Feature Article - September 2013
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Programming: Recreational Sports

Never Stop Playing
Trends in Adult Recreational Sports

By Chris Gelbach

Fitness Shapes Up

Meanwhile, the focus is growing on more fitness-oriented sports. "The Gen X and early boomers are still participating in soccer and basketball, but they're also starting to lean toward those fitness recreational activities ‚ÄĒ nontraditional sports like triathlon and swimming," Meinerth said.

Rosick is also seeing this at the college level, and notes that NIRSA has moved away from promoting its name as an acronym for this reason. "Calling it the National Intramural Recreational Sports Association limits the scope of what's really taken off in our field, and that's the fitness and wellness element," he said. "And you're seeing that carry over to the intramural side with things like challenge courses and fitness challenges being brought into the intramural schedule."

As one example, Grand Valley State recently launched a "Fittest Laker" competition, the name referencing the school nickname. "It's kind of a combination of a world's strongest man with an obstacle course and that warrior run or mud dash getting brought into the campus recreation program," Rosick said.

Pickleball Dominates

But no adult recreational sport is taking off faster than pickleball, the racquet sport played on a badminton court with a lowered net, perforated plastic ball and wood paddles. The USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) estimates that while there were just 500 to 700 pickleball players across America in 2000, there are about 125,000 today. The organization also says the number of pickleball venues across the nation is now growing by about 30 a month.

Pickleball can be an attractive programming option for recreation managers because it is adaptable to a variety of existing facilities. "You can put four pickleball courts on a typical tennis court," said David Jordan, USAPA president. "Instead of four people playing doubles tennis, you can have 16 play in the same amount of space. It can also be played indoors or outdoors."

The indoor version uses a different ball but is otherwise identical, enabling participants to get a similar game experience whether they play outside on a tennis court or inside in a multiuse gym.

"For the most part, recreational facilities are using existing courts or gyms to start off with," Jordan said. "And then as it grows, they're actually putting in permanent courts." The sport's low cost of entry has also spurred its expansion. "For facilities, it's inexpensive," Jordan said. "You can get into the sport for $75 with all the equipment you need."

Programming for Seniors Spikes

The main driver of pickleball's growth has been its tremendous popularity with the over-50 crowd, who like that pickleball requires less running than tennis and has a slower-moving ball, yet remains a highly social, fast-paced doubles game. "I haven't seen too many other sports come out as strong as pickleball, and I would say that the market to really tap into when you need to get space used, especially during the day, is that senior population," Meinerth said.

In creating programs for this demographic, Marc Riker, CEO for the National Senior Games Association, stresses that providing a specific sport is less important than just providing and publicizing opportunities to be active. "There are a lot more people now, they want to have a quality of life, and they're saying, 'When I turn 70 and 75 and 80, I still want to be able to go out and do these things,'" he said. "As long as you're marketing to them, it could be anything. It could be badminton, it could be volleyball, it could be walking around the track."

The National Senior Games has recently added pickleball as a medal sport, a tribute to its burgeoning popularity. But the organization is seeing more modest growth across all sports as more organizations are starting to hold competitions at the state and local levels. "What we want to see is the movement in local areas, because then it's something that people can get involved in on a daily basis," Riker said.

And one way that more seniors are getting their daily activity is through dance programming. "Fourteen hundred Ys across the country now offer some form of a dance program," Meinerth said. "It's not as impactful on the bones and joints, and it's something that can bring a community together."