Raise Your Hand If You Surf

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surf, who surfs

The American Sports Data (ASD) Superstudy claims 1,736,000 people surfed in the UnitedStates in 1999 — a 24-percent increase from its 1998 figure.But itdoesn’t take formal research to know that more surfers are in the waternow than ever.

But how reliable is this ASD number, and what other data exists tosupport it? Unfortunately, getting a figure on just how many surfersthere are in the United States can only be gained by cross-pollinatingscattered, somewhat-reliable pockets of data — including professionalmarket surveys, dealer/consumer surveys, surf-organization membershiplists, magazine circulation figures, and hardgoods sales estimates.

Thrown on the table and pieced together, do these bits form a believablepicture of who’s actually in the lineup and who’s just watching from thebeach? And how does all of this affect business? Let’s take a closerlook.

**** Who Are We Counting? ****

Who qualifies as a surfer? Is it someone who rode a wave at least oncein the past year? Or are the qualifications more stringent: someone whosurfs whenever there’re good waves? Right away, we’ve hit the sore spotthat makes many surf industry execs skeptical about existing marketdata.

So for the purposes of this article, let’s say a surfer is anyone whohas surfed at least once in the past year and plans to do it again inthe coming year.

Like any participant group, the population of surfers can be visualizedin a pyramid graph, with the smallest and most hardcore group at thepeak, and the less committed or beginning participants comprising thewider base of the pyramid. Let’s further divide this pyramid into threelevels: Hardcore, Recreational, and Wannabe.

The Hardcore Crowd:
Hardcore surfers are the most active participants.Regardless of ability level or equipment choice, they ride waveswhenever conditions or schedule allows. They buy boards/wetsuitsregularly, subscribe to or buy surfing magazines, and many frequentsurf-related Internet sites. Because of this, the surf industry spendsthe majority of its marketing dollars targeting this group.
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The Weekend Warriors:
Recreational surfers are less avid than hardcores.Recreational surfers still get in the water at least on a seasonal basis(mostly when the water is warm), and still own and purchase surfingequipment. Surfers in this class may be on the way up or down from theother levels of the pyramid, so ability levels vary.

Some are former Hardcores who have reduced water time due to theirproximity to the beach, kids, job, or other responsibilities. Others areWannabe graduates, on their way to Hardcore status as soon as they’reold enough for a driver’s license.

The Great Unwashed Kook Masses:
Wannabe surfers are on the fence. Theyhave taken the first step to learn how to ride waves. They either own,rent, or plan to buy surfing equipment. Many attend surf camps or takesurfing lessons. Some eventually progress higher on the pyramid, whileothers drop off entirely.

**** Existing Research ****

There are three organizations that track U.S. surfing participation inone way or another: the SGMA-funded American Sports Data (ASD) surveys,the NSGA, and The Ponzi Group (Board-Trac).

ASD sends out 25,000 surveys to households throughout America. In the1999 Superstudy of Sports Participation Survey (conducted January 2000),nearly 15,000 usable surveys were returned. Each of these respondentsrepresents 16,536 people of the total U.S. population of 246,238,000.The numbers in the survey are adjusted to represent the totalparticipant population.

The three-page survey asks questions related to participation in 103different sports, including surfing. The 1999 survey concluded that1,736,000 people surfed at least once in the United States. Of thesesurfers, 28 percent (499,000) surfed three times or less in 1999 andeighteen percent (303,000) surfed at least 25 times in 1999. Otherinteresting conclusions of the Superstudy:

àƒ,à‚• 30 percent of parcipants have surfed for one year or less. (LargeWannabe population, high growth rate.)

àƒ,à‚• 27 percent of participants have surfed for ten years or more. (Highretention rate.)

àƒ,à‚• 41 percent of participants plan to surf more in 2000 compared to 1999.(Wannabees and Recreationals moving up.)

àƒ,à‚• 38 percent of participants plan to surf the same amount as last yearin 2000. (Large base of stable participants.)

