As a small child, my grandmother and mother both watched several “soap operas,” including the Secret Storm. The opening of Secret Storm showed violent waves crashing on the shoals, something I’d never seen being raised in Middle Georgia. My grandmother especially used to flinch and react to the plot-line drama there, something that I took note of even if to laugh to myself as a small boy.
The underlying theme was there was undetected turbulence in the offing, denied by those benefiting from things staying put as they are and have been. But all were impacted none the less when the waves of change ultimately pounded the rocks where many sailors during the great sailing days of yore and asleep at the wheel ran aground .
The Secret Storm has been one of my go-to metaphors for periods of rapid change. This is where social institutions are altered because of changing demographics among the individuals who participate in the organizations making up the institution itself. This is certainly one of those times in amateur radio!
A demographic storm is approaching CW contesting in the ARRL Sweepstakes Contests.
It may be a rapid change in all CW and Phone contests. Those in power in the institution don’t see the coming storm of demography because it’s slow-acting…until it’s not…and more immediate fish are there to fry. One can see “secret storms” in various times and places. Some get attention. Others do not.
But this “storm” is largely secret for at least two reasons. Until this path-breaking study of the best available data, no one has reported on the generational patterns of major contest participation. Many hams have speculated on it but there has been no systematic empirical data until now. Another is that those who are the most successful in today’s contest formats, as well as those who govern them, tend to take a blind-eye toward anything negative or indicative of change to the “only positive contesting spoken here” ideology. Read the relevant amateur radio magazines objectively for the evidence.
But the facts describing this demographic storm are undeniable. Here is why.
The problem and the solutions are challenging but the latter is more so because it takes group decision-making in opposition to vested interests to make it happen.Frank K4FMH
This post excerpts from the full technical version of a study that I completed in collaboration with Dr. Scott Wright K0MD, past Editor of the ARRL’s National Contesting Journal. Scott is the lead author on a popular article drawn from this study that appears in the September-October 2021 issue of the NCJ. It does not go into great detail on the data or analysis but as a social scientist, I believe that a full exposure of methods, data and analysis is always warranted. A PDF version of that report is published on NCJWeb.com as well as on my companion website under my Hamography (made-up word) section in the Studies tab.
The paper, “Generational Change in ARRL Contesting: The Pending Demographic Cliff Ahead,” by Frank Howell, PhD K4FMH and Scott Wright, MD K0MD is the first study (of which we are aware) that has measures of the age of contesters for a broad period of time in a major contest program. Moreover, the year licensed is used to measure the experience in amateur radio based upon license tenure. Georeferencing each call sign to the administrative location places each one in a geographic context which further illustrates who, when and where ARRL Sweepstakes participants are.
The radio sport of contesting is one of the top activities for ham operators . The annual ARRL
Sweepstakes contests in CW and Phone have broad appeal as contests and the numbers of participants
has been increasing each year. Clearly, from an engagement viewpoint, it is one of the great success
stories of the League. So, why are there hams within our fold who express concern about the potential
for declining participation in contests like Sweepstakes? Why are there some alarmists among us who
believe ham radio contesting may face a cliff with regard to drop-offs in participation? We hope this
article will answer those concerns and clarify opportunities for the contesting community to “right the
ship before it takes on too much water,” so to speak. The problem and the solutions are challenging but the latter is more so because it takes group decision-making in opposition to vested interests to make it happen.
Our analysis is based upon entries into the ARRL Sweepstakes contest, a popular contest among ham
radio hobbyists in North America. The ARRL made available to us the participant entry data from the
years 2000, 2005, 2011, 2015 and 2020 for a series of analyses designed to create opportunities for the
contesting community to grow the ranks of contesters.
We discovered that Sweepstakes participants over the past two decades were from all over the world
but mainly in the United States with a much smaller number from Canada. Figure 1 is a map of CW
and Phone participants for the years 2000, 2005, 2011, 2015 and 2020 all combined within each
transmission mode.  They are concentrated around metropolitan areas but especially in the
Northeastern corridor, the West Coast, the Midwestern Rust Belt cities, and Florida. The Los Angeles,
San Francisco and Seattle areas tend to be concentration zones as well as Chicago, Minneapolis and
Detroit in the Midwest. The spatial patterns for CW and Phone participation are very similar with some
tendency for CW participants to be in more rural areas. So Sweepstakes participants tend to be like
most Americans, residing most in and around large cities with some outside of those metropolitan
areas. That’s great, right?
