Yoga, outdoor sports thrived during COVID-19 in 2020

Yoga, running/walking, soccer, skateboarding and other outdoor sports topped Americans' activity during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. (Photo by SFIA)

The Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) hosted a webinar on Thursday, Feb. 25 examining the “Analysis of Sports & Fitness Participation in 2020.”

Alli Schulman, manager of communications and marketing at SFIA, hosted the online discussion. It featured expert analysis from Tom Cove, president and CEO of the SFIA.

As you may expect, at-home, outdoor and socially distanced sports thrived last year while other sports suffered the brunt of the impact from COVID-19. Yoga was named one of the top sports that gained participants in 2020.

“A lot of fitness activities were up: Running, hiking, walking,” Cove explained. “But some of the key fitness actives were way down: treadmill, stair climbing, things that you would do in a club. The same thing with individual sports. You see a decline there even though some individual sports were up. Golf was up significantly but bowling, you can understand why, was down. Bowling is a big activity for a lot of Americans. Outdoor sports clearly benefitted, very obviously why. Racquet sports, not only tennis, but other racquet sport was up. Team sports were down and they down dramatically in an organized way but they were lifted by informal and practice. Water sports and winter were kind of flat because most of the winter was already done by the time COVID hit.”

In 2020, Yoga increased by 7.1 percent, walking increased by 5.5 percent and running/jogging was up by 4.5 percent. Outdoor sports like basketball increased by 23.7 percent, baseball increased by 21.5 percent and soccer was up by 21.8 percent. Meanwhile, treadmill usage was down by 31.3 percent last year and stationary cycling was down by 31.9 percent.

Alli Schulman, manager of communications and marketing at SFIA, hosted the online discussion. It featured expert analysis from Tom Cove, president and CEO of the SFIA.

How many people did some sport or activity last year?

“Last year, in 2020, there was such an interesting understanding of our industry and what happened,” he answered. “At the end of the day, the big takeaway was, more people were active. The number of total Americans that did something out of the 120 activities that we measure. It doesn’t necessarily mean they were totally active throughout the year. It doesn’t mean that they did a lot more because you are about to find out that they didn’t. The COVID thing caused some people that were inactive to become active. That’s one positive. Seventy-five percent of the U.S. population, about 229 million Americans, did something. We analyzed two years worth of activity for the percent of activity by month. You can see how it really changed. One of the takeaways we take here is that it changed even during the pandemic. We were starting off strong in January/February good strong activity. A lot of fitness club activity, sports that were in the south, etcetera. March hit, boom it went down. When you go down 1 percent on this, it’s about 3 million people. Then, it started to come back. Some sports like golf or tennis which normally March would be good, but as we moved into May-June-July much better. People started to get out and understand what was allowed and not allowed. From May until August is when we were struggling to figure out what to do and things weren’t happening. There was people kind of shaking and baking. August was one of our worst months. One people didn’t go on vacation the way they normally did and two it’s really hot.”

What are the top 10 fastest growing sports over the last three years? Pop tennis/paddle tennis/platform tennis is up by 20.5 percent followed by golf which is up 13.2 percent, surfing increased by 12.9 percent, skateboarding is up by 12.6 percent, camping is up by 11.7 percent, pickelball increased by 10.5 percent, trail running is up by 9 percent, day hiking is up by 8.9 percent, birdwatching increased by 7.7 percent and tennis is up by 7.5 percent.

“COVID, in some ways, changed things dramatically and, in other ways, it may be more deeply, it just accelerated what was going on,” the SFIA CEO explained. “What really, really did well was individual outdoor activities: Running, hiking, tennis, golf, skateboard, surfing. You can do it with other people but you can’t get too close when you’re surfing. Second, at home activities. Outdoor and in your own home versus in a court or a club or school facility. Importantly, in the picture of yoga at home is the computer. The digital connectivity was clear. Going into COVID if you had committed to digital connectivity, then you were so much better able to accelerate that. You can take advantage of people who wanted to do things in a way they’ve never done it before. Thirdly, informal practice is what really drove participation. When you look at team sports, the overall numbers aren’t really as bad as we would think they are because there were ways to go out and play. Things that grew on the team side were people that could communicate. They did better. They didn’t play as many games but they did gather and play. At the end of the year, we ended up selling a lot more product than we thought. Skateboarding isn’t really social distanced but a lot of kids were doing their own thing last year. Their parents said, go out and do something. Skateboarding is a good surrogate or metaphor for that. Some of the big trends that were big were not COVID-friendly. The group is what got crushed: the fitness club, the team sport that required a lot of people, the group activity. We do think that when the group is allowed, they will flock back to that because there is a sense that that’s what’s missing. Fitness trainers who are connected, we believe, will be in a strong position going back. The key is, did they stay in the business? Are the fitness clubs still there?”

He asked people: This is a crazy year… what about the next 12 months? What do you intend to do, if anything?

Graphic by SFIA

“The evidence is positive for us,” Cove said. “So we break it up by age group. For ages 6-12, there are a lot of kids that want to go back to team sports. It’s exactly what we would hope as well as fishing and camping and vacation lifestyle things like hiking. You don’t usually see hiking in a 6-12 year old group. That indicates they did that for a while and they liked it. [Age] 13-17 is much more likely to be in the high school but also getting into their own lifestyle making grown choices about what they want to do versus what they were doing with their family. Eighteen to 24 the different is team sports not quite as high. Yoga, running, hiking, working out with weights moves up and that’s to be expected. We take this as a lot of pent up demand for the things that normally would associate by category and age cohort. It’s all about lifestyle as you get older. Lifestyle in a variety of ways. It can be an active lifestyle, an outdoor lifestyle or a mindfulness lifestyle like yoga.”

Moderator Alli Schulman: “The world has been on its toes waiting to hear the breath and depth of the impact of COVID-19 on our industry throughout 2020. Our 2021 topline report was released last week highlighting the sectors of the industry that thrived under the stay-at-home orders and backyard play and those that suffered. Tom Cove is here to discuss the findings in great detail as well as what we can expect in a post-COVID world. This last year has spurred innovation and creativity and there will likely be many trends that stick around long after restrictions are lifted while others will quickly return to traditional practices and likely with far more enthusiasm after being gone for so long.”

The SFIA conducted its annual physical activity council participation survey. It featured 18,000 annual respondents from ages 6 and up. The survey was conducted in a partnership between the SFIA and the National Golf Foundation, the IHRSA, Outdoor Industry Association, Tennis Industry Association, Snowsports Industries America, USA Football and People for Bikes.

CEO Tom Cove: “COVID and the pandemic has affected our participation rates and our analysis and our business so much. At the same time, it’s not yet all clear what even did happen but what is going to happen. We asked them what they did and more importantly, it’s not necessarily whether they were on a team or in a group that they registered for. It’s literally what they did, how many times they did it and how we cross analyze. ESPN calls it the gold standard of sports participation research.”

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