In the last three years, standup paddling has swept through surfing and paddlesports like a grassfire, invigorating retailers and participants alike.
And if you talk to any SUP industry insider, you'll inevitably hear them say this: "Standup is the fastest growing sport in the world."
But where are the hard numbers backing this claim? The problem is, until now, there really were none. Standup paddling is young enough that it has no specific organization to track its economic progress. There is no SUP equivalent of the Ski Industry Association.
The anecdotal evidence is powerful, though. Business people say the sport has saved them. From surf shops in California to kayak shops in New York, retailers have changed their business models to ride the SUP wave. "We've had to hire more people," says Devin Carroll of Seattle's Urban Surf, a kite- and windsurfing shop that has transformed into one of the city's largest SUP outlets. "Standup has definitely grown sales—enough so that we now need experts on the floor who know how the boards ride and what people need."
The numbers we have been able to find concur with this idea. In April, SUP magazine started an online participation study, the first of its kind and one that we hope will give us more concrete data on who's practicing the sport and where (included as a gallery below). At press time, 937 people had responded. Of the 937, 74 percent said they have at least four friends who are standup paddling enthusiasts, while 27 percent know at least 10 people who SUP. Want even better news? Seventy two percent of respondents make more than $50,000 a year, and 33 percent make more than $100,000. That means they have more discretionary income to spend in paddling shops. And they have: 57 percent purchased boards in the last year.
Combined with the anecdotal evidence, this indicates tremendous growth, and the potential for more of the same. Still, industry types remain cautious. Boardworks COO Bob Rief, whose company distributes eight major SUP brands, worries that so many manufacturers entering the market could create a product glut—a prospect that is unsettling for both board makers and retailers. One of Rief's catch phrases? Low volume plus low margins equals bad business.
"When we first went to Action Sports Retailer in San Diego four or five years ago there were three SUP manufacturers," Rief said. "Last year there were 78." (Neilson discontinued the ASR show in 2011).
This January at Surf Expo in Orlando, Fla., SUP magazine asked a panel of retailers to raise their hand if they'd had to discount product in the previous year. Every one of them raised their hand.
Still, Rief says that in 2010 his company saw the largest sales growth in his four years there. Flooding the market with inexpensive product made by flash-in-the-pan companies isn't new to any industry. Paddlesports, surfing, the snow world, all have been down that road before, and it thins the herd. The best climb their way to the top with smart business tactics. And if standup sales numbers continue to climb despite the worst economic conditions in three generations, then the market could remain strong for years.
Our survey is just a start. Once we really nail down these numbers as more surveys come out, the industry as a whole can start addressing sustainable growth on a business-by-business basis.
— Joe Carberry is the editor of SUP magazine. This article originally appeared in the summer issue of Paddlesports Business.