As the well-known sports announcer, Lee Corso, says: not so fast! The demographic processes shaping Sweepstakes participation, and perhaps most all long-standing contests, portend the potential for dramatic change to come in the next decade or so.Frank K4FMH
We report the first results of a new study of Sweepstakes log submissions over the 2000-2020 period with age-matched data from ARRL Membership files and other enhancements by the authors. Using a number of data analytic procedures, we identify key generational changes in contest participation patterns that have not been previously identified. They paint a concerning picture for the attraction of new blood into the radio sport of
contesting. But first, let’s look at Sweepstakes participation itself for the past 20 years.
The growth in contest participants seems very clear from the numbers that the League compiles from
the log submissions. Figure 2 lists numbers of logs successfully submitted by year and mode. From
each five-year gap, the rates are positive and robust. For CW, the annualized growth rates of growth are
from about 4-5 percent over each gap while Phone’s annual rates of growth range from 4-7 percent,
with more participation in Phone sweepstakes from both absolute participation numbers and percentage
growth. These are positive but modest growth rates.
These results clearly suggest that the Sweepstakes participation is growing and includes hams from all around the U.S. and a noteworthy number outside the country, especially in nearby Canada. But like the sailor who ignores the dark clouds in the distance, there is a demographic storm on the horizon.Frank K4FMH
Generational Patterns of Participation in the Sweepstakes Contests
The ARRL kindly provided birth year for all of the call signs in the Sweepstakes Contests data where age information was available.  We used this information in our enhanced dataset to examine the age distributions for each year and also added actuarial life expectancy data from the U.S. Social Security Administration to each birth year (see Note 5 below). This gives us a unique perspective on not only the age patterns of these contesting hams but their likely remaining years until reaching Silent Key status. Each log call sign was also georeferenced to license address.
Some age demography theory here is necessary for interpreting the results. If the age structure of contest participation is such that new hams are being regularly drawn into the radio sport in sufficient numbers to replace those aging hams who exit, the shape of the distribution from 2000 until 2020 would remain almost identical. That is, amateurs from more recent generations would enter as older participants become physically or mentally unable to engage in the necessary “butt in chair” activities for major contests, or have relocated their housing into situations where participation in radio contesting is not possible. However, if the age distribution continues to shift upward from 2000 until 2020, then newer generation newcomers are not keeping up in replacing with those from earlier periods who are eventually leaving the contesting scene. Or, it could be a mixture of these two opposing scenarios. The empirical answer from these data is surprisingly clear.
We present a histogram of the age distribution for Sweepstakes participants in each observed contest
year by mode in Figure 3. The median age over all contests and modes is 60 years. We insert this
median into each distribution to give a fixed target through which to visualize trends in the respective
age distributions over time. The results are striking, especially for CW participants. The bulk of the age
distribution lies to the left (younger) side of the median in 2000 for each contest mode. But with each
successive five-year snapshot, it moves like a caterpillar’s crawl to the right (older) of the age 60
median. It reached a tipping point in 2011 with the middle bulk of participants being around the age of
60. By 2020, a clear majority of participants are above the median bar (older) but slightly more so for
This picture suggests that the needed demographic replacement is not occurring as the Sweepstakes contesting participant pool is aging to the point where we need to examine carefully what is the demographic profile of newcomers and those exiting. Moreover, what is the life expectancy of those continuing to participate in the ARRL’s premier contesting program? We step through results addressing these issues from this dataset.
