Leading up to the release of this magazine, I’m on the phone a lot. My reason for dialing is to find all the new products for the 2022 Product Guide and Paddling Magazine Industry Awards. But most of my time on these calls ends up being about industry stuff. This year, it was the Covid-19 effect on the paddlesports industry. You’ll feel this angst and optimism throughout the following pages. What is going to happen next is everyone’s concern. And anyone’s guess.
This tragic and wildly disruptive pandemic ended up being a gift to paddlesports. It may not feel like it after the most stressful year ever, but from an industry growth perspective, we couldn’t buy what we were just given. For two reasons: We could probably never afford it, and we’ve never been able to get our shit together long enough to charge in any meaningful direction.
For as long as I’ve been putting colored ink on paper, there have been small groups of paddlers with big ideas. I used to attend the annual Whitewater Symposium, which brought together manufacturers, business owners, paddlers and other whitewater enthusiasts to grow the industry. The last one was held in Bend, Oregon, back in the fall of 2013.
I was also a board member of TAPS, the Trade Association of Paddlesports, a nonprofit supporting the paddling industry in North America. At Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Salt Lake City, the Paddlesports Industry Unification Workgroup rolled out its draft action plan to create the Paddlesports Industry Association. The hope was to combine TAPS and the Professional Paddlesports Association into a new, stronger industry group. That was back in 2006. Propaddling.com, the association’s website address, now directs to Hostmonster.com, where you can buy the domain and start all over again.
Most recently, a gang of owners, executives and managers of leading paddlesports brands almost formed the Paddlesports Industry Coalition. It was to rally support for Paddlesports Retailer because, at the time, we believed paddlesports needed its own show.
I don’t know if we will ever successfully pull together brands, retailers, outfitters, schools and liveries to form a coalition with the mission of growing paddlesports participation to support the industry. And, even if we did, I wonder if we could gather a budget large enough to educate the North American public about the joys of canoeing, kayaking and paddleboarding. Thanks to Covid, we didn’t have to.
Where the industry will be in 10 years will have less to do with the effects of Covid-19 and more to do with what we do right now. If we do nothing, we’ll piss away the 30 to 40 percent increase in participants we were just gifted. The general feeling is, if we do nothing, in 10 years, we’ll be right back to pre-2020 sales numbers. Probably worse.
All these new paddlers came from somewhere. Golf courses, movie theaters, Disney World and every international vacation destination not visited in the last 18 months. These other sport and travel industries already have their shit together. They have boards, associations, divisions, departments and budgets. They want their mindshare and market share back, plus more. They want to make up for lost time and money. Disney alone will spend billions to put butts in boats—the Jungle Cruise, Frozen’s Viking ships and Captain Jack Sparrow’s Black Pearl.
We can’t take this boom for granted. We can’t sit back and assume this interest in the outdoors will continue. Pandemic sales will only drive more organic sales for so long.
Where paddlesports will be in 10 years is going to be determined by how well we convert this influx of consumers to paddlers. This is something we can do. We just need to keep them on the water often enough to form strong habits. Habits will lead to lifestyle adjustments and then to self-identification. Canoeing, kayaking and paddleboarding will no longer be something they do; it will become who they are. Like us. I’d rather rock a life jacket tan over stupid mouse ears any day of the week.
Scott MacGregor is the founder and publisher of Paddling Business.
Lots of butts in boats. For now. | Photo: Nancie Battaglia
This article was first published in the 2021 issue of Paddling Business.