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The Age Characteristics of Membership Types for USA Fencing Membership 2016-2017

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Membership, especially competitive membership, is the lifeblood of any sporting organization and so it is for USA Fencing. The ability to generate sustainable revenue from internal and external sources is greatly assisted by a large and growing membership. Marketing and outreach efforts for membership needs to i) attract new members, ii) retain them, and iii) provide a developmental path for those that want to become elite fencers as seniors and beyond.

With USA Fencing’s 2017-2018 Membership Renewal Program well under way, NFCR decided to briefly review the profile of last year’s USFA membership, especially the age characteristics of some key membership types. As a multidimensional concept, age is both a static variable (e.g., age group or cohort) and a developmental process (i.e., aging happens across our lifespans; kids, tweens, teens, young adults, family, and seniors, etc).

In this post, we briefly examine the age profile of competitive and non-competitive members as well as competitive men and women members. We also compare the age profile of competitive members with the U.S. population and introduce readers to the membership “cliff”, a graphic presentation on the challenge facing clubs and USA Fencing, how to retain members during and after their college days!

Membership 2016-2017

USA Fencing Membership can be split into two broad categories, competitive and non-competitive.  Competitive membership is open to all persons upon payment of the dues for the membership year. Competitive members have the right to enter and compete in local, divisional, regional, and national-level competitions. Non-competitive membership is open to all persons upon payment of the dues for the membership year. It includes secondary medical/accident insurance but does not allow the member to compete in tournaments.

The importance of competitive members is best illustrated by the very strong association between the number of competitive members in USFA Divisions and North American Cup (NAC) entries for 2016-2017 as illustrated in the scatter plot below. The relationship is described by the equation y=0.9897x -57.982, where y is the number of NAC entries and x is the number of competitive members per Division.

The slope coefficient is 0.9897 means that for each additional competitive member, the number of NAC entries increases by an average 0.9897, almost one-for-one. The R² is equal to 0.9113. This statistic tells us that 91.1% of the variation in the number of NAC entries is explained by the variation in the number of competitive members per USFA Division. In a related post we find that for each additional club in a Division, the number of NAC entries goes up by 55. (See: The Geographical Distribution of Fencing Clubs in the U.S.A. – 2016-2017)

According to USFA Year-End Membership for 2016-2017, about 64% of the membership is competitive, 36% is non-competitive, which is also similar to the breakdown for both genders as illustrated in the accompanying table.

USA Fencing Membership by Gender 2016-2017

Membership Type Women % Total Men % Total Grand Total % Grand Total
Competitive 7320 62.9% 15892 64.5% 23212 64.0%
Non-Competitive 4311 37.1% 8729 35.5% 13040 36.0%
Grand Total 11631 100% 24621 100.0% 36252 100.0%


A detailed breakdown of USFA membership for 2016-2017 is provided in the following table.

Composition of USA Fencing Membership at Year-End 7-31-2017

Membership Type# of Members% of TotalCumulative %
Foreign Fencer1,7164.6%86.8%
Collegiate Competitive1,4934.0%90.8%
High School Club Member8312.2%93.1%
Professional (Pending)3991.1%96.9%
Life Installment3180.9%97.8%
High School Competitive2470.7%99.1%
Olympian Life1020.3%99.4%
Coach (Pending)690.2%99.6%
Source: USA Fencing Membership List 7-31-2017

It is an axiomatic truth that the age of competitive members has a direct bearing on the size of fencing tournament events, both regionally and nationally. The age profile of competitive and non-competitive members is illustrated in the following histogram, which divides membership into one-year age groups from 6 to 80+. The height of the line represents the number of members that fall in each one-age group.

Two observations jump out from the graph. Firstly, the major peak for each group corresponds to the ages of 12 (non-competitive) and 17 (competitive) years, This is the mode, which is found in the accompanying table. It is defined as the observation (age) that occurs with the greatest frequency. A secondary, but much smaller peak occurs in the 50s for both groups.

The second observation is that the distribution of ages is skewed to the right, resulting in an average age of 24.2 for competitive members and 19.5 years for non-competitive members. The distribution of ages has a large number of members in the lower age groups (left side) and fewer members in the older age groups.

