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Most popular sport in U.S. is swimming
2nd most popular is walking; 3rd, bicycling

SHARE Most popular sport in U.S. is swimming
2nd most popular is walking; 3rd, bicycling

Which would you guess would be more popular: Bowling or tennis? How about darts or soccer? Basketball or baseball?

If you picked bowling, darts and basketball, you win.How about this? Out of ice hockey, tackle football, lacrosse, rugby, soccer, fast-pitch softball and beach volleyball, which is the only sport showing an increase in players over the past 12 years?

The correct answer is soccer.

Of the 30 most popular sports in the United States, according to a 1999 "Superstudy" conducted by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, the most noticeable absence is baseball. Lifting free weight made the list, and so did day hiking, stretching, basketball, golf, tennis and soccer -- but not baseball.

To collect numbers, the SGMA sent out 25,000 questionnaires to random individuals. Of those, 14,891 were returned and usable. The weighted data were then projected out to a U.S. population of 246 million and based on respondents over the age of 6, participating in a sport at least once a year.

The survey determined that the most popular sport is recreational swimming with 95.1 million participants. This was followed by recreational walking (84.1 million) and recreational bicycling (56.2 million).

Bowling was fourth with 52.6 million participants, and freshwater fishing was fifth with 44.5 million.

Included in the top 30 were lifting free weights (sixth), basketball (eighth), golf (16th), darts (20th), tennis (29th) and touch football and hunting (tied for 30th).

The report went on to note changes in sports participation over a 12-year period.

The numbers show:

High-impact aerobics is off 55 percent, while fitness walking is up 32 percent between 1987 and 1999.

Nearly every category in the fitness-equipment field was up, most notably treadmill use is up 752 percent, and stair climbers use is up 667 percent. The two exceptions were rowing machines (off 56 percent) and aerobic riders (off 51 percent).

In the area of team sports, only two have shown increased participation in the past 12 years -- basketball (up 10 percent) and soccer (up 14 percent). Baseball is off 20 percent, dropping from a high in 1990 of 15 million people to 12 million in 1999. Softball is off 36 percent, and volleyball is off 32 percent. Tennis dropped from a high in 1990 of 22 million to 17 million last year, a net loss of 20 percent.

Among outdoor activities, the one showing the greatest rise is mountain biking. It went from a low of 1.5 million to 7.8 million last year. The number of people going into the wilds and camping in a tent jumped 15 percent -- from 35 million in 1987 to 40 million in 1999. The number of people camping in recreational vehicles dropped 22 percent.

Among the shooting sports, hunting numbers have dropped by 33 percent over the past 12 years, while shooting clays is up 27 percent.

In the area of water sports, numbers have dropped significantly in both windsurfing and water skiing. The report showed windsurfing counts went from 1.1 million in 1987 to 624,000 in 1999, and water skiing numbers went from 20 million in 1987 to 10 million in 1999.

On the list of indoor sports, the report listed 36 million pool players, 53 million bowlers and 20 million dart players in 1999.

With so much to do these days and so many sports to become involved with, it's not always easy finding the "one" sport. Numbers still show, however, that Americans do like to stay active.

E-MAIL: grass@desnews.com