SUP – Here to Stay

Why SUP Isn’t Just The Next Rollerblading

By Kim Hawkins

Stand up paddle boarding (SUP) as we know it today, originated in Hawaii when mates Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama tried paddling standing up on their surfboards with outrigger paddles.  The experience was apparently a blast, and the fellas recognized the value and benefit of an activity with size appropriate boards and efficient paddles.

Fast forward to 2016, when the SUP industry started to decline.  Based on research into declines in other similar industries – skateboarding for example – the market was saturated/reached its peak. Most people owned a board, and only a percentage were adding to their quiver or getting into racing/other advanced forms of SUPing.  But the sport was not going anywhere.  Like skateboarding, surfing and kayaking, it was just leveling out and those in the industry started focusing on maintaining it.  Unlike rollerblading, which supposedly became ‘uncool,’ the equipment ‘clunky,’ and just not worth the effort.

SUPing, however, continues to be cool, equipment is constantly improving, is accessible to all ages, has an easy entry curve, is affordable (to rent), available everywhere, and endorsed by the celebrity circuit.

Like any new sport or successful product, producers and manufacturers pop up everywhere to begin with, but eventually lose traction and can’t keep up with the big boys.  Ditto with many SUP businesses ergo rentals and sales.  That said, the successful ones are left standing and benefiting from the others’ failures.

The sport is popular with kids, families, teens, adults, and even seniors. It’s popular across the ‘board.’ Surfers have taken to it, athlete’s use it for cross training, and fitness focused people leave the gym (particularly in the summer months) in favor of an outside activity that can be challenging.  Ditto with Yogini’s – nothing improves your balance more than being on a paddle board on the water.  These folk appreciate the challenge that paddle boarding provides. Competitive types take to racing, and seek the Masserati of the sport – carbon fiber, ergonomically superior, narrow and long boards ($3000+). Then there’s the recreational paddler, just looking to get on the water and have some fun, getting as much as a workout as they want or just chilling.

Ease of entry into the sport is probably one of the greatest attractions, right after the fact that it’s healthy, easy and fun. Renters can get on the water for an hour for as little as $35 at Downunder in CT, less in less affluent areas. Those with decent balance will take to it with little instruction, that said, like any sport, learning the right way will ensure your effectiveness and reduce the chance of injury, and embarrassment.

Surfing, by comparison, has been around for 100 years+ and there are currently around 3 million surfers in the world.  In CT, SUPing surfaced around 2009.  Already there are 1.5 million people paddle boarding on a regular basis.  And these are just the ones we know about via market research.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2013 participation survey, SUPing had a higher number of new participants in the preceding year than all the other sports that the association tracks. The Stand Up Paddle Boarding Industry Association publishes annual reports on the industry that support the factors listed in this blog, and the expectation that, like surfing, the sport is here to stay.

SUPing’s allure has long been its uniqueness, and this has held true for every person who has witnessed the sport, whether in the pages of a glossy celebrity tabloid, or watching it performed masterfully and in person while sitting on the dock of the bay on some remote Central American atoll.

To non-surfers, the sport’s low barriers to entry make it the fastest way for a person to become a surfer.

Ask anybody what constitutes a standup paddler and you’ll be met with too many different answers to fit into even a semblance of a definition. This is because the sport is so tremendously diverse. If SUPing does have an identity, it’s an identity rooted in diversity, and this may well be what defines it and gives it longevity.

If surfing took a century to reach its current growth and popularity, perhaps that’s because surfers have, since the sport’s inception, prided themselves on their exclusivity.

Standup paddlers, on the other hand are just about anyone: professional surfers and soccer moms, men, women, river-runners, old people, landlubbers and ocean-goers. This diversity might come at the cost of a cohesive cultural identity, but, again, it also might be the thing that allows SUPing to survive long into the next century. A standup paddler isn’t any one thing, any one person. It’s a multitude of things and a multitude of people.

Where the sport goes from here is anybody’s guess, and plenty of people are making those guesses with checkbooks in hand—participants and investors both. One thing that’s certain is that standup is here to stay—its days as a strange offshoot of surf culture are long since passed. What the sport is, what it means to be a standup paddler, that remains to be defined, and it will be, over the decades to come.

This blog was written by Kim Hawkins, with excerpts from an article by Brad Melekian – a surf journalist whose work has appeared in Outsider, Surfer and The Surfer’s Journal.