Reports & Insights

Sports trends of 2021

Sports trends of 2021

You are here:

Reports & Insights

What does 2021 have in store for the global sports industry? The SMS team explores the trends they expect to see over the next 12 months.


Game, mindset and match – sport and mental health

Throughout 2021, the myriad benefits of sport for mental health will become more and more crystallised, and as this happens, we expect sport and exercise to be seen more and more as a necessity rather than a hobby. Lockdown has made millions of people around the world realise how much they miss sport and fresh air, and the result will be a more general focus on exercise and getting outside whether on your own, or with friends or family, with less emphasis on the content or structure of a sport and more on being active for its own sake. Accompanying this trend, sport will begin to be talked and written about as meditative, self-caring, escapist and other terms not traditionally used to describe exercise and fitness.


Making outdoors great again

Linked but separate to the point about mental health will be an increasing trend for exploration of the great outdoors. The number of Americans walking, hiking and running rose sharply in 2020, a pattern that is emblematic of one of the more positive side effects of the pandemic. As 2021 develops, we expect to see people continue to discover and realise the importance of fresh air for their mental and physical health. And, in the interlude until international travel becomes mainstream again, people will be more curious and eager than ever to discover the local hills, mountains, lakes, rivers and trails in their own countries. As this happens, and as young people get used to meeting their friends for walks rather than coffees or brunches, the image of ‘hiking’ or ‘rambling’ as pursuits for older people may start to be challenged.


Like the way you move

Moving, activity and exercise will become more creative, unstructured and enjoyable than ever before. Lockdown has broken down the classical templates of exercise and, with gyms closed for example, people are being forced to get creative about how they exercise. This has given permission and opportunity for people to adopt exercise regimes that work for them, often involving a combination of walking, running, leisure cycling, and home workouts. For gyms, this trend presents an existential threat, raising the possibility that the new year’s resolution crowd, so crucial to the finances of many sport centres, may get fit from home instead of in the gym. The growing availability of home workout classes, and decreasing costs of home subscription services like Peloton, both of which are less pressured in terms of body image and cost than traditional gyms, may mean more people getting fitter by staying at home.


Virtual runs on

Mass participation events were one of the major casualties in 2020 and are likely to continue to face cancellations, at least for the first half of the year. Events that depend on international participants will be even more complicated to stage, a development that may reduce the size of event fields even when racing does restart. At the same time, as travel does start to become normalised again, expect big ticket races and experiences to show renewed growth faster than more local destinations. Events like adventure marathons can combine athletic events with bucket list destinations including running the Great Wall of China, a South African safari marathon or a temple run in Myanmar. It may be easier to convince consumers to arrange pre-departure tests or quarantine on return from this kind of bucket list trip than it is from a short-haul destination. In the short-term, expect to see the growth of virtual races and series. Even the London Marathon, which was a virtual only race in 2020, anticipates operating both a physical and virtual race in October 2021. Where virtualisation is not possible, in tourism reliant sports like skiing and scuba diving for example, 2021 will be an extremely difficult year. For spectators, the short-term future will be one of following teams and events virtually rather than online. As businesses adapt to cater for these virtual fans and the at home ‘matchday experience’ gets ever closer to the stadium, there will be long-term challenges relating to stagnation in attendance, particularly when considered in the context of the ageing population of traditional sports fans. SMS is currently running a syndicated tourism monitor to help the golf industry adapt for 2021 and beyond.


Pedal powers up

The global bike boom shows no sign of stopping, and if anything, cycling has all the tools to thrive even more in 2021 than it did in 2020. A year of unprecedented growing press attention and public awareness will fuel further sales, provided the industry can overcome not insubstantial supply chain issues that arose in the second half of 2020. Markets for growing categories such as leisure bikes and e-bikes will gain further momentum. If and when commuting does become part of people’s lives again, folding bikes could start to fly off shelves again too, with personal travel being preferred to public transport. With active travel benefitting mental and physical health, the climate, air pollution and consumers’ wallets, there are simply too many advantages for this to be a flash in the pan. SMS will explore the cycling trends in more detail throughout the year using data from the Bicycle Association Cycling Market Data Service, powered by SMS, a tool that now holds over 700,000 SKUs, and 28M lines of sales data.