àƒ,à‚• Seventeen percent of participants plan to surf less in 2000.(Relatively small dropout rate.)

àƒ,à‚• Out of the 1.7-million “surfers,” sixteen percent (273,000) chosesurfing as their favorite activity.

àƒ,à‚• The average age of the surfers polled was 28.4; 76 percent were male.

**** NSGA Participation Study ****

The most recent NSGA research on surfing participation occurred in 1998,when 1.3-million people surfed at least once. NSGA mails itssports-participation survey to 35,000 households. Respondents are atleast seven years old.

**** Research Summary ****

The ASD and NSGA surveys seem to match up fairly well, indicating atotal of 1.6- to 1.8-million people comprise the three levels of ourpyramid. The Hardcore population stands in the neighborhood of 300,000(approximately seventeen percent of the entire surf population) andgrowing, with the Recreationals and Wannabes splitting the balance.

**** The Retail Base ****

Search the online yellow pages with the keyword “surfboard,” and morethan 2,000 storefronts are listed, including shapers and glassingfacilities. Top manufacturer executives estimate that approximately1,200 storefronts sell surfing hardgoods — surfboards or wetsuits. (Ofcourse, a huge number of stores sell surf apparel. In 1998 Quiksilversaid it had more than 15,000 dealers worldwide.)

However, take out the shapers, glassers, and marginal low-volume shops,and only about 700 of these 1,200 stores could be considered surf shopswith a significant hardgood sales volume (i.e., boards sales of morethan 50 boards per year). Let’s take a look at where those stores arelocated:

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While surf-shop distribution may not say much about total surferpopulation, it gives a good idea of the geographic distribution andpopulation density of surfers. Based on these figures, for example, wecan deduce that nearly half of the country’s surfers live in California.”Duh,” you may say. But did you know that the East Coast has as manysurf shops as the West Coast? Or that the Northeast has more surfersthan Hawai’i? Toss that one out to the bewildered fisherman next timeyou’re trudging through the snow at Montauk Point.

**** Surf Magazine Circulation ****

Circulation figures from Surfing and Surfer magazine confirm thegeographic distribution and also tend to validate the true population ofwhat we’re calling Hardcore Surfers. Each month, both Surfer and Surfingmagazine print about 180,000 issues each. About 140,000 of these issuesare distributed in the U.S., the rest go overseas. Of these 140,000,about 30,000 sit on newsstands and are eventually tossed. So about115,000 issues of each magazine end up in the hands of surfers eachmonth.

Surfer claims that 36 percent of its readers also subscribe to Surfing.A good chunk Surfer readers probably buy Surfing on the newsstand too,so let’s assume there’s a 50 percent crossover rate between eachmagazine with its readers. So the total number of surf magazine buyersis likely to be around 170,000. Based on each magazine’s reader surveys,about 80 percent of these 170,000 surfers surf more than two times aweek and qualify as Hardcore Surfers in our pyramid hierarchy.

To get an idea of how many people actually read each issue, surf magmedia kits like to pump the phrase “pass-along rate” into the heads ofpotential advertisers. This measures how many friends see the originalpurchaser’s issue of a magazine. Both major mags claim a pass-along rateof seven. Multiply seven by 170,000 and you get the claim that 1,200,000people read surf magazines in the U.S. each month — or about 69 percentof the total surfer population in the country, according to the ASD/NSGAfigures.

We don’t know if all of these pass-along readers surf. Assuming thathalf of them do, we get a more believable figure of 600,000 surf-magreaders who actually surf. If half of those readers qualify as Hardcore,we’re back to the 300,000 range indicated by ASD. Spread this number outusing the geographic distribution of surf shops, and here’s what youget:

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**** Hardgood Sales ****

Wetsuits: The TransWorld SURF Business wetsuit survey included 110storefronts (1,900 surveys were sent out, for a six-percent responserate). Many of the retailers’ answers were “off the top of my head”educated estimates. However, the survey provides some clues as to thenumber of wetsuits sold in each year.