Descriptive Age (Years) Statistics for Competitive & Non-Competitive Members of USA Fencing 2016-2017

Competitive Non-Competitive
Mean 24.2 19.5
Standard Error 0.1 0.1
Median 17.0 14.0
Mode 17.0 12.0
Standard Deviation 16.1 13.7
Sample Variance 259.6 188.5
Kurtosis 1.6 3.4
Skewness 1.6 2.0
Range 91.0 86.0
Minimum 7.0 7.0
Maximum 98.0 93.0
Confidence Level (95.0%) 0.2 0.2


Membership – Men & Women

The next histogram shows the range and frequency of age groups for competitive men and women. It highlights the modal frequencies for men and women members at 17 and 15 years. The distribution of ages for both genders is skewed to the right resulting in the average age of 24.9 and 22.5 years for competitive men and women members, respectively. Further details are provided in the table below.

Descriptive Age (Years) Statistics for Competitive Men & Women Members of USA Fencing 2016-2017

Competitive Women Competitive Men
Mean 22.5 24.9
Standard Error 0.2 0.1
Median 17.0 18.0
Mode 15.0 17.0
Standard Deviation 14.5 16.6
Sample Variance 210.3 276.2
Kurtosis 2.5 1.1
Skewness 1.8 1.5
Range 81.0 82.0
Minimum 7.0 7.0
Maximum 88.0 89.0
Confidence Level (95.0%) 0.3 0.3


The next graph compares the ages for competitive fencers with the U.S. population as a whole. The graph highlights a peak in competitive ages between 10 and 20. The most frequent age group is 17 which accounted for 7.8% of competitive members compared to 1.4% of the U.S. population in 2017.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing USA Fencing and clubs when it comes to membership is slowing the exodus of competitive fencers during their college years and the years immediately after graduation. The following chart graphically highlights the challenge. The waterfall chart highlights the meteoric rise in cumulative membership growth between the ages of 9 and 15 and the sudden plummet for three years starting at age 18, after topping-out for years 16 and 17,  

What took nine years to build is wiped out in three years as college age fencers walk away from the sport. They continue to walk away after graduation but to a lesser extent, but the damage has already been done. We need to make it possible for young people to continue fencing in college as well as after college.

Given the insights revealed in our brief analysis, we see the need to examine the factors that contribute to initial involvement and sustained participation in fencing club membership across age and gender. The factors that most likely attract members seem to differ by age and gender. Because of that, future marketing and outreach programs should take age and gender into account. When most people think of marketing, they think of growth first and retention second. We adhere to the old adage that it is less efficient to bring in a new member than it is to keep a current member and, therefore, we should first focus on retention and second (albeit a close second) on growth.

6 Responses to "The Age Characteristics of Membership Types for USA Fencing Membership 2016-2017"
  1. bil Shipman says:

    This demographic situation is somewhat unavoidable as more fencers start at younger ages.
    After ten years a college grad is often ready to move on to other activities. The same is true in various sports, that after 8-10 years of competing athletes stop ofter high school or college. Certainly it is true in baseball, wrestling, track, soccer, football and volleyball.
    But individual sports have a better chance of retention, as in golf and tennis. Fencing needs to make this effort to retain the 25-40 year age group. Perhaps events without the younger ages ages, as golf has, could be beneficial.

  2. Rachelle Arama says:

    There are a couple of reasons for the drop off in membership: as fencers go off to college, unless they have ready access (and welcome) to a collegiate club or team, do not have the opportunity or means to continue fencing. The lack of participation remains after their college years primarily because they are now ‘on their own’ – mom and dad no longer paying. Fencing is not an inexpensive sport. The training costs money and requires time. After graduation, most have to suppprt themselves, find employment, pay off student loans; parental suppprt for pastimes is over.
    I fenced in college for free, prior to college, my parents paid for my lessons/club. After college, it took 22 years before I had the time and money to return to the sport.

