateboarding over the last generation is an example. Being creative about where you play is often part of the fun.
Outdoor sports that don’t require close contact between players have boomed since COVID-19 hit the rest of the sporting world like a wrecking ball. Sales of tennis equipment shot up after March 2020, according to the USTA, while municipal and private court reservation systems across the US strained to handle a surge in demand. Tennis and golf, which saw a 20% jump in participation, should be able to ride their renewed momentum even after the coronavirus recedes.
ACCESSIBLE TO THE THRIFT CLASS
Some sports start out only for the rich but rapidly drop in price due to advances in technology or lower cost manufacturing. Surfboards, for example, used to be handmade by craftsmen, costing $500–$1,000, but can now be mass-produced and sold for less than $200 at Walmart. At the same time, inland wave pools are proliferating, driving surf session prices downward rapidly, from a recent $9,500 per hour at Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch in 2017 to $90 for a one-hour session at the BSR Surf Resort in Waco, Texas, in 2020. Similar trends are in motion in drone racing, mountain biking, Onewheel and foil-augmented surfing and sailing. Vibrant and burgeoning secondhand marketplaces are making high-end equipment more accessible.
Hiring coaches has become one of the key expenses in youth sports. Activities like skateboarding that haven’t traditionally employed coaches will grow in appeal across the economic divide, as kids increasingly get their sports instruction from YouTube and Instagram.
Solo sports such as running, walking and biking can be uniquely enhanced by phone-based augmented reality. The worldwide interest in Pokémon Go was just the first example of a breakout use of this type of technology. Expect to see an explosion in AR as companies like Apple continue to add AR hardware to their offerings.
Certain sports are rising because they have combined elements of two or more activities. Snowboarding—which crossed surfing and skateboarding with skiing—and disc golf are two familiar examples. The most interesting mashups of activities are happening on the water. Big wave surfing, foil sailing and surfing, kiteboarding and stand-up paddling have become one large ecosystem sharing advances between activities. Such environments have even spawned their own stars, such as Maui-based Kai Lenny, who became famous for his multidisciplinary abilities on the water. Propelled by big corporate sponsors like Hurley, Nike, Red Bull, Tag Heuer and GoPro, Lenny chases the world’s biggest swells wherever they’re happening, captures it all by drone cam- era footage, and fuels his social media gold mine. Sports that can reach and build communities like Lenny’s will have outsized impact in 2035.
Alarmed by the NFL’s CTE crisis, parents are increasingly steering their kids away from sports with high rates of concussions. No surprise: tackle football has seen a steep decline at the youth level, while flag football is booming. Big surprise: the second-highest concussion rate is in girls’ soccer.
Which Field Sports Will Rise or Fall?
Sports played on traditional pitches will still have a place, but there will be winners and losers over the next two decades. Concussions and other injury concerns continue to be major factors determining which sports will grow in popularity.
Soccer will continue its reign as the world’s sport. The game appeals to all genders and economic classes and has devoted fan bases across cultures. Con- cussion concerns and knee and ankle injuries, particularly among girls, will create some headwinds for the sport and discourage specialization among non-elite players.
Tackle football’s concussion crisis and high rate of injuries relative to other sports, as well as the expense of equip- ment, will inhibit the sport’s adoption in the future. The sport will hang on for decades, particularly in Southern states where it is baked into local culture. But lawsuits and parental concerns will con- tinue to shrink the participant pool.
Flag football: Awareness of the long-term effects of head injuries has parents, schools, peewee leagues and the NFL promoting seven-player flag football. It is dynamic, fun, accessible, often mixed-gender, and will revitalize our love of this uniquely American game.
Baseball’s slow pace of play along with America’s declining “soft power” will continue the drag on the sport’s adoption among the world’s youth.
Hockey may be the sport most affected by COVID-19, as many rinks have permanently closed during the crisis. In addition, outdoor games and practices on ponds and lakes are being limited by a warming climate. These factors, combined with the cost, early morning practices and concussion concerns, decrease interest in the sport.
Lacrosse is currently on the rise, pro- viding a full-contact option for a nation of parents concerned about football’s CTE problem. The Premier Lacrosse League made a splash in the summer of 2020 as the first US professional league to design and complete a COVID-free “bubble season.” However, it runs the risk of self-sabotage due to a “pay- to-play” crisis, with the rising cost of coaching, training services, equipment and travel expenses slowing participation gains. To become a major sport in the US and abroad, lacrosse will have to transcend its reputation as a game for privileged college-bound kids.
Ultimate: The northeastern college players of the ’80s–’90s grew up, had kids and started coaching at their local high schools. Fifteen years of develop- ing the game has attracted some of the best athletes who might have chosen basketball, soccer or track. It is one of the fastest-growing sports nationwide, includes mixed-gender team opportunities, and has its own professional league and livestreamed coverage. In 2017, USA Ultimate re-signed a network deal with ESPN to air 69 of their games over the next three years on its network of channels, evenly broadcasting between three divisions: men’s, women’s and mixed. This has only helped increase awareness of the sport and has led to positive growth every year, as USA Ultimate full-year membership among kids under the age of 18 has increased 9.4 percent in the same time frame.
Interest has waned in most team sports played on the traditional pitch, with kids moving to sedentary group-connected virtual sports and games. Racing sports using drones and powered bikes cause many injuries due to speed as kids and young adults look for stronger adrenaline highs. Device proliferation—every child has one—drives a decline in participation in all sports because kids would rather disappear into virtual worlds, and this drop in participation decimates the number of organized sports available.
Breakthroughs in AI, mental health research and exercise psychology have spawned new programs rooted in kinesiology and learning. The convergence of 5G and XR technology has gotten kids moving and increased the number of mixed-gender competitive sports. Physical education in schools has been refined to offer more personalized and holistic sports experiences for kids. There has been an increased blurring between classroom, playground and gym to create PE/classroom hybrid sports. Club sport participation in college booms, as more kids have the avenues to continue their sporting interests, even if they are not playing for varsity college teams.