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The Sad Reality of How Hard the Pandemic Hit Fencing

The san reality of how hard the pandemic hit fencing

The last year brought us to a wholly new and sad reality, and though we are making it through, it has been a year of survival. Recovery has to come sometime, but when?

One sad reality of this last year is just how hard fencing has been hit. It’s not clear how hard just yet, but the last twelve months are world-changing for our sport. Whatever we think the ramifications are, or whatever our hopes for a quick and smooth return to what we used to have, it is increasingly clear that the path forward is going to be much harder than we would like. It’s clear that our sport will need time to bounce back into shape, and the loss is not going to be easy. 

Survival mode

Part of what keeps us going during hard times is the ability to prioritize what is in front of us. This year, we have put our heads down and looked at only what is directly in front of us, only what is needed for our immediate survival. Looking too far ahead creates a sense of unease and a feeling of being overwhelmed because we don’t know what the future will look like. 

In fencing, there has been a lot of it. We held onto hope for Summer Nationals through April of last year, when qualifying events were canceled during that first harsh lockdown. At the time, no one knew what this would all look like. Then they were postponed till the fall. Then they were finally just outright canceled. Looking back, it’s easy to see that there was never a chance for Fencing Summer Nationals to happen in 2020. At the time, everyone was taking things one step at a time, looking at what we had in front of us to make the best determination possible. That was hope, and it’s a great thing that got us through. 

We are lucky to have had the opportunity to keep going, and we’re lucky that the precautions taken by USA Fencing have meant that there were no large gatherings that created outbreaks among our fencers. It could have been a lot worse. 

One of the good things about the survival mode that we have all been in for the last year is that it allowed us to block out what’s coming. As time rolled on and the stress of just making it continued, many of us learned to let go of fretting over the future. Lots of us have found solace and meaning in our families, which is a good thing. Our worlds got smaller in quarantine, giving us a different focus. Survival mode can’t last forever though, and now as we are seeing vaccines come into our communities and the numbers of cases dip down from their dizzying, terrifying heights, we can start to look forward. 

Looking forward isn’t going to be easy. Keep reading and you’ll see why. 

Evaluating the present state of fencing

Fencing has been cut in half during the pandemic. 

Take a moment to let that sink in. Our fencing community is 50% of what it was a year ago. 

When I learned of this, I decided that it warranted an evaluation on a much deeper level. Throwing that number out there is shocking and heartbreaking, but we cannot figure out what next steps to take if we don’t understand it. Yes, it’s because of COVID, but how that played out is critical knowledge. Let’s hit those numbers.

I compared pre-pandemic data (March 2020) to the post-pandemic data (Jan 28, 2021)

Number of USA Fencing individual members:

36,812 in March 2020 vs. 16,337 in January 2021

Number of USA Fencing member clubs:

741 in March 2020 vs. 491 in January 2021

It’s incomprehensible. We are down to 44% of our members from ten months ago. Not even a year – TEN MONTHS. We have lost 34% of our clubs in that same ten months. Those numbers, they are so shocking that they barely make sense. It feels like a match when you are going against an opponent that should be a piece of cake but they blow through you and score point after point without you being able to answer them. Except on a nationwide scale. 

Let the shock flow through you for a minute so that we can get on to some real analysis. 

250 clubs, or one-third of the clubs registered with USA Fencing, are not there anymore. There are two possible explanations:

  • Clubs closed and do not exist at all.
  • Clubs are still open but stopped their affiliation.

Either way, this is sad news. If a club stopped its affiliation but is still open, that is likely an indicator of serious hardship for that club. For those clubs that simply closed, that is truly tragic. For both of these realities, we are looking at years to recover – maybe decades. It takes significant time to build a club, along with passion and resources. 

These are not just numbers. It’s easy to look at them and mentally distance ourselves. Each of those two hundred and fifty clubs was a community of owners, coaches, and fencers. There are real people behind every single one. We cannot help but think of the owners, the coaches, and the fencers that these numbers represent. Lives that have been turned upside down, the hardship that must be happening in their lives outside of fencing in order for their clubs to close or become unaffiliated. If you’re reading this and you’re part of one of those fencing communities, know that we are with you. 

Regional and divisional decreases in fencing numbers

We want to understand more of what all of these numbers mean, to know who was the worst hit and what the damage really is. There are layers and layers here, so let’s look at the breakdown by region. 

RegionBefore the PandemicNow% Decrease
1
1789

936

– 48%
2
4632

1917

– 59%
3
11166

5507

– 51%
4
7443

3280

– 56%
5
2270

1019

– 55%
6
7200

3531

– 51%

Again, every Region without exception lost roughly half of its members. Interestingly, it is basically the same across the country. We see the highest losses in Region 2 and a little less loss in Region 1, but they are still in that decreased-by-half range. 