This picture suggests that the needed demographic replacement is not occurring as the Sweepstakes contesting participant pool is aging to the point where we need to examine carefully what is the demographic profile of newcomers and those exiting.Frank K4FMH
Some key indicators of demographic change are in Figure 4. The row labeled Continuation is the percent of call signs from the previous year (e.g., 2000) that matched the call sign logs submitted in the next contest observation (e.g., 2005). This tells us which individual call signs continue from five-year observation to the next observed contest. Only a third to a half of the call signs in a given year appear again in the next contest some five years later. This applies to both CW and Phone contests. However, the Phone contest continuation percentages are systematically smaller, never reaching 50 percent. It’s clear that readers should recognize that Sweepstakes participants, especially those in Phone, are not the same operators but they do tend to reflect the same generation, collectively moving in some lock-step through the past two decades of the Sweepstakes. This suggests that Sweepstakes contesting is culturally rooted to one or more generations rather than a single collectivity of specific hams.
This suggests that Sweepstakes contesting is culturally rooted to one or more generations rather than a single collectivity of specific hams.Frank K4FMH
The average age has moved upward over the past two decades some 15 years from 51 to 67 among CW contesters. Phone participants are slightly younger on average but they too have moved from 50 to 64 over this twenty-year period. Now a key element of this demographic mix is the age at licensure, created from the “check year” field in the required Sweepstakes log compared to the birth year. Phone participants tended to be licensed in their mid-twenties while CW contesters were in their late teens. These are averages, of course, and vary somewhat. We include the standard deviation under the mean score to better illustrate this variation. But this aids in our understanding of the tenure of being licensed. Participants in the CW Contest over the years have been licensed longer than similar Phone participants. They are culturally rooted in the era of amateur radio where they entered the hobby at a young age and may indeed reflect an earlier generation of ham radio in cultural beliefs about the hobby. In both cases, the vast preponderance of participating hams (88.9%) was born in the Traditionalist (pre-1945) or Baby Boomer (1945-1964) generations.
Demographic Sources of Newcomers and Exits from Contesting
Having described the dominant generational character of Sweepstakes participants, we remind the reader that these are not the same set of individual hams to participate year-in and year-out (e.g., 50% or less continuity). But what age demography are those who enter contesting? When did newcomers become licensed? How about those who get enthusiastic about amateur radio later in life? These factors are what will drive contesting into the future over the next 10-15 years. They are the drivers of the demographic storm brewing, especially for CW contesting, and will continue to significantly shape the size and nature of contesting.
To address these questions, we enhance the Sweepstakes dataset to compute measures of exits and newcomers into each five-year observation window. Because it can be complicated to just describe this data creation in just words, we rely on the diagram in Figure 5. From left-to-right, the years of data we obtained from the ARRL represent whether a specific call sign was in a contest for that year or not.  If a call was in 2000, for instance, and it was not in 2005, then we count that as an exit case for the 2000-2005 interval. If that call was also in 2005, then we consider that a continuation (as shown in Figure 2). If a call was not in 2000 but was in 2005, then we consider that a newcomer. These were computed separately for the CW and Phone Contests. We also recognize that we are not able to link call signs used in each contest to previously used call signs so this aspect of our analysis is a weakness.
But taking into account that we do not have each and every single year’s log data, this method could have a call sign that was in 2000-2004 but just missed 2005 and still be counted as an exit. The same thing could conversely be the case for newcomer. But to counteract this random absence case, we computed long-term exits and entrants. As the red box on the left designates, if a call sign was in either 2000 or 2005 but was not in any of the remaining contest files, we counted that as a long-term exit. Accordingly, if a call sign was in 2015 or 2020 but not an any previous contests, we count that as a long-term newcomer. These may be more reliable but longer-term indicators of the ebb-and-flow of Sweepstakes Contest participation than the 5-year measurements.
The short-term exits for CW and Phone are shown in Figure 6. There is a greater exodus during the 2000 to 2011 decade and is dominated by the Traditionalists and Baby Boomer generations. Some exits are prominent by Generation X members during the second decade of observation. Note that the number of those leaving this contest program declines over time, suggesting that it may indeed be age-related health issues rather than changes in interest. While exits exacerbate the generational problem, Figure 7 contains data on newcomers, where replenishment of those leaving may be found. But here is what may be a surprising result. Newcomers tend not to come from later generations but from the wellspring of the Baby Boomers and their preceding generation. And while this is true for both contest modes, there is a nominally greater increase of Generation Xers and some token Millennials arriving in the Phone contest logs in the last five years. This trend is a potential strategy for the contesting community to grow participation in sweepstakes especially via the Phone contest.