The median total sales volume of the surveyed shops was 600,000 dollarsper year, with wetsuit sales accounting for an average of twelve percentof total sales volume. The average selling price of a wetsuit (includingspring and fullsuits) came out to 140 dollars.

So when we multiply 700 ‘core shops times 600,000 dollars in sales timestwelve percent, and divide that number by 140 dollars per wetsuit, weget a total of approximately 360,000 surfing wetsuits sold each year inAmerica. Some wetsuit manufacturers say that number could be as high as500,000 units.

Surfboards: Our latest Retailer Survey determined that shops sell anaverage of 40 boards per month. We polled 71 premier shops (representing138 storefronts) identified by manufacturers as their best dealers, soit’s likely the board sales volume is higher in these shops.

In addition, many surfers order boards directly from the approximately1,000 shapers in the U.S. So to get a more accurate figure of newsurfboards purchased in America, we need a four-part formula:

Surveyed Premier Shops: 138 Shops times 40 boards per month times twelvemonths = 66,240 boards

Unsurveyed ‘Core Surf Shops: 562 shops times twenty boards per monthtimes twelve months = 134,880 boards

Low-Volume Surf Shops: 650 shops times two boards per month times twelvemonths = 15,600 boards

Direct From Shaper: 1,000 Shapers times ten boards per month timestwelve months = 120,000 boards

Total: Approximately 337,000 surfboards sold per year in America.

**** What Does All This Mean? ****

Clearly, there’s no hard and fast way to determine the surferpopulation, though ASD and NSGA’s estimates seem pretty solid based onour grassroots cross-referencing. But what’s the value of this number?Who cares, anyway? Most surf shops operate only on a local scale andhave a solid handle on the size and growth potential of their customerbase. Surf-brands base national and global sales forecasts on theprevious year’s performance.

The real value of reliable data lies in the future. As surfing speedsthrough its largest participation and growth rate in history, theimportance of hard data becomes critical. Want to build a series ofartificial reefs to combat erosion, increase surfing opportunities, andimprove marine life? Want to prevent that marina construction thatthreatens the life of local surf breaks? Need a loan to finance yourshop’s expansion? Want to take your surfwear company public? Decisionmakers need numbers. Anytime the surfing world wants to communicate withthe outside world, we need numbers.

The surfing population is finally reaching a critical mass that haspolitical and economic influence, but there’s little tribe unity toproduce reliable data.

This is a perfect opportunity for groups like SIMA and the SurfriderFoundation to emulate the record-keeping practices of associations likeSIA and the National Ski Areas Association. These organizations hireprofessional market-research firms to conduct Topline Retail Audits andSki/Snowboard Participation Surveys. These surveys yield reliable yearlytotals and multi-year trends that tmagazines in the U.S. each month — or about 69 percentof the total surfer population in the country, according to the ASD/NSGAfigures.

We don’t know if all of these pass-along readers surf. Assuming thathalf of them do, we get a more believable figure of 600,000 surf-magreaders who actually surf. If half of those readers qualify as Hardcore,we’re back to the 300,000 range indicated by ASD. Spread this number outusing the geographic distribution of surf shops, and here’s what youget:

[IMAGE 2]

**** Hardgood Sales ****

Wetsuits: The TransWorld SURF Business wetsuit survey included 110storefronts (1,900 surveys were sent out, for a six-percent responserate). Many of the retailers’ answers were “off the top of my head”educated estimates. However, the survey provides some clues as to thenumber of wetsuits sold in each year.

The median total sales volume of the surveyed shops was 600,000 dollarsper year, with wetsuit sales accounting for an average of twelve percentof total sales volume. The average selling price of a wetsuit (includingspring and fullsuits) came out to 140 dollars.

So when we multiply 700 ‘core shops times 600,000 dollars in sales timestwelve percent, and divide that number by 140 dollars per wetsuit, weget a total of approximately 360,000 surfing wetsuits sold each year inAmerica. Some wetsuit manufacturers say that number could be as high as500,000 units.

