Outdoor participation: Numbers up, but the bucket’s leaking and adolescent girls are opting out

2012 outdoor participation is up overall, but a closer look shows fewer adolescent girls participating.
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The number of Americans participating in outdoor recreation in 2012 was the highest it’s been since the Outdoor Foundation started tracking participation in 2006.

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Last year, 141.9 million people partook in outdoor activities, versus 141.1 million in 2011. And they were more active, going on an average of 87.4 outdoor outings per participant for a total of 12.4 billion overall.

There are areas of concern, however. The research shows girls between the ages of 13 and 17 are participating less. Plus, the industry is experiencing what Outdoor Foundation Executive Director Chris Fanning calls the “leaky bucket phenomenon” — meaning, we’re losing almost as many participants as we’re gaining.

The decline in the number of adolescent girls is of particular concern for Deanne Buck, executive director of the Outdoor Industries Women's Coalition.

"This is a great opportunity for all of us to pause and ask ourselves whether we are creating an inclusive and welcoming culture for women and girls within the industry," Buck said. "From the drop in participation rates among adolescent girls, one could conjecture that as an industry we have some room for growth. The decline in participation may in fact be connected to trends within the industry — and those are trends we can actively work to reverse."

Girls opting out of the outdoors
Though youth participation among females ages 6 to 24 in general is up from 47 to 48 percent, the participation rate among females between the ages of 13 to 17 dropped from 30 percent in 2011 to 26 percent in 2012.

“This is one of the biggest concerns we have seen — the leveling off of young people of both genders,” Fanning said. “When we saw this drop, which is pretty significant, it really caused me to be concerned.”

Fanning said that the Outdoor Foundation is focused on engaging the youth, exemplified in its recent successful Outsiders Ball fundraiser and the work of Outdoor Nation.

Outdoor Nation Spokesperson Stasia Raines said upping this number in the future is looking promising judging from recent Outdoor Nation Summit participation. “We’ll have more women than men at our 2013 Summits,” Raines said.

Fanning said still more needs to be done to figure out how adolescent girls view the outdoors and what the outdoor industry can do to meet them halfway. “Girls and females may view the outdoors differently,” Fanning said. “We ought to pay attention and be proactive.”

Fanning speculates girls may not feel as confident because preconceived ideas that they don't have the necessary skills, or they don't want to want to get dirty or mess up their hair. Maybe, she added, they don’t want to take the risk that’s involved in outdoor sports.

Claire Smallwood, executive director for the Salt Lake City-based nonprofit SheJumps, said she thinks it’s because the industry projects the image that only hard-core men are welcome outdoors and when women are portrayed in marketing materials, it’s often as an object.

“There’s definitely a fine line between using an amazing female athlete to sell a product and showing what that athlete is capable of,” Smallwood said, adding that when the focus is on a female athlete’s physical appearance solely it dissuades young girls. “They think, ‘I’m never going to look like that so how can I ever be an athlete?’”

Introducing them at a more laid-back level and in a community setting might be the ticket.

“Girls find a great sense of community and connectedness in their need to relate to one another as much as possible,” Fanning said. “We need to make sure we’re engaging young girls as a group, collective or community and support them in a way that shows women mentors. If you look in the industry and the outdoor community, there aren’t as many young or emerging professionals and mentors as on the male side.”

That’s exactly what Smallwood is trying to do. The former professional big mountain skier said her nonprofit operates its programs on three different levels: Jump In, for outdoor newbies; Jump Up, for already active people looking for more community support; and Jump Out, for established professional athletes who seek to give back to the community and become bigger role models.

With the Outdoor Industry Association’s Rendezvous approaching next month, these numbers ought to be heeded and they most likely will be, said OIA Director of Communications Avery Stonich. “Our IDEO Project is tracking consumer sentiment while the [Outdoor Foundation] Participation Report tracks the numbers, but they’re tied together,” she said. “The numbers drop if a consumer doesn’t feel welcome. We’re trying to help retailers tap into user experiences to recruit and maintain participants.”

Examining the leak for 2013
While the 2012 research shows that outdoor activities attracted 13 million new individuals, the industry also lost 12 million.

This is bothersome for a few reasons, Fanning said. “It’s far easier to keep a customer than to attract a new customer,” Fanning said. “Why are those 12 million people who were engaged gone? What turned them off and how do we keep more of them engaged?”

For 2013 research, Fanning said the surveys will ask those questions. For now, focus on getting youth — particularly girls — outdoors should remain in the spotlight.

“We’re not out of the woods with fostering this generation’s participation in the outdoors,” Outdoor Nation’s Raines said. “This serves as a rally cry for the industry. There’s obviously a need and we are the people to make this happen and engage this generation.”

--Ana Trujillo

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