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The Sports Industry has a Weight Loss Problem—and Perhaps a Solution

Editor’s Note: Adam Grossman is at the controls this morning. You will find his latest Revenue Above Replacement column below.

You’ll also notice sports cartoonist Jim Hunt (you can check him out here) is back with a drawing depicting November’s most anticipated sporting events. Please feel free to send your suggestions for his December piece. I’ll be back tomorrow.

The Sports Industry has a Weight Loss Problem—and Perhaps a Solution

The sports industry has a weight loss problem.

There have historically been two primary ways to lose weight; either move more or eat less. Sports have figured into the latter part of the equation. Participation in athletics participation has often been thought of, and marketed as, a necessary component in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

The challenge, however, is that it takes considerably more effort for the ‘move more’ method to have the same impact as consuming less. For context, adults are recommended to consume between 1,600–2,400 calories each day. The average person will burn just ~300-400 calories walking 10,000 steps.

That imbalance helps to explain why Americans are increasingly embracing prescription pharmaceuticals to combat obesity. Drugs, like Ozempic and Wegovy, ‘mimick’ a brain hormone in patients that depresses ones’ appetite and ultimately their food intake.

Adoption of these drugs has started to influence purchasing patterns. Walmart reported that customers taking Ozempic are buying less food, and Morgan Stanley has suggested a 3% decline in soda, baked goods, and salty snack consumption amongst Americans is possible.

The investment banking firm anticipates the number of people taking prescription pharmaceuticals to shed pounds will continue to rise over the next decade (to 7% of the U.S. population, 24 million people).

That seemingly presents a strategic challenge for a sports industry that views participation as a growth engine. The participation thesis suggests the more often someone plays a sport, the more likely he or she is to become a spectator of it.


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If taking weight loss drugs is more effective and easier to do than playing sports, then logic suggests an increasing number of people may lose the motivation needed to participate. That will make it more challenging for pro leagues to fill the top of their funnel.

“The businessperson always looks at the fan driver part of [a rec sports initiative, that it is] building future fans that are going to buy suites or whatever,” Roman Oben (VP, football development strategy, NFL) said.

But declining participation reduces the pool of potential players and future executives for these leagues too.

Pickleball has become one of the fastest growing sports in the world (see: 85.7% YoY growth in America in ‘22). Investor interest has followed, in part, because of the belief a portion of the 8.9 million people now playing the game in the U.S. will engage with the nascent pro league.

"The sport naturally fosters social connection and promotes active living,” Adam Behnke (co-owner and chief operating officer, D.C. Pickleball Team) said. “These attractive characteristics point to pickleball's enduring appeal and market potential, and have given us confidence to invest in Major League Pickleball.”

If participation in the sport were to slow, interest in the newly professionalized game would likely wane.

Declining participation rates would certainly have a negative influence on the sport’s equipment economy. For context, the global pickleball paddle market was worth $148.5 million in ’21.

Behnke does not believe adoption of trendy weight loss drugs will lead to a reduction in the number of people playing the game. In fact, he argues usage has the potential to grow the player pool.

“For those that haven't tried playing [pickleball] yet because of weight issues, losing [pounds] will only help open the door for them to be more motivated to want to participate,” he said.

Of course, Behnke thesis is not limited to pickleball. Weight loss leads to increased energy, improved mobility and reduced strain on joints–all of which should make it easier for a person to participate in physical activities.

Should the hypothesis be proven true, an opportunity will emerge to reposition sports wellness and to focus on the substantial health benefits that come with playing beyond losing weight (think: enhanced metabolism, blood flow, and brain activity, reduction in stress and anxiety, improved mood etc.).

Doing so would enable the industry to better target participation from older fans (note: the demo initially drove pickleball’s success). While substantial reporting has occurred on the decline in youth sports involvement, trend lines have shown fewer retirees playing in recent years too.

“The Boomer generation is very focused on healthy living,” Matt Powell (advisor, Spurwink River). “Most are seeking healthier life, of which weight loss is a piece, but not primary goal.”

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About The Author: Adam Grossman is the Vice President of Business Insights & Analytics at Excel Sports Management. He works with companies, sports properties, media rights holders, athletes, agencies, and events to determine the value of their most important assets. Grossman is also a professor at Northwestern University Master’s In Sports Administration program and the co-author of The Sports Strategist: Developing Leaders for a High-Performance Industry. You can find him at [email protected].