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A Comparison of the Age Profile of Participation in Major U.S. Sports & Fencing 2017

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Our previous post, “The Age Characteristics of Membership Types for USA Fencing Membership 2016-2016” elicited a range of responses on why readers thought a large number of fencers walked away from the sport during and immediately after college. Our post highlighted the meteoric rise in cumulative membership growth between the ages of 9 and 15 and the sudden decline in membership for three years starting at age 18, after topping-out for years 16 and 17.

The membership gains made over nine years are wiped away in three years as college-age fencers walked away from the sport. Fencers continued to walk away after graduation but to a lesser extent, but the damage had already been done.  The post postulated that perhaps the greatest challenge facing USA Fencing and clubs is slowing the exodus of competitive fencers during their college years and the years immediately after graduation.

Readers responded in various ways but there was a general consensus that the problem is complex and multi-faceted. Furthermore, many club owners, coaches and USFA officials and committees have and continue to address the challenge. While readers provided many explanations on why they thought membership plummeted during and after college, a significant number thought it had a lot to do with the challenge of job-hunting, career-building, and family-starting. Typical of the responses were;

  • “After college, strapped with debt, lack of jobs or entry place jobs, fencing becomes a luxury most can’t afford.”

  • “There’s also the question of money. Job-hunting, career-building, and family-starting do not necessarily exclude recreational fencing in terms of time or desire — but the costs might. Fencing is not an inexpensive sport. The training costs money and requires time. After graduation, most have to support themselves, find employment, pay off student loans; parental support for pastimes is over.”

  • “I wonder if this exodus is a universal phenomenon in competitive youth sports.  Parents are paying for college during those years of decline.  Students are using their time to study and prepare for careers.  They might engage in recreational rather than competitive sports. Have you compared this phenomenon to any other youth sports?”

The responses prompted the question, “How different is the age profile of fencers compared to athletes in other sports?”

In response, we decided to use two sources of information to answer the question; the Sports Participation in the US report 2017  from the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA), and USA Fencing’s annual membership list for 2016-2017. The detailed methodology used by NSGA to determine the participation in different sports (fencing excluded) is provided at the end of this post.

A participant is defined as an individual seven years of age or older who participates in a sport/activity at least two days per year for all sports/activities except aerobic exercising, bicycle riding, exercise walking, exercising with equipment, running/jogging, swimming, weightlifting, and work out at club/gym/fitness studio. For these fitness activities, participation is defined as six days or more during the year.

The age profile of competitive fencers from the USFA membership list at year-end July 2017 was compared with the age profile of participants in a range of major and minor sports outlined in NSGA’s report. Our analysis does not account for “participant” fencers who are not members of the USFA.  While the data is not strictly comparable, we never-the-less believe valid comparisons can be made between the age profile of fencers and age profile of athletes in other sports.

At the outset, two specific observations can be made. First, the ratio of men to women in competitive fencing was 68.4% to 31.6% as illustrated in the accompanying table. Among the sports listed, fencing has a marginally higher men to women ratio than the average of 62.2% to 37.8%.

Second, the data in the fourth column highlights what many of us already know, fencing is a niche sport among niche sports! The standout figure is the 23,000 competitive fencers compared to the participants in other major and minor sports. Fencing’s participant base stands in marked contrast to the participant base for archery, gymnastics, wrestling, and lacrosse with their 8.3, 6.1, 3, and 2.9 million participants, respectively.

The Gender Composition and Total Participants for Major U.S. Sports and Fencing 2016

(Participants in mil.)
Bicycle Riding58.1%41.9%36.2
Ice Hockey79.2%20.8%3.4
Martial Arts/MMA/Tae Kwon Do64.5%35.5%6.2
Skiing-Cross Country57.3%42.7%2.4
Target Shooting with Firearms70.4%29.6%20.4
U.S. Population48.9%51.1%321.4
Source: National Sporting Goods Association, USFA Membership List, and U.S. Bureau of Statistics

The level of demand for participation in any sport is influenced by a variety of societal, economic, technologic, and demographic factors, age being one of them.  Certain age groups tend to play certain sports. Younger people will usually pick the more physically demanding sports such as hockey or rugby, whereas older people are often limited physically and pick less strenuous sports like bowls and swimming. These factors are borne out in the following table which illustrates the age breakdown for a range of sports.

The Participation by Age Cohort for Major U.S. Sports and Fencing 2016

Sport Age Cohorts
Bicycle Riding17.0%11.9%8.2%13.6%14.2%14.3%12.5%7.0%1.2%
Golf2.3%5.9%6.5%14.9% 17.3%17.3%17.5%13.9%4.4%
Ice Hockey14.0%17.6%15.2%22.9%15.2%9.4%5.6%--
Martial Arts/MMA/Tae Kwon Do23.0%14.4%16.2%18.7%14.0%7.3%7.3%2.0%-
Skiing-Cross Country8.3%8.8%6.5%20.2%22.3%14.0%14.4%4.9%0.7%
Target Shooting with Firearms1.9%6.9%9.6%22.3%18.0%16.6%14.1%9.1%1.5%
U.S. Population8.5%9.9%11.0%15.4%18.2%14.6%9.3%7.1%6.0%
Source: National Sporting Goods Association and USFA Membership List.

Comparisons can be made between an individual sport’s age breakdown and the average for all sports as well as for the U.S. population. The table reveals that just over 41% of competitive fencers are aged 12-17 year, the highest proportion of any of the sports listed. Tackle football is not far behind at 39.8% followed by lacrosse at 32.5%. These compare with an average of 19.7% for all sports and 9.9% for the U.S. population

Fencing has the largest proportion of athletes in the next age cohort, 18-24 years at 21.4%, compared to basketball at 18% and running/jogging at 16.4%.  As a result of fencing’s membership “cliff”, described in our previous post, it has the lowest proportion of any sports listed in the 23-34 and 35-44 age cohorts at 8% and 4.4% respectively.