This relatively even spread across the country is important because it shows that the pandemic has been merciless everywhere. Recovery will have to happen a broad way, just as the l loss has happened in a broad way. 

Still, there must be some differences somewhere, right? To find out, we looked further into the divisions. There are sixty-eight divisions in fencing that span across the United States. You can find the full list at the bottom of this post, but here we wanted to break it down to make it more readable and easier to digest.

Here are the top 20 divisions from 2020. 

Original RankDivisionOriginal MembershipNew RankNew MembershipPercent Decrease
1New Jersey255021393-45%
2New England244711438-41%
3Virginia16583919-45%
4Illinois149810468-69%
5Southern California13528527-61%
6Metropolitan NYC13484643-52%
7Georgia12965603-53%
8Northern California12876567-56%
9Central California12847547-57%
10Connecticut126014365-71%
11North Carolina92511447-52%
12Capitol84515323-62%
13Colorado8129490-40%
14Long Island76913385-50%
15Western Washington74012432-42%
16San Diego65817300-54%
17Gulf Coast64918291-55%
18South Texas64819291-55%
19North Texas62721276-56%
20Philadelphia59025223-62%

Interestingly, here we see a slightly different picture when we change the resolution from the Region to the Division. For example, New Jersey lost its leadership to New England. 

First of all, it’s important to note here that the smaller the division, the less loss in the membership it will take to make a big percentage change. That’s why we’ve pulled it down to the top twenty as we can take a snapshot of divisions that are closer in membership. Connecticut showed a whopping seventy-one percent drop. That’s huge. Nearly three-fourths of the fencing membership disappeared! Compare that to New England, which is nearby and twenty percent less loss than Connecticut. 

Southern California, once the 5th largest Division, is now 8th. This is of course due to the pandemic numbers that are terrible down there. In general, California, where we are located, was 4581 members in its four divisions (Southern, Northern, Central CA, and San Diego) vs 1941 members now, which is just 40% of what was before. There is a major change, but it’s also less than the average over the whole country, which was ten percentage points higher. 

We don’t know the driving forces behind all of these, but we do know that there are significant differences between divisions that we did not see regionally. 

We get another layer of insight when we look at the bottom ten divisions. 

Original RankDivisionOriginal MembershipNew RankCurrent MembershipPercent Decrease
59Harrisburg915756-38%
60New Mexico915659-35%
61North Coast83676-93%
62Ark-La-Miss816222-73%
63Plains Texas506515-70%
64National486418-63%
65Hawaii466129-37%
66Northeast Pennsylvania336613-61%
67Border Texas316320-35%
68Wyoming13682-85%

Some of these are just mind-blowing. That 93% loss for the North Coast Division – it’s hard to even comprehend that figure. It’s a loss of seventy-seven individuals, but it is most of the fencers in that area. Wyoming is similar, but we also see here the impact of having a few fencers lost in a tiny division is big. 

Of note here is that the loss is still everywhere, but perhaps most notably here are the places that didn’t lose so many. Hawaii and Border Texas are on the low end. Why is that? What made those places maintain? In these smaller divisions, the loss of one club could decimate their fencing population. It’s easy to imagine a single club closing and thirty-five members being gone, as happened in Plains Texas. In these divisions, it’s possible to see them almost completely disappear because of the pandemic. 

Types of fencing membership are changing

It’s not just the fencing membership or the numbers of clubs that are changing though. We can analyze the types of members within USA Fencing that are changing as well. 

*Note here that we have merged some of the categories from the raw data where appropriate to allow this information to be more readable and understandable. For instance, USA Fencing separates out CheckEd members in several categories, but we’ve added those numbers together here. As well, we’ve merged any membership that has coach membership added on to its original category. This is for simplicity’s sake, and we encourage you to look at the raw data if you’d like to. 

Fencing Membership Changes
TypeBefore PandemicNow Percentage Change
Coach19621407-28%
Collegiate Competitive1802329-82%
Competitive160246546-59%
Global Limited4973-99%
High School Club Member1254265-79%
International Competitive License1412154-89%
Life73993326%
Life Installment638416-35%
Non-Competitive98675547-44%
Olympian Life104100-4%
Supporting2490568-77%

We can analyze these a few ways, and all of them are important and insightful. 

Coaches before and after went from 1962 to 1407 – nearly a thirty percent drop! Thirty percent of coaches are not continuing their path!! What effect could this have on clubs, on competitions, on schools, and on access to fencing all around? It’s a massive loss and one that will likely not be so easy to come back from. Why? Well, let’s think about it from the standpoint of livelihood. This near one-third of fencing coaches are still going to need to support their families through income, and though some will hopefully come back, many will have filled their time with other work and will not be able to. 

