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Future looks bright for youth participation in basketball

Basketball continues its rise as the most popular team sport in the United States in terms of participation.

Victor Wembanyama and a young student work on their handles.

According to the numbers, ball is — quite literally — life.

Well, if we’re considering ‘life’ as the most popular sport (in terms of participation) in the United States. According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, basketball holds that spot. 

Tom Cove, President and CEO of SFIA elaborated on his team’s most recent findings.

“[Basketball] is the thing that American athletes or non-athletes, in a lot of cases, play informally,” Cove said. “And it is welcoming, accessible. Everybody can do it — girls and boys, all ages.”

He shared that basketball’s versatility, from shooting hoops at your local outdoor court, to traveling internationally at the highest level is what drives the sport’s attraction. While skill level varies, the game holds its arms open for those who want to join. 

“You think about the kinds of basketball players at the highest levels, and certainly at the NBA, [they are] just spectacular, unbelievable athletes,” Cove said. “But that’s not what is required for basketball. You can love and enjoy basketball and just play the game.” 

Cove’s sentiment is only further evidenced by the data. According to SFIA’s research, 28.1 million Americans age six and above play basketball. Notably, these young hoopers are not defined by gender, with basketball as the only team sport to see participation for both boys and girls (age 6-12) in double-digits, Cove said. 

For this younger demographic, the NBA can play a large role in their introduction to the game. Cove shares how youth players can be introduced to the sport through NBA 2K or learn about their favorite players or teams through the electronic interface. He also shares that the culture established by the NBA and its players draws attention. 

“The NBA does a really good job of embracing the culture. It’s a player’s league, and they welcome the diversity and the connection between entertainment and athletics,” Cove said. 

A group of girls gather for the NBA Cares Finals Legacy Project during the 2023 NBA Finals.

Concurrently, as the WNBA continues to grow in viewership — and now with the inaugural Stephen Curry vs. Sabrina Ionescu 3-point challenge at All-Star weekend — girls nationwide will see themselves represented at the NBA’s midseason event. 

What does this mean for the growth of the game? According to SFIA’s research, it continues to be an exciting opportunity for youth around the country to pick up a ball.

“Basketball went up, and stayed up,” Cove said. Since 2018, he said, basketball has been on a continuous upward trajectory, gaining more and more youth participants every year.

“It’s crazy how popular basketball is,” he said. “Because it’s the fewest people on the team. So you think, ‘Wow, that’s incredible. It’s that big and still only five players [on a team] get on the court.’ It speaks to its appeal.”