Surfboards: Our latest Retailer Survey determined that shops sell anaverage of 40 boards per month. We polled 71 premier shops (representing138 storefronts) identified by manufacturers as their best dealers, soit’s likely the board sales volume is higher in these shops.

In addition, many surfers order boards directly from the approximately1,000 shapers in the U.S. So to get a more accurate figure of newsurfboards purchased in America, we need a four-part formula:

Surveyed Premier Shops: 138 Shops times 40 boards per month times twelvemonths = 66,240 boards

Unsurveyed ‘Core Surf Shops: 562 shops times twenty boards per monthtimes twelve months = 134,880 boards

Low-Volume Surf Shops: 650 shops times two boards per month times twelvemonths = 15,600 boards

Direct From Shaper: 1,000 Shapers times ten boards per month timestwelve months = 120,000 boards

Total: Approximately 337,000 surfboards sold per year in America.

**** What Does All This Mean? ****

Clearly, there’s no hard and fast way to determine the surferpopulation, though ASD and NSGA’s estimates seem pretty solid based onour grassroots cross-referencing. But what’s the value of this number?Who cares, anyway? Most surf shops operate only on a local scale andhave a solid handle on the size and growth potential of their customerbase. Surf-brands base national and global sales forecasts on theprevious year’s performance.

The real value of reliable data lies in the future. As surfing speedsthrough its largest participation and growth rate in history, theimportance of hard data becomes critical. Want to build a series ofartificial reefs to combat erosion, increase surfing opportunities, andimprove marine life? Want to prevent that marina construction thatthreatens the life of local surf breaks? Need a loan to finance yourshop’s expansion? Want to take your surfwear company public? Decisionmakers need numbers. Anytime the surfing world wants to communicate withthe outside world, we need numbers.

The surfing population is finally reaching a critical mass that haspolitical and economic influence, but there’s little tribe unity toproduce reliable data.

This is a perfect opportunity for groups like SIMA and the SurfriderFoundation to emulate the record-keeping practices of associations likeSIA and the National Ski Areas Association. These organizations hireprofessional market-research firms to conduct Topline Retail Audits andSki/Snowboard Participation Surveys. These surveys yield reliable yearlytotals and multi-year trends that the surf industry sorely lacks.

Once we build this foundation, we’ll be ready to address the tougherquestions that no doubt will present themselves as lineups becomeincreasingly crowded: How many Recreational and Wannabe surfers aregroveling in the shorebreak, waiting for a chance to paddle to the peak?How many will ascend to Hardcore status, and how quickly? How will thisinflux of new surfers affect behavior in the lineup? Will a wave tooneself be a thing of the past? What’s the cost/benefit of an artificialreef?

**** A Recipe for a Surf Revolution ****

“Where there’s surf, eventually, there will be surfers”

I have no idea who said that (or if I just dreamt it), but it’s a truestatement, especially with wetsuit technology allowing comfortableaccess to any surfable latitude on this planet. History shows that anindigenous surfer population develops wherever the waves are good, butit takes more than just good surf to start a revolution. The rate andsize of surfer population development is a function of four specificfactors, in order of importance:

1. Economic prosperity of region.

2. Coastal population density.

3. Consistency and quality of surf.

4. Temperate climate.

Not only does this confirm the current surf population distribution, itis also useful in predicting where the greatest potential for growthexists. In the Third World, surfing is a pastime of the wealthy and thelucky few who snagged a broken board or handout from a traveling surfer.

If the economic prosperity in countries with consistent surf, warmweather, and high population density (Indonesia, Mexico, CentralAmerica, Northern Africa, South America, India) ever improves, we wouldexpect these areas to develop huge surfing populations.

The importance of all four variables in the formula also explains therelatively small surf populations in areas like Oregon and Washington.Despite consistent swells and a first-world economy, the coastal regionsof these areas are sparsely populated, and the cold air and water tempsminimize the number of coastal visitors. Wetsuit technology is beginningto break the barrier, especially in Oregon, where the coast is an easydrive from Portland. But Washington should see slower growth, because nomajor cities are within reasonable driving distance to the isolatedcoast.

