The SUP Market Registers RingingSurf Expo January 2016 - Shelby Stanger
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The SUP Market Keeps Retailers’ Registers Ringing

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 photo courtesy of Surfer Expo

Standup Paddling—aka SUPing—is sweeping up sales. In today’s economy, the emerging sport has been a bright spot for retailers and manufacturers, giving them a new category to market. Now being used beyond the ocean—at bays, lakes and even rivers—standup paddling is becoming the fastest-growing watersport in the country.

“Because the sport started from almost nothing, the growth has been astronomical,” says C4 Waterman’s COO Bob Reif. As the first company dedicated solely to the sport, the guys at C4 Waterman have watched it grow from the beaches of Hawai‘i to the river rapids of Utah and up and down bays, inlets and waterways along the Eastern Seaboard. Interest in SUPing has been so great, companies such as C4 have had trouble keeping up with demand.

For a sport with such high initial costs (entry-level boards can cost about $1,000 or more and paddles another $150), you’d think that sales would be slow. The boards, however, are extremely durable and you can do the sport wherever there is water.

SUPing is also one of the more welcoming sports; easy to become proficient at when compared to surfing where the learning curve takes years. “It’s non intimidating, doesn’t require a lot of gear and at a time when the economy is down, people are looking for other options to get outdoors,” says Duke Brouwer of Surftech whose business increased more than 40% every year since they started making SUPs in 2004.

The Hawai‘ian tradition of standup paddling was started by the Waikiki “Beachboys” who used tandem boards and oversized canoe paddles to give them better angles for taking pictures of tourists, keeping their cameras dry. The sport didn’t catch on beyond the Islands until big-wave surf pioneers like Brian Keaulana, Laird Hamilton, and Dave Kalama started using oversized surfboards and paddles to cross-train when the ocean went flat.

In California, surfers and fitness fanatics drew initial attention to the sport. Balancing on a wide board over moving water requires a steady recruitment of core muscles. As with most things in surfing, the mainstream caught on quickly and celebrities from bikini- clad Jennifer Anniston to six-pack abs showing Matthew McConaughey and Lance Armstrong were spotted in tabloids riding standup boards.

“Now, six years later, the sport has grown immensely and spread around the world,” says shaper Dave Parmenter, who’s noted as the first person to shape a modern standup paddleboard. “Much like the history of conventional surfing, we’ve seen that as the sport has grown, the boards have shrunk,” he says. “The overriding factor here is that for the first time, a branch of the original surfing tree has spread into the inland waterways.”

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“The overriding factor here is that for the first time, a branch of the original surfing tree has spread into the inland waterways,” says shaper Dave Parmenter, who’s noted as the first person to shape a modern standup paddleboard.

photo courtesy of Surfer Expo

The inland market, in fact, presents the biggest potential for SUP companies. “Sure, the glory comes from the surfing side, but the benefactors ultimately are everyday people who want great exercise, fun, and a social sport where they can hang out with their friends or family,” says Michi Schweiger, product manager for Naish, a SUP company from Hawai‘i.

For core surf retailers who have embraced the sport, SUPs have brought in a new range of clientele with more disposable income. “You get a mixed reaction from hardcore surfers about SUPing, so I was hesitant at first about bringing in the boards,” says Mark Colino, owner of No Flat Earth, a core shop in New Jersey. “I’m glad I did, because not only is the sport really fun, but when sales for most retailers were slow, having standup paddleboards really helped us get through the summer.”

Standup paddling has also opened the door for traditional surf companies to enter multisports doors, allowing companies like Surftech and C4 sell to outdoor shops like REI. There are numerous kayak and boating shops across the country now adding SUPs to their mix as well.

“Unlike kayaking, you’re standing rather than sitting in a wet boat,” says Dave Cropper of Cinnamon Rainbow Surf Company in New Hampshire. “Your back doesn’t gets sore, and your feet don’t fall asleep.” Cropper says he sold a lot of standup boards to kayakers this past summer. Once a week, he held demos at his shop, bringing an array of new customers. “Half the SUPs I sold were to people who have a lake house,” he says. “It’s neat because you don’t see people buying surfboards for lakes, but they’re buying SUPs.”

Canoe & Kayak Magazine Managing Editor Joe Carberry has been around the paddlesports business for over a dozen years: “Standup paddling has simultaneously boosted two separate markets: surf and paddlesports.” Now there’s huge potential in the Class II-III whitewater market, he says, noting the range of companies designing SUPs specifically for riding down rivers.

Even for traditional surfboard and watercraft shapers, SUPing has changed their business dramatically. Joe Bark has been making prone-style paddleboards for more than 28 years. “I used to only shape prone racing boards, but now my business is two-thirds standup race boards and one-third prone boards,” he says.

According to Mark Johnson, national sales manager for Hobie, “If it wasn’t for SUP, I think we’d be having a hard time with surfboard sales.” Johnson says standup paddling has breathed new life into an art that had become slightly stagnant. “I’ve shaped thousands of surfboards and now getting to redesign things and accommodate a growing market from standup surfing to standup racing has been so fun and exciting.”