The long-term exits and newcomers are described in Figure 8. In the CW Contest, long-term entrants are almost wholly from the Baby Boomer generation. While the small presence of other generations is observed, they pale by comparison to both long-term newcomers and exits by this generation.
Another potential source of new blood into radio sport are what the first author termed, “late-in-life hams,” in his NCJ article series on Aging and Contesting. These are middle-aged adults who become licensed and engage in the hobby. Using the definition cited in the NCJ articles (see note 1), we computed late-in-life-hams using the age variable as license age being 40 or above. Out of the 12,663 logs with matched age data, a total of 1,655 (13%) were classified as late-in-life hams. While this is a small number in absolute terms, to what extent do they represent newcomers to the Sweepstakes? Figure 9 provides an answer.
The bar chart shows that there is an increasing number of hams licensed later in life joining each contest year. Well over 100 were present in each year since 2000 in the Phone Sweepstakes but less for CW. This is a clear differential in late-in-life hams favoring Phone over CW. In the past decade, this difference has become larger with over 250 such hams taking up Sweepstakes Phone entry as compared to no more than 100 in CW. Thus, late-comers to ham radio and Sweepstakes contest participation migrate to Phone much more than CW. These observations suggest that the phone Sweepstakes are a perfect entry way into HF contesting for newer licensees who want to try contesting by participating in a domestic event that fosters success with modest antennas (wires, verticals) and lower power (100 watts). It is an opportunity for all contesting clubs to find and invite such newer licensees to join Sweepstakes 2021 and beyond to experience the thrill and passion of HF contesting. This suggestion is made even more crucial to long-term contesting sustainability given the next trend we uncovered.
…late-comers to ham radio and Sweepstakes contest participation migrate to Phone much more than CW.Frank K4FMH
Life Expectancy and the Demographics Facing Sweepstakes
Our final analysis involves the estimated life expectancy of Sweepstakes participants, using the U.S. Social Security Administration’s actuarial data for average predicted remaining life by age.  Some basic explanations of these data are warranted before proceeding. The predicted remaining life is the average and there is variation around that mean score (standard deviation is thought to be between 8 and 15 years, depending upon the time period referenced. See Note 5.). So, these are population characteristics and individuals (hams) will vary on length of time with regard to becoming Silent Key around this average score. Regardless, taken in aggregate, these projections are likely critical for understanding the cliff that HF contesting is about to experience.
If we think of the expected remaining years of life at a given age as a battery where “years of life” is a charge, we can examine patterns of life expectancy as being above or below the expected “charge” until reaching depletion (Silent Key status), whether SK status reflects relocation to a living situation where operations cannot occur or ultimately through death of a given individual. The presented data will underestimate the age when physical or mental infirmity precludes active contesting. We constructed a set of histograms similar to the age distribution by year and contest mode (Figure 3). Instead of age, we substituted remaining life expectancy computed as the difference of life expectancy and age. Instead of the median life expectancy, we inserted a vertical line at zero which reflects the average remaining life expected, trading on the remaining battery charge metaphor. Figure 10 contains graphic representation for each Sweepstakes year and contest mode.
…future participation in the CW Sweepstakes would fade out within a decade or two based upon these data unless younger hams enter the CW sector of radio sport.Frank K4FMH
The positive results are that all but one time-to-expected-SK status is on the right side of zero (or positive). If newcomers to the Sweepstakes contest program averaged the age distribution in this participation pool, there would be a supply “re-charge” (replenishment of SK contesters with newer contesters with life expectancies of several decades) that would sustain it for over two decades or so. The clear and dramatic exception is in the CW contest where fully one-half of the 2020 participants have used half of their expected remaining time until SK status. This does not take into account physical or mental impairments that would take hams out of the contesting participation pool. Thus, future participation in the CW Sweepstakes would fade out within a decade or two based upon these data unless younger hams enter the CW sector of radio sport.
What Do These Results Mean for the Sweepstakes and Other Contests?