Wetsuit improvements also partially explain the increase inwinter-season surfers in the densely populated Northeast, and helpedestablish Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay as progression centers for thesurfing world.

**** Why Don’t We Know How Many Surfers There Are? ****

As you can see in this article, it takes a fair degree of speculation tocome up with a firm number of surfers in the United States. So, whydoesn’t the surf industry have a better handle on the numbers?

**** No Trade Association Research ****

First, The Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (SIMA) hasn’tconducted any retail or participation surveys to confirm or supplementthe scant data available elsewhere. Why? Because the surf industry, as awhole, doesn’t provide this member-owned, not-for-profit organizationthe funding it needs for these types of surveys. SIMA also hasn’t madethis type of data collection a priority.

Other trade associations such as the SnowSports Industries Of America(SIA), The Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association (SGMA), and theNational Sporting Goods Association (NSGA) all host revenue-generatingtrade shows — which fund exactly this type of research. All of theseorganization publish reams of industry data each year — but hardly anyof it addresses the surf market.

Because of this, when the mainstream media wants to know about the surfindustry, they’re mostly turning to organizations based out of Mt.Prospect, Illinois (NSGA) and West Palm Beach, Florida (SGMA). Theyaren’t talking to surfers, the numbers they’re receiving aren’t detailedor accurate, and the surf industry looks confused and unprofessional tothe outside world.

**** Surfers AAre An Independent Bunch ****

Unlike most other sports-related industries, reliable participation andequipment-purchasing data is virtually nonexistent in surfing. There areno lift tickets, green fees, or similar participation-tracking methodsavailable to the surf industry; additionally, the surf-retail sector –although relatively stable — is dominated by independent retailers withgenerally crude sales-tracking capabilities.

**** Sales Figures Are Closely Guarded Secrets ****

Most market-leading-hardgoods suppliers (Clark Foam, FCS, ChannelIslands, Rusty, O’Neill, Rip Curl) are privately held companies thatclosely guard sales figures. The primary surfboard manufacturers(Channel Islands, Rusty, Lost) also only control a tiny fraction of theoverall marketshare. Nearly 1,000 smaller surfboard manufacturers andbackyard shapers comprise the bulk of surfboard sales.

Yet even if such surfboard data were publicly available, it wouldunderestimate the true surfer population. Many surfboards have a longlifespan, and for every new board sold in a year, there’s an untoldnumber of older boards floating in the lineup. The story is similar inthe wetsuit market.surf industry sorely lacks.

Once we build this foundation, we’ll be ready to address the tougherquestions that no doubt will present themselves as lineups becomeincreasingly crowded: How many Recreational and Wannabe surfers aregroveling in the shorebreak, waiting for a chance to paddle to the peak?How many will ascend to Hardcore status, and how quickly? How will thisinflux of new surfers affect behavior in the lineup? Will a wave tooneself be a thing of the past? What’s the cost/benefit of an artificialreef?

**** A Recipe for a Surf Revolution ****

“Where there’s surf, eventually, there will be surfers”

I have no idea who said that (or if I just dreamt it), but it’s a truestatement, especially with wetsuit technology allowing comfortableaccess to any surfable latitude on this planet. History shows that anindigenous surfer population develops wherever the waves are good, butit takes more than just good surf to start a revolution. The rate andsize of surfer population development is a function of four specificfactors, in order of importance:

1. Economic prosperity of region.

2. Coastal population density.

3. Consistency and quality of surf.

4. Temperate climate.

Not only does this confirm the current surf population distribution, itis also useful in predicting where the greatest potential for growthexists. In the Third World, surfing is a pastime of the wealthy and thelucky few who snagged a broken board or handout from a traveling surfer.

If the economic prosperity in countries with consistent surf, warmweather, and high population density (Indonesia, Mexico, CentralAmerica, Northern Africa, South America, India) ever improves, we wouldexpect these areas to develop huge surfing populations.