Flex it

Remote or flexible working is the present and the future. In a recent SMS study, more than two-thirds of golfers say they expect not to go back to full time commuting. If correct, this trend will allow people more time to devote to their hobbies. It will also create opportunities for people to practice, learn and play off-peak times. This, combined with social distancing measures such as greater spacing between tee times, may well appeal to people new to particular sports, for example non-golfers or beginner players who feel more confident about reaching the first tee without so many watching eyes.


Wins of change

Sport will become more political than ever in 2021. Already this process is underway, with the PGA announcing that it will move the 2022 PGA Championship from Trump National in Bedminster, in response to events in the USA, and The R&A confirming “We will not return (to Turnberry) until we are convinced that the focus will be on the championship, the players and the course itself and we do not believe that is achievable in the current circumstances.” At the same time, stars like Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford who campaigned for free school meals in the UK, and The Atlanta Dream W.N.B.A team, who protested against their owner, Republican senator Kelly Loeffler, showed in 2020 that athletes can achieve tangible change in policy and voting patterns as well as raising awareness. Emboldened by their example, we expect to see more sports stars and teams lending their considerable cultural cachet to movements and policies throughout 2021. Clubs, leagues, venues and retailers will all have to consider more carefully than ever before who they patronise and how they advertise.


Any support in a storm? – sports advocacy

As sports and leisure plots a long-term recovery from COVID-19, the rush to secure government support and investment will be more competitive than ever. In this environment, those sports who can most successfully advocate for their benefits will stand to enjoy a precious competitive advantage. Doing advocacy well involves generating robust, independent data to justify potentially political, controversial or costly investment. SMS explored this phenomenon for Bike Biz in January’s edition, and is also a member of Cycling Industries Europe’s market research expert group, which aggregates data from across the industry to support high-level decision making at EU level.


To E or not to E-sport?

For e-sports, the pandemic has been a golden opportunity to grow its media profile, with less competition for coverage from traditional sports in the climate of cancellations. In participation terms too, the pandemic has enhanced the pool of e-sports players. Many young people in particular have found in casual gaming an important and enjoyable way to keep in touch with friends during the pandemic.

As e-sports becomes ever more mainstream and with streaming services like Twitch already boasting heady engagement figures, and ongoing uncertainty about whether traditional sports events will or won’t take place, expect some continued drift of sponsors towards e-sports. As this happens, we could also see traditional sports leagues and teams start to invest in e-sports, as the Premier League, among others, did during 2020 lockdowns. We anticipate seeing more of the biggest sports teams and names in the UK investing, owning or starting e-sports franchises.


Exhibit b

Exhibitions, trade shows and business travel will all continue to struggle to host physical events in 2021. Already, before COVID-19, the trend was for brands and distributors to attempt to move away from communal exhibition halls. Those with the human and financial resources to afford it had already found value in creating bespoke events, making the trade come to them rather than share halls and rooms with their competitors. However, while this benefits sellers by reducing competition, it does inconvenience buyers, at least those who are either planning to shop the field, or hoping to work with a number of brands. 2021 may see a worst of both worlds for the exhibition industry.

There will inevitably be brands queueing up to try to be the first major event back on the face-to-face calendar, but while several buyers and sellers will be keen to get back in the fray, especially once vaccination takes hold, there will be many holding off. A sizeable group of people will continue to feel uncomfortable travelling to crowded business events, while companies will also be more aware of the cost of such trips. Expect most trade show organisers to err on the side of caution, refraining from investing in exhibition costs until the appetite from participating brands and retailers is proven once again. In fact, although business travel is currently permitted in a lot of places where leisure travel is not, there are several reasons to expect that the former may actually take longer to recover than the latter. There is a corollary – IGTM (The International Golf Travel Market) found its virtual event such a success in October 2020, that it is holding another one in March 2021, where Richard Payne from SMS will be speaking on the latest trends and forecasts for golf tourism.

While consumers may have strong latent demand to re-book postponed trips, many businesses have realised that what they once considered essential travel was actually nothing of the sort. When that awareness intersects with growing corporate concern about being seen to make stronger sustainability pledges, and an unwillingness to put employees in harm’s way, the logical conclusion is caution where business travel is concerned, with virtual events likely to dominate for most of 2021.

Sports Marketing Surveys – To find out how SMS can support your business with insights and forward planning, please contact




More than two-thirds of golfers do not expect to go back to full time commuting

Looking for extensive insight and strategic solutions for your organisation? We can help.