PADDLING BUSINESSstream: What's Up With SUP? | Adventure Kayak Magazine | Rapid Media
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PADDLEBOARDERS ON THE SHOSHONE SECTION OF THE COLORADO RIVER NEAR VAIL, COLORADO. COURTESY BADFISH SUP

THE STANDUP BOOM HAS SLOWED, BUT THE DATA IS NOT CLEAR ON HOW MUCH, OR WHY

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SIXTEEN YEARS ago, Laird Hamilton surfed Malibu with an American flag streaming from an overlong canoe paddle. It was September 11, 2002—a year after the Twin Towers came down—and the image spread like wildfire, introducing a brand-new sport to the world. When the Outdoor Industry Association began tracking standup paddleboarding eight years later, in 2010, more than a million Americans were participating in the sport. By 2015 that number had tripled.

It’s been a hell of a ride, but there are signs it’s coming to an end.

“We saw an exponential growth at the beginning and there’s been a leveling off,” says Kristin Thomas, Executive Director of the Stand Up Paddle Industry Association (SUPIA). “In the last two years we’ve had slower growth, but the sport is still growing.” After more than a decade of double-digit growth, SUP participation grew 6.2 percent in 2016 and 3.2 percent in 2017, according to the OIA’s 2018 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report.

The word on the paddlesports street is the SUP industry is maturing after a period of explosive growth, which means some brands are consolidating and others are falling by the wayside. The reality isn’t so simple, Thomas says. “I don’t know if there really are fewer brands now. We are seeing new businesses still popping up all over the place.”

There’s still a sense of exuberance in the SUP business, with some players entering the game with more passion than planning. It’s easier than you might think. “As a kayak company, you can’t go to a Chinese rotomolder and say, ‘Make me a playboat, a creekboat and a river-runner, and here’s my logo to slap on them,’” says Badfish SUP co-founder Mike Harvey. “But in SUP you can do that all day long.”

“There was huge overproduction and a ton of dumping a couple years ago,” Thomas says. That’s partly because brands weren’t doing their due

diligence but also reflects a lack of good data, says Thomas, who is leading a SUPIA effort to collect market data and help member brands make better use of it.

The anecdotal reports are all over the map. The majority of retailers we queried say paddleboard sales have softened in the last year, though some report just the opposite.

“Last year was our biggest year for standup. It almost surpassed our kayaks sales,” says Sean Creary, owner of River and Trail Outdoor Company in Rothesay, New Brunswick. That reflects the regional variation in the sport. While the SUP craze swept the West Coast years ago, Creary only began stocking paddleboards three years ago.

In addition to that geographic variability, SUP is a diverse sport with roots in many different watersports. And because the sport is so new, most of the major players cut their teeth in other industries such as surf, wind or paddling. Naturally they look to the history of those sports when trying to forecast the future of standup. The exuberance in SUP has long been tempered by memories of windsurfing’s rapid rise and catastrophic decline. Kayaking, too, offers something of a cautionary tale.

Harvey was a sponsored freestyle kayaker at the height of that sport’s boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Though there are clear parallels to that era of whitewater kayaking, which ended with a wave of corporate consolidation and the death of some of the sport’s most-storied brands, Harvey says SUP is different in one very important way—its broad appeal to new enthusiasts, especially women. So if you want to draw lessons from kayaking, don’t look at the slowing in whitewater. Look at the growth of recreational kayaking.

“We still see aspirational paddlers as a huge growth area,” Thomas says. “One of the neat things about SUP is we bring in people who have never been water people. We can be the entry drug.”

 

Jeff Moag is the former editor of Canoe & Kayak magazine and a regular contributor to Paddling Magazine and Paddling Business. He writes from Dana Point, California.

This article orginally appeared in the 2018 annual edition of Paddling Business. Read the full issue here.

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