The importance of all four variables in the formula also explains therelatively small surf populations in areas like Oregon and Washington.Despite consistent swells and a first-world economy, the coastal regionsof these areas are sparsely populated, and the cold air and water tempsminimize the number of coastal visitors. Wetsuit technology is beginningto break the barrier, especially in Oregon, where the coast is an easydrive from Portland. But Washington should see slower growth, because nomajor cities are within reasonable driving distance to the isolatedcoast.

Wetsuit improvements also partially explain the increase inwinter-season surfers in the densely populated Northeast, and helpedestablish Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay as progression centers for thesurfing world.

**** Why Don’t We Know How Many Surfers There Are? ****

As you can see in this article, it takes a fair degree of speculation tocome up with a firm number of surfers in the United States. So, whydoesn’t the surf industry have a better handle on the numbers?

**** No Trade Association Research ****

First, The Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (SIMA) hasn’tconducted any retail or participation surveys to confirm or supplementthe scant data available elsewhere. Why? Because the surf industry, as awhole, doesn’t provide this member-owned, not-for-profit organizationthe funding it needs for these types of surveys. SIMA also hasn’t madethis type of data collection a priority.

Other trade associations such as the SnowSports Industries Of America(SIA), The Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association (SGMA), and theNational Sporting Goods Association (NSGA) all host revenue-generatingtrade shows — which fund exactly this type of research. All of theseorganization publish reams of industry data each year — but hardly anyof it addresses the surf market.

Because of this, when the mainstream media wants to know about the surfindustry, they’re mostly turning to organizations based out of Mt.Prospect, Illinois (NSGA) and West Palm Beach, Florida (SGMA). Theyaren’t talking to surfers, the numbers they’re receiving aren’t detailedor accurate, and the surf industry looks confused and unprofessional tothe outside world.

**** Surfers Are An Independent Bunch ****

Unlike most other sports-related industries, reliable participation andequipment-purchasing data is virtually nonexistent in surfing. There areno lift tickets, green fees, or similar participation-tracking methodsavailable to the surf industry; additionally, the surf-retail sector –although relatively stable — is dominated by independent retailers withgenerally crude sales-tracking capabilities.

**** Sales Figures Are Closely Guarded Secrets ****

Most market-leading-hardgoods suppliers (Clark Foam, FCS, ChannelIslands, Rusty, O’Neill, Rip Curl) are privately held companies thatclosely guard sales figures. The primary surfboard manufacturers(Channel Islands, Rusty, Lost) also only control a tiny fraction of theoverall marketshare. Nearly 1,000 smaller surfboard manufacturers andbackyard shapers comprise the bulk of surfboard sales.

Yet even if such surfboard data were publicly available, it wouldunderestimate the true surfer population. Many surfboards have a longlifespan, and for every new board sold in a year, there’s an untoldnumber of older boards floating in the lineup. The story is similar inthe wetsuit market.urfers Are An Independent Bunch ****

Unlike most other sports-related industries, reliable participation andequipment-purchasing data is virtually nonexistent in surfing. There areno lift tickets, green fees, or similar participation-tracking methodsavailable to the surf industry; additionally, the surf-retail sector –although relatively stable — is dominated by independent retailers withgenerally crude sales-tracking capabilities.

**** Sales Figures Are Closely Guarded Secrets ****

Most market-leading-hardgoods suppliers (Clark Foam, FCS, ChannelIslands, Rusty, O’Neill, Rip Curl) are privately held companies thatclosely guard sales figures. The primary surfboard manufacturers(Channel Islands, Rusty, Lost) also only control a tiny fraction of theoverall marketshare. Nearly 1,000 smaller surfboard manufacturers andbackyard shapers comprise the bulk of surfboard sales.

Yet even if such surfboard data were publicly available, it wouldunderestimate the true surfer population. Many surfboards have a longlifespan, and for every new board sold in a year, there’s an untoldnumber of older boards floating in the lineup. The story is similar inthe wetsuit market.