The action sports world is a tough place to be right now. Snowboard retailers report that winter clothing sales are down after another topsy turvy winter weather pattern in both Europe and the US, and as the ‘worst recession since the 1930′s depression’ continues, liftpass sales are down, ever more seasonaires are choosing to ski, and local seller sites and auction houses like eBay enable riders to swap perfectly usable kit at a quarter of its initial price.
One consolation: at least snowboarding isn’t surfing. The wave-riding industry’s list of bad news following the credit crunch goes ever on, with signs that fewer people are buying into the beach lifestyle. And those who do now have the option of walking into ‘genuine’ surf industry stores such as Rip Curl, Quiksilver, O’Neill and Billabong – brands who’ve used private equity cash to buy independent stores in order to increase their margins – or of turning on their heels and entering a shop such as White Stuff, Fat Face, Jack Wills or the Abercrombie and Fitch-backed Hollister, whose (ahem) ‘genuine SoCal’ clothes are sold using surfing’s imagery, history and soul, but don’t spend any marketing dollars on athletes or contests.
It puts the core surf brands in a tricky position. If their move to the high-street is going to pay off, they’ll need people who been there and sold the t-shirt. Little wonder that Billabong recently replaced its long-time surfer CEO Derek O’Neill with Laura Inman from the budget clothing giant Target. Who cares if she can duckdive or not? It’s whether she can out-wit the other retailers that matters.
And then there’s the fact that the surf media is going through a bone fide revolution. While Twitter and Facebook were hailed as saviours – catalysts even – for the Arab Spring, surf-company CEOs probably aren’t as enamored. For the past few years, an anti-surf-contest and anti-surf-industry movement has been growing online. What’s their beef? The bloggers, tweeters and trolls might not agree on all things, but the fact that there’s a finite amount of waves being increasingly fought for by a lot of surfers seems to be at the heart of the problem. And those online point out the paradox the surf industry faces: keep pushing for growth, and the waters can only get busier.
Which in turn demands the obvious question: just who is the surf industry catering for? Pro surfers yes. The surf industry insiders? For sure. But actual surfers? For every innovation in wetsuit technology a surf brand can claim, there’s a bus-full of newbies being ushered towards an already crowded beach that is increasingly difficult to justify to existing but frustrated customers.
The contest scene is in a similarly precarious state. As the recent Volcom Pro in Fiji showed, most viewers would undoubtedly prefer to watch free-surfers taking on the best waves of the day than to see surfing in its current time-restricted contest mode. Since Rabbit, the Bronzed Aussies and Shaun Thomson willed a world tour into existence (against the wishes of many at the time it must be said), the question of how to present surfing as a credible, competitive format has been long debated. There’s undoubtedly an audience for great surf imagery, but whether those moments can ever be captured by a World Cup Tour, or a one-off event – even one with a two-week waiting period – is a different question altogether.
So where’s the punchline to all this? Where will future action sports sales come from? It’s a genuinely hard question to answer. Will it be China, who according to the BBC sees three million new snowsports fans join the slopes each year? That’s a huge figure – especially “considering that fifteen years ago there was no Alpine winter sport at all in China,” says Ski Sunday presenter Ed Leigh.
Similar numbers of Chinese are getting into surfing too; witness the purpose built surf resort of Hainan Island having already hosted a women’s Association of Surfing Professionals surfing tour event. “China is a powerful athletic country,” reasoned former ASP CEO Brodie Carr. “A vast country and marketplace with a potential billion-strong audience for us.”
But with many economists predicting that China’s economy will suffer from a ‘hard landing’ sometime in 2012, – that’s to say it’ll join the rest of the world’s recession – there’s no guarantee that dizzying figure will continue. Or whether there won’t be a Chinese Volcom or Brixton copycat brand waiting in the wings with cheaper equipment that borrows heavily on the original; a problem Nike have already encountered, complete with copycat stores and ultra-similar product lines.
Maybe the Olympics will keep action sports growth up? Snowboarding’s jump from a niche sport to a mainstream hobby was undoubtedly aided by the Olympic audience figures, but as my colleague Matt Barr has been pointing out on his Transworld blog: it’s come at quite a price. With skateboarding and surfing being looked over by the IOC, whose to say that those sports won’t be dragged down the same path?
Perhaps growth will come from the fact that all those kids with mini-scooters might upgrade to a plastic skateboard? Certainly sales of the re-branded pop-out board suggest so, with Penny Skateboards, Globe’s Bantam and Brighton Skateboards being the trend-setter’s must have play thing to hang next to the fixed-gear bike.
Or perhaps an unforeseen Hollywood moment, such as Michael J Fox’s car-chasing antics in Back To The Future will turn non-board riders onto the possibilities of standing sideways? It worked in the 1985, but are there really people on the planet who don’t know about skateboarding anymore?
Or maybe growth is gonna be really, really tough to find?
One lump of good news on the horizon: Quiksilver just posted losses of $5-million for the second quarter of 2012, and since they lost more than $90-million in the same period in 2011, at least the slowdown is – you know – slowing down.
One thing is for sure: in terms of growth, the horizon is looking pretty flat right now. So where’s the next swell coming from?