Water Sports

SUP: The State of the Sport

20 Jan, 2021

By: Aaron Mann

Paddle sports in general – kayaking, canoeing and stand up paddle boarding, also known as SUP, have been growing in popularity, both in numbers of participants, and in numbers of competitive events. Here at the American Canoe Association, or ACA, the national governing body for paddle sports, we’ve been tracking those trends, and can provide a snapshot view of the findings.

What is Driving the Paddle Sports Growth?

One factor in the growth of paddle sports, and particularly SUP, is the low barrier to entry. It’s easy to try the sport – there are many vendors that rent the equipment and provide instruction – and the costs, should a person choose to purchase his or her own board and paddle – are low, particularly in comparison with other water sports that might involve a power boat and/or a special license.

It’s also an extremely portable sport. It’s easy to put the board (or the kayak, or the canoe, for that matter) on top of your car and drive somewhere – and once you get there, you can put your craft into the water and head out, usually without paying any fees. In fact, SUP board are light, and people can generally carry them to the water from wherever they’ve parked. In many cases, you don’t even need a boat ramp, which means more access to more waterways for recreational use.

The numbers bear this out. Over the last decade, SUP has been growing, according to the most recent Topline Report from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, participation has increased by 23.3 percent (6.6 percent in the last year).

Like many outdoor sports, SUP also gained participation during the pandemic. When gyms closed, people started exploring what was available to them outside their homes. In some cases, they would go on family camping trips or even day trips, and while they were out, they decided to give SUP a try. It’s too soon to know whether this will lead to more involvement in competitions, but having more people, and in particular, more kids, taking up the sport is always a positive development.

Many people who take up SUP stick with it for what I like to think of as the “soul” aspect of the sport. Getting out on the water is relaxing and fun, and some people describe it as almost a spiritual experience. 

Who Governs SUP?

We have already mentioned that ACA is the national governing body for paddle sports, including SUP, in the U.S. However, there are two governing bodies for SUP at the international level: the International Surfing Association (ISA) and the International Canoe Federation (ICF). 

Without going into too much detail, we can say the two organizations both wanted to control the sport and stage competitions. In summer of 2020, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), an independent organization based in Switzerland, ruled that both groups could stage SUP events, but the ISA would be the international federation to govern the sport at an Olympic level. (Right now, SUP is not an Olympic sport; however, it’s likely ISA will continue to lobby for its inclusion).

Within the United States, the sport has also seen some changes in its governance structure. From 1924 until the early 1990s, ACA filled the role of national governing body for Olympic paddle sports. Then, in the 1990s, USA Canoe/Kayak split off to focus on the competitive disciplines including the then-new Olympic discipline of whitewater slalom. It would not be until 2015 that the two organizations formed a new partnership with the ACA’s executive director taking over as CEO of USA Canoe/Kayak. USA Canoe/Kayak continues to be headquartered in Oklahoma City, with the ACA maintaining its offices in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Are People Buying Equipment? 

We can also track the growth of paddle sports at the supply and demand level. A friend who owns a kayak manufacturing company recently said that this has been their best year ever, and that they could not make enough kayaks to keep up with the demand. There is a tremendous variety of products on the market, from entry-level inflatables to high-end models, which is another reason the sport is so easy to take up.

In terms of the demographics of people taking up SUP, anecdotal evidence shows us that it’s really across the board – the sport seems to appeal to a wide range of consumers. That’s something that makes us happy at ACA.

What is ACA’s Role in SUP?

The ACA’s mission is to serve the broader paddling public by providing education related to all aspects of paddling; stewardship support to help protect paddling environments; and sanctioning of programs and events to promote paddle sport competition, exploration and recreation. It is the role of the ACA to do the following:

• Provide the general public with FUN paddle sport opportunities;

• Make paddling education and instruction accessible;

• Improve access to all paddling venues;

• Expand paddle sport to people of all abilities and to the underserved;

• Influence stewardship issues and public policy that affect paddlers and the paddling experience;

• Promote paddle sports competition at the local, regional and national levels;

• Create strategic alliances with clubs and other organizations that represent the outdoor experience in order to expand awareness and knowledge of paddle sports; and

• Communicate the benefits of canoeing, kayaking, rafting and stand up paddle boarding as healthy lifetime recreation activities.

 Our website has resources for those who are just learning about the sport, including where to find a local paddling club, water trails, instruction, equipment, guides and other resources. It is our hope that those who are interested in getting into the sport will use it. At the same time, our website also has information on the competitive aspects of paddle sports, such as the Olympic discipline of canoe slalom. 

Are Competitive Events Going On?

Like many other sports, the competitive calendar for paddle sports, at both the national and international level, was disrupted by the pandemic. Our USA Olympic and National Canoe Slalom Team Trials are now scheduled to be held in Charlotte, North Carolina (a change from the original location of Oklahoma City), from April 9-11, 2021. The 2021 ICF Canoe Slalom World Cup is scheduled to take place in Prague from June 11–13, 2021. 

Overall, the outlook for stand up paddle boarding is good. At ACA, we’ll keep supporting the sport by making sure the community that takes it up has all the resources it needs to succeed. We want people to keep discovering our sport, and to enjoy it as much as we do. SDM


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