Outdoor Industry Survey Reveals Participation Trends, Threats

Outdoor activities only attract 47 million frequent participants, remain mostly Caucausian, and don't gain as many enthusiasts in the 16-24 age group as they could.

Outdoor activities only attract 47 million frequent participants, remain mostly Caucausian, and don’t gain as many enthusiasts in the 16-24 age group as they could.

Those are a few of the basic conclusions based on preliminary date from a Participation Study by the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), presented at the group’s annual Rendezvous event this month. Full results will be out in May, delayed from an April 12 release based on the association’s desire to address questions raised at the preliminary presentation.

“Sometimes in the hardest times, opportunities arise, and we have a great one right now,” said Frank Hugelmeyer, OIA president.

This new edition of the OIA Participation Study surveyed 22 activities, and included for the first time bird watching, fly-fishing, and walking for exercise. Kayaking has been expanded to cover whitewater, touring/sea, and recreation. Climbing has been expanded to include ice, natural rock, and artificial wall. The study surveyed 4,000 people — calling randomly distributed homes until that number was reached — giving it a much larger reliability factor compared to the same survey in 2000 that polled 2,500 homes.

Overall, in 2002, 149 million U.S. residents 16 and older (of the total U.S. population of 287 million) said they participated at least once in any one of the 22 activities polled, which counted them as “participants.” Of those, only 47 million counted as frequent participants, meaning they are in the top 15 percent and count as “enthusiasts.” How many times someone must participate to be an enthusiast varies with the sport, said Norma Hansen, OIA vice president of member resources. For example, a mountain biker is an enthusiast if they bike 27 times a year, a rafter must only go four times.

Participation numbers, even without the additions of the new sports this time, are up overall. Although that’s good, Hugelmeyer said, the numbers could be growing more strongly — also based on the fact that outdoor recreation could be promoted as a way to offset the increasing trend of obesity and inactivity in the United States (see this week’s Snewsitorial on that topic). Other trends, such as the lack of diversity and the aging participant, however, also need attention, he said, and may pose a longer-term threat to the industry’s growth.

Average participants are male, 39 years old, middle class, married or single, and Caucasian, while average enthusiasts are male or female, 29.5 years old, unmarried, middle class, and also Caucasian. Only four “human-powered outdoor” activities have more than 21 percent diversity, while none had greater than 26 percent diversity.

In addition, only 27 percent of participants are 16-24 years of age, or about 32 million, which is about 83 percent of the 16-24-year-old U.S. population. On the surface, that sounds pretty good, but not only are just less than a third of those counted as enthusiasts, but participation drops off as they get older. According to Hugelmeyer, “competition for time and mind share” is the biggest challenge; for the younger population distractions are anything social and anything electronic, such as the Internet, TV, radio, video games, and music. The question Hugelmeyer rhetorically asked the audience is whether young enthusiasts grow into old participants, or whether young participants grow into old enthusiasts.

Threats to growth in the industry overall include competition for the public’s time, mind, and money; increasing public obesity and inactivity (for example, the prevalence of obesity in children ages 6-11 has more than tripled since 1970); the possibility of a continued recession; and continued consumer depression.

“That’s a threat and an opportunity,” Hugelmeyer said, since going outdoors for recreational and fitness activities could actually help with depression and mental fatigue or stress, as well as may help promote higher fitness, weight-loss, and better health.

Contributors to obesity include urban sprawl, travel by car instead of by foot or bike, computer recreation, television entertainment and generally more sedentary lifestyles. With the inability of many people to get outside of urban areas, Hugelmeyer points to the need for areas to recreate within reach, such as in parks and urban areas, and for the outdoor industry to promote such recreational opportunities that are reachable and viable for a higher percentage of the population.

The big question being asked doesn’t have an answer: What actually lures a participant to become an enthusiast?

The 200+ page Participation Study — with breakdowns on age, gender and demographic trends with one- and four-year perspectives — is available for $395 for members, and $750 for non-members. Rendezvous attendees receive a additional 10-percent discount if the order is placed before May 15. For details, go to

SNEWS® View: Read this week’s SNEWSitorial with additional information about the preliminary data from the survey, the opportunities that outdoor recreational industries need to address as summarized by Hansen and Hugelmeyer, and suggestions from SNEWS® on additional avenues. SNEWS® strongly believes the outdoor and fitness industries should, can, and must work together in joint promotions that will in the long run build both industries, their bottom lines, and the public’s health.