Ham Radio, Chess and Model Railroading

Every once in a while, I look at the number of licensed radio amateurs in the US and ponder how ham radio participation rates compare with other hobby activities. Take a look at this post from 2005: Some Amateur Radio Statistics and this one from 2015: Ten Year Trends in US Ham Licenses.

The latest number of FCC amateur radio licenses (March 2018, from ah0a.org) is 749,711 (Novice: 8847; Technician: 379,735; General: 174,478; Advanced: 41,153; Extra: 145,498)

The population of the United States (2018 estimate) is 325 million which means that FCC amateur radio licensees are 0.2% of the US population. (Yes, this number surely overstates the number of active radio hams.) From the 2017 Annual Report, ARRL membership is 159,070, which is a decline of 3% from the previous year, apparently associated with a recent dues increase. There is a slight time skew in the numbers but this means that ARRL membership is ~21% of the FCC licensees. This represents about a 2 point decline from the same calculation for 2005. Not a good trend.

It is interesting and maybe even useful to compare these numbers to other activities we are familiar with in the US.


I stumbled across an in-depth analysis of sportfishing (basically all kinds of recreational fishing) by the American Sportfishing Association.  This report on US Angler Participation says that 49 million people in the US participate in fishing, or 15% of the US population. Frankly, that number seems a bit high but let’s just go with it. Perhaps what’s more interesting is their analysis of renewal rates for fishing licenses and potential reasons for why people start and stop fishing. Oh, guess what? Young people are not pursuing fishing at the same rate as adults so there is concern about the future of the sport. Browse through the website and you will find reasonably good data on the state of fishing in the US.

Outdoor Sports

The Outdoor Industry Association publishes data on a wide variety of sports ranging from bicycling to birdwatching. According to their numbers, every activity they track has a larger percent of the US population than the FCC amateur radio license number.  A very popular outdoor activity is bicycling, with a participation rate of 24%. Other significant sports listed include camping (21%), running (21%), hunting (6%) and downhill skiing (4%). Even birdwatching comes in at 3% and snowshoeing is listed as 1%.  This report also analyzes participation rates, motivations and trends by race, age and other factors. Good stuff.


I came across a web page that asks the question “how many people play chess?” This caught my eye because I think there are significant similarities between the game of chess and amateur radio. The answer: no one knows.

One study claims that 15% of the US population plays chess at least once per year.  This would be close to 50 million players and put it in the same participation class as camping or bicycling. That just seems too high…I can name quite a few of my friends and family that camp and bike. I can’t name hardly any that play chess regularly.

The US Chess Federation has 85,000 members, who are presumably actively involved in chess (for the most part). There are probably many times more people that play chess casually. A wild and generous guess of 10 times or 850,000 players would still only be 0.26% of the US population.

The chess community has many effective programs to help children get started in the game. This is probably a real strength for that community. However, I noticed several discussions in online forums lamenting the fact that children tend to drop the game in their teen years. Also, Sports Illustrated just published an article about how chess has always been dominated by men with women making limited gains in participation.

Model Railroading

Then someone on reddit asked why ham radio magazines have disappeared but model railroading magazines are quite available at the local bookstore. Now that is an interesting comparison. Model railroading is a well-established hobby that many people pursue for enjoyment. It is a bit “old school” with a strong hands-on “maker” aspect to it. It has also has seen the impact of newer technology, especially digital electronics. In terms of alternative activities, it is seeing competition from radio-controlled cars and aircraft.

This online forum puts the number of US model train hobbyists in the range of 150,000 to 300,000, but without much in the way of hard numbers (just anecdotal evidence).  One person argued that the number is more like 1 million hobbyists. This web site makes the claim (without references):

Today there are a half million model railroaders and toy train hobbyists in the US and Canada!

But many model railroaders see challenges ahead. This Wall Street Journal article discusses how the demographics of the railroader population are changing: End of the Line for Model Trains? Aging Hobbyists Trundle On

This web site also discusses the trends in model railroading. I found this quote to be relevant:

This hobby (as well as a lot of other markets) is currently dominated by the baby boom generation. They will be dwindling in numbers over the next ten years, and the generations behind them just don’t have the numbers to fill in unless there is a significant boom of interest in model trains.

