The changing face of sport events participants: It’s competitor Jim, but not as we know him

With an increasingly global and individual focus on health and well-being, I don’t find it surprising that our Banana Boat New Zealand Ocean Swim Series participation numbers continue to grow.

There were just 300 participants in the first event 14 years ago, last year there were over 7,500 across the seven events nationwide. This growth comes from a wider and deeper understanding of the importance of movement and exercise to our continuing good health and appeals to a type of person rather than a demographic.

The most recent Sport New Zealand report tracking participation in sport or active recreation over time is dated 2014. While the data is old, this showed that adult participation has declined by 7.7 % between 1998 and 2014. Aging population, I hear you dismiss, but that’s not what I’m seeing.

In our swimmers, I see older people not ‘acting their age’ and embracing the fact that 50 is the new 40, 60 the new 50 and recreational sport as a part of their lives, is the new norm.

I think Baby Boomers are leading the shift in the changing demographics of active recreation and those with a focus on health are following.

Last year I had to introduce an 85+ years age group into our Series and the growth in multi-generational competitors from the same family reaffirms for me, that this healthy lifestyle we seek crosses all age groups.

I can no longer think of our typical competitor as a 40-year-old man, ex-triathlete, with a corporate job, young family and love of the water. I think of our typical competitor in terms of mindset and lifestyle.

They are united in their desire to work towards a deadline and use that to inspire their weekly fitness routine or training. They seek new challenges, like the sense of the common goal and achievement and aren’t afraid to try something new. They prioritise their health through exercise and a balanced diet and this drives their enjoyment, it doesn’t kill it.

Best of all is their collective approach to competition, sure they are competitive working hard to beat their own goals or finish well in their age group, but they are supportive and encouraging to all, knowing that their crossing the finish line is no more important than our 85-year olds.

It’s possible that we are seeing this greater spread of competitors across demographics as swimming is a sport that is more forgiving for an aging body. Don’t get me wrong, swimming is a full body workout that makes your body work hard (30 minutes of exercise in the pool is worth 45 minutes of the same activity on land), but water supports up to 90% of the body’s weight, making it a great choice for those with old injuries or new ones, to stay active.

Whatever the reason, this shift has motivated us to shift in the way we design and market all our events. We need to continue to appeal to a mindset and not an age bracket because after all, it’s just a number.

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