Washington — The clashing of swords and short barks from masked fencers as they lunge and parry fill the lofty space in the suburban office park that is home to the Virginia Academy of Fencing. Since starting with 15 students a decade ago, academy owner Alexandre Ryjik has seen his enrollment grow to 500, half of whom are children.
One is ninth-grader Matthew Faria, 14, who took up fencing in January after years devoted to two more customary youth sports: soccer and karate.
Those sports were fine but became boring, Matthew said. Fencing "seemed different and fun" which helps explain why the number of youngsters belonging to the U.S. Fencing Assn. has doubled, to 8,000, in the last five years.
Matthew's attitude reflects a phenomenon in youth sports as children and teens shift focus from more traditional events to endeavors that are lesser known or newly in vogue.
It's causing a splintering of the U.S. youth sports market: Fencing, rugby, field hockey, volleyball and lacrosse have experienced growing participation in recent years, while the sports your dad and grandpa played as a kid, such as baseball, are in decline.
"The number of sports that are available to people of all ages is truly mind-blowing," said Mike May, spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Assn. The association used to track participation in 56 sports to help its members decide what equipment and clothing to produce; now, it tracks 103 sports.
Marketing campaigns by smaller sports to attract younger participants appear to be boosting their numbers. Too, youngsters and parents say they like sports with fewer participants because athletes get more playing time and a better shot at standing out.
Some parents believe it will be easier for their children to outmuscle the competition for a college athletic scholarship if fewer players are in the running. A 1972 federal law, Title IX, increased funding for women's collegiate sports, including scholarships, making parents and girls more aware of the financial benefits.
"The scholarship availability is tremendous," said Kristine Manning, who co-owns PlayHer Sports in suburban Bethesda, Md., a 3-year-old business that runs hockey, lacrosse and volleyball programs for 1,000 women and girls. "And I know that's a lot of the motivation behind parents' interest."
Associations governing two sports recently launched ambitious marketing campaigns to recruit youthful players: rugby, the British football game heretofore played mostly in college and men's leagues, and lacrosse, an American Indian-inspired game previously limited largely to elite colleges and their feeder prep schools.
The two sports have developed school physical education programs, and offer training for coaches and officials as well as free or cheaper equipment for schools and youth sports clubs.
Both programs stress that unlike sports such as football, basketball and baseball theirs don't favor players for their physiques.
"You don't need to be super fast, super tall or super big to have fun," said Steve Stenersen, executive director of US Lacrosse, whose membership has soared from 24,000 players three years ago to 100,000 now, the vast majority younger than 16.
USA Rugby, that sport's national governing body, last year began a youth recruiting campaign to counter its rough-and-tumble image. Officials developed a two-hand-touch policy for younger players, instead of full-scale tackling, and deployed 22 "youth development officers" nationwide to lobby schools and sports clubs to offer rugby.
Baseball's Leo "Nice Guys Finish Last" Durocher might not approve, but the emphasis is on enjoyment, USA Rugby officials say.
"There are too many other sports where the objectives put forth for the kids were focused more on winning," said Scott Novack, who heads the group's youth development program. "So in all of our promotional materials, the main emphasis is on kids having fun."