Programming: Recreational Sports

Never Stop Playing
Trends in Adult Recreational Sports

By Chris Gelbach

Adult recreational sports offer recreation managers a potent way to encourage lifelong fitness and build a sense of community among patrons of all ages. These programs can also be a great way to fill facility space during both peak and off-peak hours. And more and more recreation managers are doing this through a variety of approaches, including the introduction of nontraditional sports, shorter-term programs, gender-specific leagues and adapted versions of popular team sports.

Traditional Sports Hold Strong

According to Dara Meinerth, specialist for sports and recreation at YMCA of the USA, traditional stalwarts such as basketball, volleyball, soccer, tennis and softball have sustained their momentum in recent years at YMCAs across the nation. The change she is seeing in these sports is a shift toward more gender-specific leagues. "We're seeing more women's sports programming such as women's soccer, basketball and tennis leagues," Meinerth said. She's also seeing baseball fade a bit in lieu of softball, a reflection of the aging adult population.

Likewise, core sports like volleyball, softball, football and soccer continue to remain staples at the sport and social club level, according to Jason Erkes, president of the Chicago Sport and Social Club and board director at the Sport and Social Industry Association. "Those sports continue to grow, but they're not evolving into ridiculous numbers," he said.

Flashback Sports Spike Among Young Professionals

Instead, Erkes is seeing more growth in low-skill, high-nostalgia sports at the sport and social club level. "The things that have evolved in the last five years are those flashback sports—kickball, dodgeball, wiffle ball, things like that," said Erkes, who is seeing this trend nationwide among the sport and social industry's typical clientele in their 20s and 30s.

According to Erkes, these sports provide a great way to reach new audiences. "They enable us to market to and pull in more of a nonathletic clientele to sign up and play in our leagues," he said. They can also be more appealing to women intimidated by more traditional coed sports. "Some of our sports, when you're on a coed team, some of the girls feel like they're not competitive enough to play, and it turns them off," he said. "But when someone says do you want to get a dodgeball or kickball team together, they have nothing to be scared of."

Adult recreational sports offer recreation managers a potent way to encourage lifelong fitness and build a sense of community among patrons of all ages.

At the college intramural level, however, dodgeball and kickball are declining a bit in popularity, according to John Rosick, assistant director of campus recreation at Grand Valley State University and state director of the Michigan Intramural Recreational Sports Association. Rosick attributes this in part to the fact that dodgeball has fallen out of favor over the past decade in the physical education curriculum, which has minimized its nostalgic appeal for today's college students.

Instead, Rosick has seen the popularity of these sports wax and wane along with trends in popular culture. "Five to 10 years ago when the movie Dodgeball came out, dodgeball became a huge intramural sport," Rosick said. "When you saw the rise of the World Series of Poker about 10 years ago, you saw that being brought onto intramural programs. But today I'd say the two most prevalent are Quidditch and Battleship."

Nontraditional and Short-Term Programming Grows

Quidditch, a field sport based loosely on the sport described in the Harry Potter novels, is popping up in more college campuses across the nation, as is Battleship, in which teams in canoes throw pails of water at opposing teams to try to sink them and remain the last boat afloat. "The downside of these nontraditional sports is, while you might get huge popularity today, my philosophy of intramural programming is to find sports that are going to sustain over time," Rosick said.

In today's fast-paced culture, Rosick is also seeing a trend toward more short-term programming. "Whereas traditional intramurals goes by the idea of four or five weeks of regular season events and then a couple more weeks of playoffs, you're seeing more one-weekend events, one-day events, and two-weekend events," he said.

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 — 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."

Collaboration Increases

As facility managers look to achieve full utilization of their facilities and serve their communities effectively, they're also collaborating more and more with other entities on their recreational sports programs. "Because there could be the potential to run a program, but maybe the parks and rec department doesn't have the space, but the Y does, or vice versa," Meinerth said.

According to Erkes, the Chicago Sport and Social Club is the largest user of the Chicago Park District outside of the park district itself, and he sees similar usage by other sport and social organizations in other major and midsize cities. "The biggest challenge our industry has is trying to identify and lock in space," he said. "If you have a gym, a field or any kind of court that's underutilized, reaching out to someone in our industry is a great way to A) make money off it and B) put it to use in the community."

At the college level, Rosick is seeing more collaboration between intramural sports and the college as a whole as recreational facilities increasingly become the hub for campus activity. "Any university you talk to, you can't get enough space, whether it's storage or programming space," he said. "It's more important than ever to make sure that you're collaborating with your fellow departments on campus to make sure that everybody gets the appropriate amount of time that they need to program."

Adapting the Classics

To utilize spaces more effectively, more facilities are also trying nontraditional takes on popular sports. For instance, Erkes noted that his club recently got access to the rooftop of a school that has a small turf field on it, and has started a nighttime three-on-three soccer league using glow-in-the-dark soccer balls. The organization also runs flag football leagues on a multiuse area with football, soccer and softball fields. "We turn it into 15 smaller football fields that we use every night of the week for six-on-six football," Erkes said.

Modifications to existing sports are also increasingly being made to suit specific audiences, as the National Senior Games does with its medal sport basketball by making the competition half-court and three-on-three. "Don't get so hung up on it being this traditional thing, that you have to have the correct number on each side," Riker said. "Try to grab a small number of people together, even with something like volleyball. Don't worry about having as many people on the court." In some cases, this might even mean opting for more open court time as opposed to a full-blown league.

Expanding the Participant Base

Ultimately, whether it's through new sports, shorter-term programming, or more gender- or age-specific programming, current trends in adult sports programming seem largely focused on getting more people physically active and socially involved through sport than ever before.

As an example, Riker talked about being approached by a woman recently in San Antonio who wanted to try pickleball when the Senior Games was giving a demonstration on the sport there. The woman seemed nervous and had a rough time at first, but then started getting into the action.

"We ended up talking with her, and she explained that she had played tennis for years," Riker said. "Then her knees were bone on bone and she had to stop, and she gained all this weight. She said, 'I didn't know of any other sport that I could do that I would like.' The woman was in tears. 'For 25 years,' she said, 'I haven't played tennis and that was what I loved to do.' And she said, 'My gosh, I can do this. I can play this pickleball thing.' You saw this person's transformation as she realized there was something she could do. And that's the message we really want to portray. There is definitely something for you to do to get out and be active. There are just so many opportunities. And if not, create one."

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