Now let’s look at support people, which really means parents. This went from 2490 to 568 – a massive drop of seventy-seven percent. Looking at that number, it just speaks for itself. Pre-pandemic, most parents chose support membership in order to access the national level competitions. Now, with no competitions, most parents have chosen to not acquire this membership type. This is a membership type that will definitely rebound in some way, but given the fifty-nine percent drop in competitive membership, we can expect that it won’t totally rebound, at least not that fast.

Another sad fact is how hard pandemics hit the school and college fencing. If before there were: 1254 high school club members (mostly East Coast), now there are only 265. Nearly eighty percent. Collegiate athletes are in a similar situation with a huge drop of eighty-two percent. We know that a lot of this is due to the almost total halt on school fencing, but there are still consequences. Some colleges have dropped their fencing programs, and there is little chance that that will come back any time. It’s a long term problem, though we always have hope. 

Let’s dig down to competitive vs. non-competitive fencers now. Obviously, competitive fencing is far less now with no major competitions. Local competitions and some regional and divisional competitions have taken place, but at dramatically lower levels than usual. Competitive fencing dropped fifty-nine percent. However, non-competitive fencing saw a far less amount of loss, with just forty-four percent. Why is that so different? Many competitive fencers chose to move to non-competitive memberships with the lack of competition, so that skews the number. It’s notable here that these two are intertwined, and that means that the loss in non-competitive fencers is actually much higher! The silver lining is that competitive fencers are fencing and higher rates than their number shows, so we are taking some heart there. 

One last chart for us to look at in regards to membership is the USA fencers who are in high school this year – the classes of 2021 through 2024. This chart shows us a little bit about the future, at least as much as we might see from where we are. We also have their ratings included here, which gives us further insight into what is changing in fencing during the pandemic.

Before Pandemic (March 2020 USFA Membership Snapshot)

Total MembersCompetitiveSabre ratedEpee ratedFoil Rated
Class of 202122671617211350302
Class of 202225611819209311307
Class of 202328271784148208217
Class of 20242579175892129152
After Pandemic (January 2021 USFA Membership Snapshot)

MembersCompetitiveSabre ratedEpee ratedFoil Rated
Class of 2021919712151240194
Class of 20221106831146205205
Class of 20231299797121159167
Class of 2024122179183114123

We can make several observations here. For example, the biggest drop happened in this year’s high school Seniors (they were Juniors when the pandemic started). A big reason is that they do not see any ‘benefit’ in fencing! College programs are not scouting, college is in question all around, and many juniors and seniors are rethinking what their plans are in response to the pandemic. 

Another really important part to note here is that there were 2636 rated fencers before, and now there are 1908, meaning 700 fencers dropped completely. Almost half of those dropped in a single class span. Where pre-pandemic high school students were about one-third of the total membership, they now make up one quarter. 

The demographics of our sport are changing, not just the raw number of members. WHO is fencing is not the same as it was before the pandemic. 

Before the pandemic, there were a total of 9681 rated fencers (a bit less, as some fencers had two or even three ratings in different weapons, but we can ignore this for the sake of making a point). Now there are a total 5676 rated fencers. Again, we have a forty-one percent drop here, which is less than the fifty percent drop in total membership. Rated fencers are more likely to stick with it through the pandemic. 

Out of those who were rated before the pandemic, Sabre had 2181, Foil 3164, and Epee 4336. Now we have Sabre at 1325, Foil at 1855, and Epee at 2496. All of three weapons saw right around a forty percent drop in their rated fencers. We see here that the pandemic is treating weapons about  the same, at least as far as rated fencers are concerned. 

Pulling out the numbers this way helps us to understand what is going on in a much deeper way, and we see that the loss of school programs on the high school and college level are a big part of what is going on, but also that numbers are shifting within the membership in meaningful ways. 

The future is still not cloudy!

Though these numbers seem to tell a dark tale, they also tell a realistic tale. It is challenging to hear these kinds of major issues layered into our fencing community on top of everything else in the pandemic, but knowing where we are is what allows us to know how to move forward. 

Of course, it is our sincere hope that these people will not quit fencing permanently, but that they just did not register with USA fencing for one of many other reasons. For example, finances are a huge driver of everything right now, and the economy will turn around because it always does (even when it stays down for a long time). Not to be too down, but my feeling is that most of these are fencers who are permanently gone from the sport. 

It is so important, now more than ever, to support your local fencing club. Think about how many clubs are closed and how many coaches are struggling, even when their clubs are operating on the edge due to the losses of membership that have hit every club. If you are able, we ask that you continue to take lessons and go to classes in whatever capacity you can. It makes a difference. 

In the last twenty years, fencing in America has grown by leaps and bounds. We know that it can grow, and we know that it will grow again. We don’t want to lose that momentum, and we don’t have to! 