  3. Jon says:

    Thank you for statistically acknowledging the large striped elephant siting in the room. It is extremely hard to create a financially stable way to introduce a mutually symbiotic relationship between a local club and the school of higher education. After college, strapped with debt, lack of jobs or entry place jobs, fencing becomes a luxury most can’t afford. Shoot pass the 20’s to the 30’s and the demographic should rise as pass fencers introduce their children to the sport which hopefully will rekindle their interest.

  4. For the overall long term growth and sustainability of the sport, I would suggest that your analysis misses the point. The really concerning number is the age profile of the competitive and non-competitive members and the profile of the numbers of each. Our blind focus on building as many competitive members as possible and the active exclusion of recreational fencers in many clubs means that there is little depth of people who fence when they can because they love fencing. Instead, the attitude in many clubs is that if you don’t fence electric you are a waste of everyone’s time or if you don’t have a classification why are you bothering to show up and waste our time. No one says to the golfer who plays a round of golf once a month, and never even competes in a city championships, that he or she is not a golfer. Because we have little to no recreational non-competitive base, we will always suffer from low public interest and difficulty in retaining fencers for the long term. It is particularly scary that the non-competitive numbers peak in the 12-13 age range – that suggests that the focus on competition only is driving people away earlier than the transition to college.

    • Jason Palmer says:

      I absolutely agree. Many a club are focused exclusively on their “Elite” competitive program(s) with no room for Adults let alone Veteran fencers. I was one of those hard core elite Foil fencers as a kid (78 -85) – even being one of the youngest entrants in Nationals, participating in JO’s, and the NYS Empire State Games.

      Once I arrived at college and met those who were truly gifted, I realized that even though I was ranked and Top 16 finisher, I was probably never going to be a Top 4 Finisher to make a team without doubling my effort. I did my job for four years at NYU and then just wanted to do something else other than fencing five days a week.

      When I returned to the Sport at age 39, it was, (and still is), difficult to find a place to fence Foil as an Adult. Sure, there is always the Fencers Club in NYC. To the best of my knowledge, no club on Long Island has any kind of “Adult” program short of some introductory classes. Certainly nothing geared towards anyone who is not absolutely committed to a multi-thousand dollar program targeted at the 14 to 17 set on their way to College or Div1. When you do find a “Foil” night the level of aggression – not competitive sport – but wild aggression – is over the top. Although this does not affect the current generation, (because they have never known anything else), the changes in the timing coupled with the fact that absence of blade can be considered a “threat” as long as the point is moving forward, makes it extremely difficult for those of us who are classically trained to fence in the modern era without significantly learning new tricks – which would not necessarily be defined as “Fencing” as we used to know it.

  5. Jason Palmer says:

    I believe the format and rule changes also play a significant part in the lack of satisfaction and post college engagement from the sport. As was pointed out in another comment, you can spend an entire afternoon playing a round of golf, and are welcomed while doing it.

    In modern day fencing, one pool (15 minutes of fencing?), then straight to the Direct Elimination – where unless you are in top form and truly a medal contender, you will most likely be in the lower 50% that is guaranteed to be eliminated in the next one or two bouts. (So, possibly another nine to eighteen minutes of fencing because how many DE’s really go to time?) Why would anyone be inspired to train for, let alone travel hours or even give up an entire weekend for fifteen to thirty minute of actual competition grade strip time?

    If you are not focused on a scholarship to College or for those post-college years where Fencing my no longer be your Raison D’etre, then how are you motivated to stay engaged with the Competition Format and advance or even maintain any interest in the Sport?

    I understand why they did away with pools to eliminate the throwing of bouts but I cannot help to think that it significantly affects engagement with the sport. Gone are the days of three or four rounds of two to three hour pools with five minute long bouts “to the death” (or the one minute priority eventually introduced.) Now that was a real endurance test and provided a lot more “fencing time” against other elite and aspiring fencers. You could make a day of it and really could connect and meet with your opponents both on and off the strip as you would most like see them in multiple rounds on the way to the Direct Elimination. Everyone from the object beginner to the elite fencer got an almost equal amount of strip time – and everyone was better for it.

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