When it comes to sports, casual adult recreational leagues often go unnoticed, as events such as the Little League World Series, March Madness, and the major professional leagues dominate the spotlight. While youth sports participation is consistently monitored, the participation trends for adult leagues tend to be neglected.

To get a better idea of the current landscape of adult recreational sports leagues in America, an examination of CivicScience data reveal 9% of U.S. adults say they’re currently playing in a league, while a further 11% aren’t currently playing but plan to do so in the future. Twenty-one percent say they’ve taken part in a league in the past but don’t plan on doing so again in the future.

Playing a sport can be an expensive venture, particularly with inflation at higher levels over the past year. Studies show it’s made an impact at the youth level, but what about the adult recreational level, where leagues can run in the hundreds of dollars to join? A look at the data reveals more than a quarter (27%) of consumers who considered joining a league in the past 12 months decided against doing so due to the cost associated (n=1,244).

One in five are likely to participate in a recreational league this summer.

CivicScience data show 20% of Americans are likely to play in a recreational sports league this summer, but which sports are they planning to play?  Tennis and its upstart sister sport, pickleball, command the top spot at 22% among the more common and well-known sports. Twenty-one percent will be heading to a ball field to play one of baseball, softball, or kickball.

In a sign of its enduring appeal, bowling sits even with basketball at 18% while overtaking more traditional sports like soccer (15%) and football/flag football (14%). The significant percentage who opted for ‘other’ highlights the wide range of sports available with sports, like cornhole, working to catch on. 

The amount of equipment required varies widely by sport – and how consumers buy that gear appears to be mixed as well. Roughly one-third of recreational league participants turn to national chain stores like Dick’s Sporting Goods, followed by 27% who rely on local sports equipment stores for their gear requirements. Online retailers (18%) complete the top three choices for participants when it comes to acquiring their equipment (n=1,532).

Though big box stores like Walmart or Target sell sports gear, their selection from sport to sport can be limited – a possible explanation for their smaller share of recreational league players at 9%. Five percent won’t be going to any store and will rely on borrowing from family or friends to help them suit up.

What drives people to join recreational sports leagues?

Playing in a local recreational league as an adult is highly unlikely to lead to a professional-level contract (unless you happen to be a hockey goalie). So what inspires people to join a league? CivicScience took a deeper dive into possible motivations for joining a recreational league, and the prevailing motivator is ‘personal enjoyment and fun.’ One of the primary benefits of playing a sport is its physical activity, so it’s unsurprising that ‘health and fitness’ follow closely behind at 54% of rec league participants.

As the country shifts into the post-pandemic world, Americans are carrying more stress and holding fewer friendships. Joining a recreational sports league may offer an avenue to righting that ship as more than half of players cite ‘social interaction and making friends’ as motivating factors to join, and nearly 2-in-5 report ‘stress relief and relaxation’ playing a role as well. 

Recreational league participation summer outlook

As 1-in-5 U.S. adults consider it at least ‘somewhat likely’ they’ll take part in an adult recreational league this summer – this compares to 14% who say that they partook in a league in the past six months – these rec league intenders skew heavily toward the under 35-crowd.  Forty-seven percent of Gen Z adults aged 18-24 and 31% of Millennials aged 25-34 show some level of interest in a league.

As summer heats up in the post-pandemic times, sports could be a valuable resource for improving health and rebuilding a lost sense of social connection among adults. Will cooling inflation help inspire more to join? Time will tell.

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