Coastal Sports

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Surfing Riding a New Wave of Popularity

11 Oct, 2020

By: Michael Popke

With water sports events benefiting from a degree of natural, built-in safety and health that many other sports can’t yet offer, surfing has, to paraphrase the Beach Boys, caught a wave and it’s sitting on top of the world.

And that ought to make event owners – and destinations – sit up and take notice.

From Australia (where the surfing industry has experienced “eyebrow-raising” retail sales growth since March) to such unlikely states as Ohio (where the coronavirus pandemic “has fueled an emergent river surfing scene that’s drawing adventure seekers”), surf is definitely up.

“I think everyone was trying to get in touch with nature and think how they could be more physically active in the outdoor environment, because all of the indoor options for sport and lifestyle were taken away,” Australian teacher and surfer Joe Draffen told the Australian Broadcasting Company in July.

He’s probably right. Consider this: Sales of seven- to nine-foot surfboards in May alone skyrocketed by 3,665 percent (!) over May 2019, according to Keith Curtain, whose company ActionWatch monitors retail data for Australia’s surfing industry.

"Surfing was one of the few sports … permissible during lockdown,” he told the ABC network. “[People] weren't playing footy, they weren't playing cricket or netball, they were out there surfing until dark.”

In Dayton, Ohio, experienced wave riders and newbies alike flocked all summer long to the city, which is located at the confluence of three rivers that provide fast water action (Mad, Stillwater and Great Miami).

“Surrounded by endlessly flat farmland, Dayton is not a place one might expect to find a booming water sports scene,” BBC.com reported in late September. “Today, however, it boasts a tight-knit and growing river surfing community, the water serving as a means to stay active with the beaches of Florida and the Carolinas out of reach for now.”

“We did 22 clinics in 2019 [with three or four participants per clinic],” said Shannon Thomas, co-founder of Surf Dayton, one of the only river surfing schools in the country. “This year, we have already done around 64 clinics.”

One local resident who spent most of his summer river surfing told BBC.com that visitors from out of state travel to Dayton simply to surf — giving the city’s economy a much-needed boost. Indeed, specialty stores are thriving in Dayton right now. Just ask Bernie Farley, co-owner of Whitewater Warehouse, who says sales of river surfing boards (which are often wider than traditional boards and mimic standup paddleboards) are up by more than 50 percent over 2019. “They are one of our bigger sellers,” he said. “They’re going out faster than we can get them in. There’s a waiting list.”

What’s happening in Ohio and Australia is in line with the findings of multiple new studies indicating that — despite the pandemic’s persistence and the economic downtown, the surfing market has not been wiped out. In the United States, the market is projected to hit $916.5 million in 2020, according to Research and Markets, which offers insights into more than 800 industries. In a new 226-page report titled “Surfing — Global Market Trajectory and Analysis,” the firm estimates that the worldwide surfing market boasts a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.1 percent between 2020 and 2027.

Another study, this one by Data Bridge Market Research, predicts the global surfing equipment market will experience by a CAGR of 3.45 percent between 2019 and 2026 and says the market faces “incredible possibilities.” 

Earlier this year, major events such as the World Surf League’s 2020 Championship Tour and related events were canceled, and beach access in certain parts of the world was limited.

But as writer Zoltan Istvan noted in May for New York Times opinion piece, “I just couldn’t see how walking out of my house, getting into my car, parking near the beach and paddling into waves could be dangerous for anyone. Even on the beach — which hasn’t been crowded since the pandemic hit — most people were wearing masks and practicing social distancing. In the water, we were always considerably more than six feet apart from one another.”

The sport also is making strides with Black athletes and adaptive surfers.

In Florida, a nonprofit organization called SurfearNEGRA is focused on bringing cultural and gender diversity to surfing. Founded by Black surfer GiGi Lucas, the organization offers camps for girls of color ages 7 to 17 and provides specialized equipment for land training at schools.

“Due to COVID, we are in the process of converting the curriculum into a digital format, which will be able to reach a lot more kids,” Lucas told FloridaToday.com in early September. “We’ve had a tremendous response.”

SurfearNEGRA’s work is more vital than ever, as surfing traditionally has been dominated by white athletes. As an example, Todd Holland, who operates the Ron Jon Surf School and the School of Surf in Cocoa Beach, told FloridaToday.com that “about 10” Black surfers out of about 150 typically attend the schools’ annual summer camps. 

“The challenge of surfing diversity goes back in history to the restriction of people of color on beaches,” Lucas said. “In 1968, [Black Americans] were finally free, and legally able, to go to [public] beaches. Even after the desegregation of all beaches, there were unwritten rules of people getting harassed, even by the police. There have been a lot of hurdles.”

Meanwhile, the International Surfing Association, the sport’s global governing body, is working to expand surfing’s appeal to para-athletes. Over the summer, ISA offered its first-ever online seminar for para surfing instructors and para surfers in 14 Latin American countries— attracting more than 300 attendees. Conducted in Spanish, the seminar covered an array of topics including requirements for participation in the Paralympics, para surfing judging criteria and training techniques for competition. ISA officials say more online workshops “to educate, inform, empower and continue to grow the sport” are planned.

Shortly before the sports world shut down in mid-March, the world’s best para surfers competed in the 2020 AmpSurf ISA World Para Surfing Championship in La Jolla, Calif., from March 11-15. The competition has been held since 2015.

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