The participation rate for scuba diving among the American population is one set of data we can rely on. We have at least one!

We are severely lacking scuba diving industry statistics and even more, reliable data. We are not sure what the drop out rate is. We are not even sure of the size of the dive industry. But we know the scuba diving participation rate in the USA because it’s part of a study done annually by SFIA, the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, in their “Topline Participation Report.”

We will look at the participation rate for scuba diving among the American population. And for comparison and strategic reasons, we will compare to snorkeling, swimming, and stand-up paddling.

1. Scuba Diving Participation STatistics

The latest SFIA Topline Report is the 2019 edition. It provides us with the level of participation in scuba diving among the American population, from 2013 to 2018.

One interesting part of the SFIA report is that it provides this information for two categories of participants:

  • Casual: Participating (scuba diving) 1 to 7 times per year.
  • Core: Participating (scuba diving) 8+ times per year.

2019 SFIA Topline Report

In 2018, there were 2.8M scuba diving participants in the USA, most of which were Casual (2.1M). But only about 700K scuba divers in the USA, in 2018, dove more than seven times during the year. It’s a small industry!

These 2018 numbers represent a drop of 1% from the previous year – but that is not the full story. The “core” participants dropped by 6% over 2017 while the “casual” scuba divers increased by 1%.

This trend is consistent throughout the years. For instance, on a 3-year AAG (Average Annual Growth), for 2018, “core” scuba divers dropped by 6.3% while the “casual” ones dropped by 3.8%.

In other words, not only the participation rate for scuba diving is steadily declining in the American population, but the “core” divers are especially shrinking. These are the divers more likely to be going on numerous dive trips per year, buying a full set of scuba diving gear and taking continuing education courses.

This could be explained with the theory that older scuba divers (baby boomers) wanted to “be a diver.” It was a lifelong dream. Once they became one, they defined themselves as being a diver. They bought everything with a dive flag on it! Meanwhile, younger generations want to “do” diving, casually, among numerous other activities.

There’s a huge marketing difference between promoting “Be A Diver” and boosting “Go Dive”.

2012 SFIA Topline Report

If we look at the 2012 SFIA topline report, the sharp drop in core scuba diving participants is even more stunning. At that point in time, they were reporting data among three categories:

  • Casual: 1-7 times per year
  • Regular: 8-14 times per year
  • Frequent: 15+ times per year

The variation in the participation rate from 2010 to 2011 was as follows:

  • Casual: +0.7%
  • Regular: -3.1%
  • Frequent: -14.8%

This trend is not new. The overall scuba diving participation rate in the American population has been shrinking for years, especially among divers going on numerous dives per year which, we assume, are mainly older (baby boomer) divers.

2. Snorkeling Participation Rate

Numerous local dive shops are complementing their income by selling fins, masks, snorkels, and accessories to snorkelers. And numerous dive boats are also offering snorkeling tours. So, let’s look at what is happening with snorkeling.

Unfortunately, it’s not doing better than scuba diving. Let’s look at the 2018 data.

  • 1-year change: -6.8%
  • 3-year AAG: -4.1%
  • 5-year AAG: -2.1%

Therefore, snorkeling will not help us offset the decline we see on the scuba diving front.

One possible bright light could be freediving. It appears to be growing in popularity. However, it is not an activity currently part of the SFIA surveys.

3. Swimming Participation Rate

Why are we looking at swimming? Because some dive centers own and operate their pool and have been complementing their income by offering swimming lessons to maximize the utilization of their pool.

So, how is swimming fairing? Let’s look at the 2018 data.

  • 1-year change: +1.3%
  • 3-year AAG: +2.3%
  • 5-year AAG: +3.3%

So, swimming may be an excellent way to increase your revenues while your income from scuba diving and snorkeling are shrinking. Of course, we also believe that we can turn around the dive industry, which is another discussion.

4. Stand Up Paddling Participation Rate

We’re looking at this activity simply because stand-up paddling (SUP) is a fairly new outdoor activity. It didn’t exist a few years ago. Some dive centers added stand up paddling (SUP) equipment to their product mix to sell in their store. Was it a good idea? Let’s look at the growth in this activity in 2018.

  • 1-year change: +3.9%
  • 3-year AAG: +4.6%
  • 5-year AAG: +12.3%

Wouldn’t you like to see a gear category in your store with annual growth of 12.3%? SUP is also an interesting activity to do during surface intervals.

5. Scuba Diving Participation Rate – What’s Next?

We will come back on these other outdoor activities when discussing how to expand your dive shop product mix.

We believe that part of the exercise of turning around the dive industry involves seeing it as part of the broader Outdoor Industry. Join OIA (Outdoor Industry Association) in addition to DEMA. The outdoor industry, as a whole, is growing.

Instead of playing with only one card (scuba diving), add a few more cards to your hand (other related activities).