The current participation numbers for the Sweepstakes contests look good, even promising future extended growth, if we only take the raw counts of submitted logs into consideration. This is exciting for those of us who are long-term contesters as well as the ARRL contest itself. However, there is more to what we have observed. The loss rate of contesters leaving the ARRL Sweepstakes contest is high and reflects the aging demographics of our hobby, as well as the lack of adequate replenishment of newer, younger contesters.
The current participation numbers for the Sweepstakes contests look good, even promising future extended growth, if we only take the raw counts of submitted logs into consideration…Because of these demographic patterns, it appears to be a culturally-situated issue riding a demographic storm…it is not too late to reverse these trends and interrupt the aging-related decline that is happening…Frank K4FMH
Because of these demographic patterns, it appears to be a culturally-situated issue riding a demographic storm. If it were just promoting the Sweepstakes contests to other age groups, the activity would be attractive by itself. However, note the maximum continuity rates never reaching more than 50 percent across each five-year period. Yet, it was almost one-half of the second year’s participants that were also from the Baby Boomer (or perhaps Traditionalists) generation, not Gen-Xers or Millennials. Certainly not Post-Millennials which could be counted on two hands. This is strong evidence that Sweepstakes contesting as we know it is a cultural practice that appeals to those born before 1965 and, while nominally growing among Gen-Xers, does not attract younger participants thus far.
That said, we also recognize that it is not too late to reverse these trends and interrupt the aging-related decline that is happening in contesting and that will soon result in dramatic reductions in numbers of participants. Sweepstakes, especially Phone Sweepstakes, attracts new participants from among those recently licensed, regardless of their generational age. Growth in Sweepstakes is not occurring from a new hobbyist “teenage” demographic, which is how many of us entered ham radio. There are plenty of data describing how ham radio does not have the same allure today as it did in the 1950’s-1970’s. We cannot undo cultural trends and changes in new technology. We can however create new marketing/recruitment strategies to welcome adults of all ages into the hobby, and to encourage them to give contesting a try. Phone Sweepstakes is one such ‘gateway’ to contesting it seems. The data already point to that, and it is an observation that suggests ways for the contest clubs throughout North America to target and draw in new participants.
Our data analysis reveals several indisputable facts. First, Sweepstakes participation remains popular despite the folklore that it is not growing, although that annual growth is small. Second, the participants in Sweepstakes are typically experienced ham operators who have been licensed for many decades. Third, the number of younger generation hams (under age 40) has not contributed to any measurable change in Sweepstakes participation. Fourth, there are newer licensees (not necessarily younger in age) who are participating in Sweepstakes and largely contributing to its growth. Fifth, Sweepstakes has ‘curb appeal’ to newer licensees, especially Phone Sweepstakes.
These observations suggest several pathways forward to sustain contesting, enrich the hobby and replace our senior contesters who are becoming SK’s.
Contesters and contesting clubs can create new marketing/recruitment strategies to welcome adults of all ages into the hobby, and to encourage them to give contesting a try. Phone Sweepstakes is one such ‘gateway’ to contesting. Contest sponsors, like the ARRL, can ensure that any changes in the rules of Sweepstakes should reflect changes that encourage rather than discourage new participants. The ARRL might consider creating some awards which target exclusively newer entrants into Sweepstakes, like a ‘rookie category’ but without the culturally offensive stigma of calling a middle-aged adult a ‘rookie’. (We suggest using Newcomer instead.) The Contest Advisory Committee may want to critically evaluate the Sweepstakes data and offer additional innovative ways to attract more participants.
Finally, these data suggest that there are plenty of new hams in the hobby but not enough contesters. Local, regional and national contest clubs must re-evaluate outreach strategies and meeting formats to attract, mentor and retain new contesters within our ranks. Individual contesters can also contribute to contest growth. We can dispel the popular myth that a successful contest station requires multiple towers, Yagi stacks, vertical arrays and teams of operators. There is a role for these sophisticated, team-based contesters. They often lead through innovation and performance, stimulating the rest of us to pick it up a notch or two. But there are plenty of ways that individual contesters can enjoy the hobby and be successful, whether through modest stations at their home, through mobile contesting or even portable activities like the SOTA, POTA, the Portable Operations Challenge and others.