The thesis that fencers forsake their sport during and after college for job-hunting, career-building, and family-starting purposes is not fully supported by the significant proportions of other types of athletes in the 23-34 and 35-44 age cohorts. Both tennis and golf have their largest proportion of athletes in the 25-34 and 35-44 age groups. The highest proportion of tennis players is in the 25-34 and 35-44 age cohorts at 20.6% and 18.8% respectively.

The distribution of participants by age cohort is best illustrated with a column graph. Fencing, lacrosse and soccer exhibit relatively peaked distributions in age groups as illustrated in the graph.

Relatively flat distributions were found for golf, swimming and tennis. The following graph compares the proportion of different sports in different age groups.

In our previous post, we saw the need to examine the factors that contribute to initial involvement and sustained participation in competitive fencing. The factors that most likely attract members seem to differ by age and gender. Socio-economic and socio-cultural factors are also likely to play a part and should be fully examined to determine why sports such as tennis and golf attract significant participation in the age cohorts of 25-34 and 35-44, and why fencing misses out. In light of our brief analysis between the age profile of fencers and athletes in a number of other sports, we see the need as urgent if fencing is to realize its full potential.

NSGA Sports Participation Methodology: 2017 Edition

  1. Sampling

For “Sports Participation in the United States,” an online panel maintained by Survey Sampling International (SSI) was used.  The panel is balanced on a number of characteristics determined to be key indicators of general purchase behavior, including household size and composition, household income, age of household head, region and market size. Due to the online methodology, African Americans and Hispanics are somewhat underrepresented in the sample. 2010 was the first year that an online survey methodology was used for collecting data on sports participation. Prior to 2010, this annual study was conducted using a mail-back survey methodology. Please keep this in mind when making direct comparisons with data published prior to 2010.

  1. Questionnaire

In January 2017, sample members of the SSI panel were invited to complete the sports participation survey online. Respondents were asked to indicate their age and gender of all household members age seven and older, and provide the number of days of participation for each sport/activity in 2016. In order to reduce a bias effect that is possible from the order in which the sports/activities were listed, the list was shown in alphabetical order to half of the households, and in reverse-alphabetical order to the remaining half of households.

  1. Returns

The study results are based on approximately 34,000 individuals who are ages 7 and older. In order to ensure returns were representative of the U.S., the data was weighted to represent the demographic composition of the U.S. based on the following characteristics: state of residence, household income, and population density. The returns were then projected to 293,474,000 – the U.S. population age 7 and older in 2016. An 816-cell age/gender/state weight matrix was used to project the weighted sample to represent the actual age and gender distribution by state of the U.S. population.

  1. Participants

A participant is defined as an individual seven years of age or older who participates in a sport / activity at least two days per year for all sports / activities except aerobic exercising, bicycle riding, exercise walking, exercising with equipment, running/jogging, swimming, weightlifting, and work out at club/gym/fitness studio. For these fitness activities, participation is defined as six days or more during the year. Note that this study also reports separately the number of individuals who participated “1 Day Only” or “1-5 Days Only” for each sport/activity. These are not included in “Total Participants” for each sport/activity since they are not “participants” as defined above.

The definition of “Frequent”, “Occasional” and “Infrequent” participants varies for each sport/activity and is indicated in the report.  Generally, these categories are defined as the top 25%, the middle 50% and the lower 25% of participants.  For sports/activities where the incidence of participation is low, participants may be divided into “Frequent” and “Occasional” only.  In the Summary Tables, “Did Not Participate” refers to those who did not participate in any of the listed sports/activities.

3 Responses to "A Comparison of the Age Profile of Participation in Major U.S. Sports & Fencing 2017"
  1. Logic would hope that the gap your study refers to would, in time, lead to a target audience, being children and their former fencing parents, that would give fencing a strong consideration.

    Might be valuable to see the data on how many parents who fenced have children that fence. Something like: Percentage of parents who fenced that have children that fence. Those type of stats could lead to questions about why former-fencing parents encourage or do not encourage their kids to fence, leading to input on how to improve the sport and/or the perception of the sport.


  2. Percentages can be misleading when reading trends. I have been a NCAA coach and private coach for over 24 years, and over that period, I have seen a great number of people quit after college. Even those on the college fencing team. On the order of 90% retire from fencing after college. And now, after sampling numbers in the under 18YO category, I can say that there are a great number of people that quit when they go to college. It has been the trend for over two decades… What I would like to see in the data is absolute number of fencers in age banded groups over a 10 year period. Years 8-17, 18-22, 23-34. My guess is that the absolute numbers for 18 and over follow a pretty conservative curve. In any case my obervation is that clubs pay their bills with revenue from the under 18 category. They motivate and keep those ages coming back. At 18 they go off to college, and we lose many of them (new social experience). And at 22/23, when they graduate, we lose a high percentage of the college fencers (another new social experience)…

  3. Clare says:

    I wish that I could find ways to get more people my age (40) to fence. I occasionally try to recruit the parents who are at practice, but so far no one has taken me up on it. I think that part of the reason that former fencers don’t return to fencing is that it is a high-impact sport and that eventually takes a toll on the joints. We’ve had a few fencers return briefly only to stop after a couple practices. Can you do a comparison between fencing and other more demanding sports (hockey, rugby, football, etc)? Why do people stop those sports?

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