Intramural Sports

Women in Intramurals
A Look at Declining Participation

By Abigail Whaley, Dr. Peter Titlebaum & Patrick Wallace

Female college students are participating in intramural sports in diminishing numbers, when compared with their male counterparts across the country. The staggering difference in participation rates is not hard to notice. Take a look at most recreation facilities on a regular night during the school term; women are scarcely to be found playing organized team sports.

Perhaps this may not seem like a big deal because in these same recreation facilities, women are found elsewhere, participating in activities such as group fitness classes and in the fitness center on cardiovascular exercise machines. Female students may be found participating in volleyball, but not in many other sports that had previously held their interest. They are likely to be found participating in indoor as opposed to outdoor sports, as well. However, one in every three college students is overweight or obese. In a country where physical fitness programs in schools and colleges are being drastically reduced, it is important to encourage female students to engage in the opportunities that remain.

At stake is the loss of valuable skills associated with team play, and this should concern us all. College can be one of the last places to work on important skills students will need later in life. Individual physical fitness is essential to overall health, but team sports help develop many other life skills as well. Playing on a team provides playful, social experiences that just cannot be practiced when recreating alone. Intramural sports also offer an educational component to participants in the form of learning and practicing new skills.

Men are taking advantage of these budget-driven programs at a rate of 70 percent compared with 30 percent of females. At some schools, the difference in participation is as high as 90 percent male to 10 percent female.

There is a great deal at stake for women who do not participate. Just consider the skills that can be gained by participation in team sports—skills like constructive communication, active listening and participation, open and willing sharing, cooperativeness, willingness to help, flexibility, commitment to the team, problem-solving, and treating others in a respectful and supportive manner.

There are options to help increase women's participation based on best practices in the intramural sports arena. A survey conducted with recreation directors and female students on their understanding of the issue of a lack of female participation delivered informative results.

In a survey of intramural program directors, 45 of the 93 respondents indicated that fewer than 10 percent of their female students participate in intramural sports. Another 34 directors indicated that fewer than 20 percent of their intramural sports participants are women. The national average for male to female participation is nearly a two-to-one ratio.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, women tend to pick volleyball over other popular male-dominated sports, such as basketball and flag football. Soccer was a distant second in female participation preference. Interestingly, softball was not reported as a popular women's intramural sport. This may be explained by the large number of co-recreational teams in the sport, resulting in fewer women playing softball overall. As expected, flag football is played the least by female students. The majority of programs offered female-only leagues in at least one sport, with many schools offering several women-only leagues. However, they are often cancelled due to low team registration.

Overall, schools see the most female participation in indoor and co-recreational sports. Sophomores comprise the largest female user group, with freshmen, juniors and seniors representing the next largest groups, in order from greatest to least. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that second-year students have had a chance to make more friends and build their social base, feeling confident enough to participate in intramurals. Many directors state that lack of time, lack of skill level and high involvement in fitness activities seem to be reasons why fewer women are participating.

A lack of national data prompted a survey of a Midwest university's female student body, population 10,000, to see what female students have to say about their own low participation. Fewer than 15 percent of the respondents will ever play an intramural sport while in college. Slightly more than half indicated that volleyball is their sport of choice. This was not unexpected given previous published data and the director's survey findings. Interestingly, 82 percent of respondents agreed that the social aspect of intramural sports was an important factor in their decision to play.

The primary motivations for participation for women were social, as opposed to competitive or physical. Exercise was also listed as being a very important reason to participate in intramural sports. Considering the higher number of women participating in fitness-oriented activities in college recreation centers, this makes sense. Two-thirds of the women noted that being able to play with friends would make playing intramurals more enticing. These female students also cited lack of time, lack of skill, and a larger interest in other forms of exercise as reasons that they and their friends do not seek intramural sport participation. Interestingly, the female students also largely responded that lack of marketing outside of the recreation complex may impact participation. Many suggested that a larger marketing plan may help spread the word and increase interest in intramural programs.

What is an intramural sports director to make of all this information? Clearly, a more concerted effort to make intramural sports attractive to women is a must. Women are looking for a social atmosphere where they can play with friends and also feel that they achieved a quality workout at the end. Indoor sports such as pool, bowling, volleyball and swimming are all excellent activities to try to entice more women to play. Changing rules is also an easy way to make women feel more welcome. Several program directors shared that rule changes to sports, such as basketball and flag football, helped encourage women to play and to be scoring members of a team.

An added educational component to intramural sports may also help increase numbers. Many women noted that they do not play because of lack of skill in a particular sport and also for fear of looking foolish in front of more skilled players. Adding sport clinics as part of pre-season training may be a good way to introduce unfamiliar sports to more students, both male and female. This non-competitive, informal atmosphere will increase comfort for many women and entice them to sign up for regular-season play.

Marketing strategies used to gain male players may not work well for women. Many females felt that marketing was aimed only at male students on parts of campus frequented mainly by men. Marketing can be tailored for women by use of photos, colors and location. Conscious targeting of sororities, women's dorms and other places on campus can help introduce women to intramural sports. Thoughtful consideration of marketing strategies may be just the thing to promote women's intramural participation by advertising programs for specific nights and more social in nature to the larger overall campus women's population.

The time frame to capture female participants is small. If their attention is not secured in the first few months of their freshman year, the chances of their playing intramural sports decrease with each year in school. Focusing on the unique needs of women students and the social, educational and marketing aspects of intramural programs is essential to increasing overall female participation.


Abigail Whaley is the assistant director for Facility Operations for the Department of Campus Recreation at the University of Dayton. Dr. Peter Titlebaum is an associate professor of Sport Management at the University of Dayton with more than 25 years of experience teaching and coaching. Patrick Wallace a recent graduate in Sport Management from the University of Dayton works in ticket sales for Minor League Baseball's Dayton Dragons.

© Copyright 2022 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.