The first author has published an exposition of the first Fox Mike Hotel Portable Operations Challenge in the September-October issue of the National Contesting Journal. An international Steering Committee leads this effort to offer a clear and distinctive change in amateur radio sport, from focusing on gear to competitive strategy to win without segregating participants into ever-smaller categories of contestants..
We can dispel the popular myth that a successful contest station requires multiple towers, Yagi stacks, vertical arrays and teams of operators.Scott K0MD
It is also important to acknowledge the impact the housing transitions from a home without antenna restrictions to a property with severe restrictions is likely impacting participation, especially later in life for those who wish to continue as contesters. It is imperative that we acknowledge this reality and work to create opportunities to contest via remote stations or through shared club stations, such as exists in The Villages in central Florida. The ham radio hobby has always been about innovation and response to challenges. The challenges we face in contesting are no different. The demographic “cliff” we observe and describe with contesting need not be a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it will take the social capital of making collective decisions for the betterment of the social good to make this happen.
‘the ability of people to work together for common purposes in groups and organizations…Social capital can be defined simply as the existence of a certain set of informal values or norms shared among members of a group that permit cooperation among them’Francis Fukuyama (1995) Trust : the social virtues and the creation of prosperity.
The first author gave an analysis of the dire need for “social capital” on the part of ARRL and other contesting organizations in his first Social Circuits column, “Lemmings Over a Demographic Cliff? Tradition and Change Are Terrible Bedfellows.” The following excerpt quotation from the ending adequately summarizes the policy issues that this path-breaking study of the generational change in ARRL Sweepstakes Contesting data identifies (emphasis is new):
It is often attributed to the social thinker August Comte to have said, Demography is Destiny. But it does not have to be so. It does require taking the blinders off of tradition and evaluate it for what it is today and what it means for the future. This almost always requires those in power to make such decisions to forsake their own vested interests in favor of change. Like the famous Lemmings advertisement by Apple, not everyone has to walk off this demographic cliff. We just have to take the blinders of tradition off our eyes, wake up, act for the common good, and smell the demographic coffee. Because it’s brewing…Frank K4FMH
So the secret storm on the horizon of the next 10–15 years in contesting is not longer so secret. No action may be taken by relevant leaders but that’s up to readers to insist that progressive acts be initiated to attract younger and late-in-life amateur radio operators to different types of contesting than the style in place for several decades. What will you do to ensure that this happens?
1. Frank M. Howell. “Aging and Radiosport — Part 1” National Contest Journal, July/August, pp. 3-8.
2. With the approval of ARRL CEO David Minster NA2AA, these data were kindly supplied by Bart Jahnke, Radio Sport and Field Services Manager, at ARRL Headquarters. He handled follow-up questions in a very timely manner and our thanks are expressed here.
3. A total of 12,873 birth years were supplied for the 15,390 logs sent to us by the ARRL. This resulted in 2,517 (or 16.4%) not having age data. We examined patterns of missing age data against several key variables that are independent of age: US call vs international, year of contest, absence of year contests by mode, mode over all years, state location, precedent category, long-term exits and entries, and total number of CW and Phone contests. All except long-term phone entry were statistically significant. But examining the cross-tabulations, the percent difference in any category was about 5 percent of the cases. We do not see these differences as substantially reducing our ability to generalize age patterns to the full Sweepstakes dataset used in this study.
4. We recognize that call signs can and do change. While georeferencing each log record, we took note of this potential by examining the log entity (person, club, etc.). It did not appear to be very prevalent enough to warrant concern by us.
5. See https://www.ssa.gov/oact/STATS/table4c6.html. We used these data to construct expectated (mean) life span and compared it to current age in the contest year to compute remaining life expectancy. Our narrative discusses the standard deviation around this average life expectancy. See, for instance, this article by Edwards at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3285408/ which suggests that 15 years is a good approximation. Others, such as Hennington (https://www.actuaries.digital/2020/08/12/standard-deviation-around-life-expectancy-is-eight-years-what-this-means-for-retirees/) suggest that 8 years is a better current estimate.