One commenter suggests there are 1 million model railroaders in the US.


First, I am struck by the number of different hobby and sports activities available to us. From a historical perspective, North Americans have significant leisure time and a multitude of activities to choose from. Some of those are “mainstream” in the sense that most people are aware of them and many people do them (examples: fishing, bicycling, running). Other activities fall into a niche (< 1% of the US population) but still have vibrant communities that pursue them with gusto (examples: chess, amateur radio, model railroading). The participation rate for Chess may actually be higher than 1% of the population…I’m really not sure…but it looks more like a niche activity than a mainstream hobby.

The mainstream activities tend to have access to good data on participation in the sport or hobby while the niche activities tend to be lacking reliable data. It seems that the more popular activities have a industry association or member organization with sufficient resources to pursue obtaining participation data and maintaining it over time. The information available concerning sportfishing and outdoor activities was pretty impressive. Chess, amateur radio and model railroading…not so much. If you are worried about the health of a hobby or sport, the first step is to have accurate data. (I recently heard that ARRL Headquarters is pursuing this. I certainly hope so.)

Participants in many of these activities express concern about the demographics of their communities. There are lots of comments on web sites about needing to attract younger participants for the future of the hobby, along with comments about how kids don’t seem to be interested. The big concern was getting kids involved but there are also issues of low participation by women. Certainly, we hear these same concerns in the amateur radio community.

One big takeaway is that amateur radio is not the only community that is concerned about growth. I’d really like to hear from radio amateurs that are active in chess and model railroading, to compare and contrast their experiences.

73 Bob K0NR

The post Ham Radio, Chess and Model Railroading appeared first on The KØNR Radio Site.

Bob Witte, KØNR, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from Colorado, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

6 Responses to “Ham Radio, Chess and Model Railroading”

  • Richard KWØU:

    There certainly are other hobbies that are seeing both aging and declining populations. General aviation goes along but is very sensitive to costs, and there have been a declining population of private pilots. It is down from around 800k in 1980 to about 600k today. (The area I’ve been working in, glider flying, is much smaller and also slowly sliding.)

    Stamp collecting is of less general interest today, and possibly “serious” (that is, not in it for the precious metals aspect) coin collecting is also going down. Heck, the antiques market has dropped a lot as younger people now move more and delay buying homes, so certainly don’t want grandma’s silverware, much less furniture, cluttering up their lives.

    I wish there were easy answers to reverse these trends, but popular interests do change, and situations alter. (Coin collecting was fun when you could pick out old pieces in change and a lot of young people started that way.) I suppose just giving people the opportunity and exposure to get interested is a good start, though I don’t know that by itself this is enough to keep a critical mass going.

  • Bill KI7HYI:

    What other hobby requires nothing more than memorizing the questions and answers to the public pools to pass the licensing tests? I’ve met too many hams who are reminiscent of CBers I used to know with respect to their actual technical knowledge and understanding.

  • Brian VE7BWP:

    Interesting comment from Bill. The other day I proposed looking at a licence level that consisted of regulations, operating procedure and installation which was met with distain from the more technical minded members of our club.

    The problem we are having is due to the “instant gratification” requirement in our society today where patience is an unknown commodity.

    Virtually every organization is our society is losing membership so what we see in our hobby is certainly not unique and much of it seems to be due to the time commitments of the child rearing generation being all consumed with catering to the wants and needs of their offspring leaving no time for their personal persuits.

  • David WB4ONA:

    “…there are also issues of low participation by women.”

    Why is there always a “big concern” when it comes to pushing women into areas where males usually participate, but it’s never the other way around?

    For-example, you NEVER hear this regarding the hobby of Sewing: “…there are also issues of low participation by men.”

    I mean, I’m a man and I’ve always wanted to learn how to sew. But this gender bias has held me back 🙁

  • Elwood Downey WB0OEW:

    I’ve been a ham for over 40s years and a railfan and model railroader almost as long. Both hobbies seem pretty active to me. But one big difference is I see far more young people at RR events compared to ham events. I also find online RR forums to be much more cordial and helpful than ham forums.

  • Ron KD8FTH:

    The title of the article makes me long for a snow covered, cold Christmas morning with a train around the tree. A hot cup of coffee and the magic sounds coming from a warm tube boat anchor.

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