Participation for the sport has risen dramatically in the last year. Known as the largest SUP race in California, this year’s Rainbow Sandals’ Battle of the Paddle more than doubled in size from 311 participants last year to almost 700 entrants competing at this year’s event. The second-place winner was a 16 year-old, crushing the stereotype that it’s just a sport for older men.

From Lake Tahoe to New York City there are new racing events popping up. Individuals like Hawai‘i’s Archie Kalepa, who recently paddled through the Grand Canyon by SUP, and “Ultramarathon Man” Dean Karnazes, currently training to set the record for number of miles paddles on a standup in 24 hours, are gaining the non-endemic media’s attention.

To keep up with a growing consumer base, new companies are emerging monthly and innovation is rampant. There are now boards with clear bottoms so paddlers can see through to the ocean floor, boards with retractable daggerboards for windsurfing, and inflatable boards for running river rapids. Design is constantly evolving.

Parmenter says the biggest concern about the market is lack of education. “The current SUP scene reminds me of where conventional surfboards were in the early 1970s,” he says. “In the SUP sphere, things are moving so fast the public cannot be educated quickly enough.”

Parmenter recommends anyone interested in learning the sport start on a borrowed or rented SUP board. C4 Waterman partner and Pohaku Paddle Founder Todd Bradley also advises not to forget about the paddle. “You get the right paddle, and you can get into waves so much quicker and will be able to turn on a dime,” he says. The wrong paddle, however can create frustration as well as neck and shoulder pain.

As with many new things, there are skeptics. At many surf breaks—especially in Southern California—SUPers who can get into waves easier and sooner than prone surfers have been called everything from “Sweepers” to “Ocean Janitors.”

Longtime surfer and board designer Mickey Munoz says the situations feel familiar. “When snowboarding first started,” he says, “there was a lot of conflict between skiers and snowboarders. Eventually skiers realized snowboarders weren’t gonna go away so an unwritten etiquette prevailed.” Munoz thinks the same thing will happen in the world of standup paddling, and that standup surfers need to realize they can ride waves many surfers can’t.

Still embryonic, the market for standup paddling appears limitless. As airplanes continue to make board travel more difficult for passengers, resorts offering lessons and rentals have huge opportunities.

“The number of people who call us asking for standup lessons and rentals quadrupled from last summer,” says Izzy Tihanyi, owner of the What’SUP Surf School in La Jolla, California. “It’s men and women of all ages seeking to get into the sport.”

Companies are going to keep pushing design and retailer demand will continue to rise as boards get more user-friendly and nnovative. “A few years ago, people said SUPing was a fad,” says Reif at C4. “The proving period is over and the sport is here to stay.”

SUPer Tank

Surf Expo brings standup paddling to the show floor. Robert “Wingnut” Weaver explains what retailers should look for.

You might know Robert “Wingnut” Weaver from his Endless Summer II appearance, his classic longboarding style, or his hilarious sense of humor that he carries from the water to the trade-show floors. The former professional surfer has made a career as an ambassador for the sport.

Always at the forefront, Wingnut latched onto standup paddling when it first hit California and instantly fell in love. “It’s an absolutely perfect distraction for smaller waves,” he says.

Every day during Surf Expo, Wingnut will be leading demos, giving lessons, and answering questions about SUPing. We asked him what to watch out for at Surf Expo’s SUPer tank.

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Wingnut, on a Santa Cruz monster.

photo courtesy of Surfer Expo

What are you going to be doing in the demo pool?

Wingnut: I’ll be giving lessons to retailers and giving them my opinions on what boards will work best for their shop. I plan to take people who have never SUPed before and send them across the pool.

Is there anything retailers or people going to Surf Expo should look out for?

Wingnut: They should just come with a list of questions. Whether they are a resort with wind, or they have flat water or waves, I’ll help direct them to the right product. I’ll be like Switzerland in the United Nations—not promoting one brand, just making sure they talk to the manufacturers who make boards for their situation. All the top manufacturers will be there.

What qualities should retailers consider when buying SUP boards for their shop?

Wingnut: Weight, durability, and for certain retailers, they’re going to want to look into the reputation of manufacturers. If you have surf near your store, you’re going to want to go with a SUP manufacturer with a good surf history. If you are a flatwater store, it’s less important to go with a brand that has the best surfers on their label.

Besides retailers, who else should look at SUPs?

Wingnut: Resorts! I was lucky to go to Maui with my family and we took some standup boards with us. There were no other boards or paddles around. All day long people came up to my wife and I and asked to borrow ours. We could’ve made a killing, but we charged a Mai Tai per hour. The biggest challenge people face is they are hard to travel with and airlines don’t know how to deal with them. So if people can rent them on site, they’ll pay a premium.

How long does it take to learn how to SUP?

Wingnut: Three to thirteen minutes.

How long until the average person gets as good as you?

Wingnut: Three to 13 years.

Where do you see the future of this sport going?

Wingnut: All over the place! That’s what’s so exciting about it. We’re just starting to tap the full design spectrum from riding big waves, tiny waves, lakes, rivers, touring. It’s going to really kick kayaking’s ass.