“Why Nobody Watches...” — Fencing’s Popularity Problem and How to Fix It

Fencing, though an official Olympic sport since 1898, has failed to garner much attention over the years. Apart from the select few who specialize and excel in the sport, fencing has never made its way to people’s backyards or mainstream television as other sports have in the United States.

Fencing, though an official Olympic sport since 1898, has failed to garner much attention over the years. Apart from the select few who specialize and excel in the sport, fencing has never made its way to people’s backyards or mainstream television as other sports have in the United States. Compared to the 15.6 million members of the USA Baseball program, USA Fencing only has a total of around 40,000 members. There are also no professional fencing leagues in the country, so collegiate fencing is the end of most fencers' careers. While various causes contribute to the unpopularity of fencing, the major reasons are the lack of exposure, complex rules, and expensive gear.

In a typical fencing match, everything happens at lightspeed. Two fencers move their swords swiftly to score "hits" or "touches" on each other, and any small mistake can be costly. An outsider, however, misses many of the details on account of their subtlety, and it is hard for people to appreciate the complexity of the sport. A successful fencing match requires a series of small movements and mental calculations, and the hard work that goes into every parry is often neglected by people who equate large movements to athleticism. Aside from the details that go overlooked, how many people do you know truly understand the three divisions of fencing—épée, foil, and saber—and the scoring system? In épée, the fencer is allowed to hit any part of his or her opponent's body. In foil, the fencer must aim for the torso of his or her opponent. In saber, the fencer is free to strike any part above the waist. In individual competition, the winner of a bout is the first to score 15 touches on the opponent, with each touch equalling one point. In team competition, there are nine individual bouts that each end if a fencer scores five points. The team with the greatest number of points wins after the bouts. Without knowing the scoring system or the rules of each event, the general public has trouble connecting with the sport, unlike the easy “ball enters goal, team scores point” logic of soccer. Each movement in fencing happens quickly and delicately, to which spectators need plentiful exposure to appreciate it. Even if viewers have the exposure, understanding it takes an effort that most people would rather not undergo.

Another major aspect of fencing’s lack of popularity is the gear, which can present a sizable barrier to entry. To properly engage in fencing, each fencer requires at least two swords, a lamé, a white jacket, protectors, two body and mask cords, long socks, gloves, and knickers. While the individual price of these items may not be too expensive, the total cost can easily run over $400, whereas a high-quality pair of soccer cleats can be found for $75 to $100 dollars. For every dollar gear cost rises, a sport loses potential participants. Therefore, many people interested in fencing may shy away due to the multitude of items required and their expenses.

While educating more people, be they a small community or large, on the rules may address the first problem and increase popularity, the method requires significant and fairly impractical effort. The best solution, then, is to modify the rules to create a version of fencing that appeals more easily to the general public, meaning it can be played with minimal or cheap equipment in improvised, versatile spaces . The primary reason sports like basketball and soccer are popular is that they can be easily played with a single ball, one hoop or a field, and little to no officiating. A new "street" style of fencing could rise to mass popularity in the same way if it is made easier to learn and understand. The version of fencing we see today can still continue, but since people are more inclined to watch a sport they play or at least have had the easy opportunity to play at one point in their lives, they would have the more informal, new style to latch onto. The modified version of fencing may encourage more people to play the sport, increasing viewership. Fencing gear could also be offered at more schools, thus making fencing an option at both public and private schools, which could provide the necessary equipment that may inspire more people to fence.

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