In the years to come, fencing will be less competitive. Those who have quit will have a harder time catching up when and if they return. Those who continued to train despite the difficulty will have an additional edge, not only in keeping their form and technique and conditioning but also in developing their resilience and their character. They fought the pandemic and its downsides and they won. Daily practice, continuing our competitive spirit, these are what will carry us through this time now and through the days to come. 

These losses evoke a lot of feelings. We have to stay grounded in the knowledge that our sport has grown consistently before the pandemic, so we have every reason to believe it will grow again when this is over. We should look at these numbers not as a defeat, but as a starting place. Just as we tell our fencers that a loss is the best way to grow, so too should we take this loss as an opportunity to grow. 

Fencing Divisional Membership 2020-2021
Original RankDivisionOriginal MembershipNew RankNew MembershipPercent Decrease
1New Jersey255021393-45%
2New England244711438-41%
3Virginia16583919-45%
4Illinois149810468-69%
5Southern California13528527-61%
6Metropolitan NYC13484643-52%
7Georgia12965603-53%
8Northern California12876567-56%
9Central California12847547-57%
10Connecticut126014365-71%
11North Carolina92511447-52%
12Capitol84515323-62%
13Colorado8129490-40%
14Long Island76913385-50%
15Western Washington74012432-42%
16San Diego65817300-54%
17Gulf Coast64918291-55%
18South Texas64819291-55%
19North Texas62721276-56%
20Philadelphia59025223-62%
21Oregon58216310-47%
22Central Florida54423252-54%
23Orange Coast52326217-59%
24Michigan49220291-41%
25Westchester-Rockland46022265-42%
26Indiana42730169-60%
27Maryland42229196-54%
28Utah-Southern Idaho40633145-64%
29Columbus40537128-68%
30Arizona37032146-61%
31Gold Coast Florida34824252-28%
32Northeast34227213-38%
33Mountain Valley33338128-62%
34Western Pennsylvania3334582-75%
35Tennessee31628196-38%
36South Carolina31635137-57%
37Northern Ohio30331150-50%
38Hudson-Berkshire28540116-59%
39Minnesota26542107-60%
40Western New York24739123-50%
41Alabama24634138-44%
42Nebraska-South Dakota2235167-70%
43Nevada1954486-56%
44Kentucky1864969-63%
45St. Louis18541107-42%
46Iowa17843100-44%
47Southwest Ohio1744774-57%
48Gateway Florida1745461-65%
49Oklahoma1705068-60%
50Inland Empire1644680-51%
51Kansas16136135-16%
52Green Mountain1415856-60%
53Central Pennsylvania1314872-45%
54Wisconsin1315952-60%
55South Jersey1305364-51%
56San Bernardino1295561-53%
57Louisiana1286042-67%
58Alaska1235266-46%
59Harrisburg915756-38%
60New Mexico915659-35%
61North Coast83676-93%
62Ark-La-Miss816222-73%
63Plains Texas506515-70%
64National486418-63%
65Hawaii466129-37%
66Northeast Pennsylvania336613-61%
67Border Texas316320-35%
68Wyoming13682-85%


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6 Comments

  1. R

    You wrote “people will not quit fencing permanently, but that they just did not register with USA fencing…” Fencers don’t see a membership’s benefit without tournaments. I renewed because I’m reffing. Jersey’s scholastic season began last week and area collegiate tournaments begin this weekend. With talk of no national fencing until September, I don’t see your quoted numbers changing until then.

    • Igor Chirashnya

      I believe that most people who train renewed their membership at least at a non-competitive level, which is a basic USA Fencing requirement. So unfortunately I believe it is rather a safe assumption that those who did not renew, quit, at least temporarily. Judging from our club’s pattern, this is a reasonable assumption 🙁

  2. Kaye

    Great blog entry (as usual). Thanks for the comprehensive snapshot. I’d be interested to see you revisit this data again in the fall!

    • Igor Chirashnya

      Hi Kaye, thanks! I hope the sport will rebound and become stronger. Thanks for the suggestion to revisit this post – will absolutely do!

  3. Sara Kass

    As a sad note, I glad the overall decrease is about 50%. Most clubs I’ve heard from lost 2/3 of their student population when the world shut down. I know I miss my people tremendously. I know about half that left expect to come back when they feel it’s safe to come back. And, I’ve managed to cultivate new students that will replace that third the probably never will come back.

    How do we succeed? As you say, basically put blinders on and keep moving forward. Because, if you think about the ramifications too much, it will destroy you.

    • Igor Chirashnya

      Hi Sara, Yes, keep moving, do whatever we can for those who are in the sport and for those who are considering it. Once life is back to normal it will take us a lot of effort to rebuild the sport. But I am optimistic we will.

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