The Problem with Paddlesports


And a potential solution…

I was talking with my friend Darren the other day and we somehow got onto the topic of what people are willing to pay for a canoe. Darren owns Rutabaga, one of the biggest specialty paddlesports retailers in the country. He’s seen thousands of customers through the years and was talking about how strange it is that people often value canoes and kayaks differently than they do other purchases that they make.

His example was a hypothetical hunter who was reluctant to spend enough money to buy a nice canoe to paddle to the duck blind. Why would a guy who owns a $5000 shotgun balk at parting with a fraction of that money for a quality canoe to take him to the hunt?

This is something that I’ve been kicking around in my head for a long time. Why are some people comfortable spending several thousand dollars on a canoe or kayak while others won’t consider it? How do we choose what’s important enough to us to warrant a significant outlay of money? How does the paddlesports industry convince more people to value quality canoes, kayaks and paddleboards?

Enthusiasts and Utilitarians
I’m not talking about a person’s ability to pay. Obviously if your budget for a boat is limited you’re choices will be constrained. No, I’m thinking about people who could afford to buy the best, but don’t see the value in the purchase. Why not?

I think it comes down to a divide within the paddlesports world. Some people love paddling for paddling’s sake. Others see a canoe or kayak as a utilitarian tool.

The enthusiast loves the canoe. The feel of being on the water, the subtleties of design. Same goes with kayaks. Surfing a sea kayak on ocean waves. Practicing Greenland rolls. Paddling is the critical experience. The most important thing.

For the utilitarian, the boat is simply a means to an end. He doesn’t necessarily identify as a paddler. He’s a duck hunter. Or a fisherman. His trips to the Boundary Waters are about getting into some smallies or lake trout. Sipping a libation around the campfire at the end of a long day. Not about enjoying the glide of an efficient canoe across a wilderness lake. A lot of traditional outdoor sports enthusiasts fall into this category.

Of course, there is a significant amount of overlap between these two categories, but I think the distinction is important. Enthusiasts are more likely to buy a performance canoe or kayak because paddling is the experience that they value. Utilitarians are more likely to spend their recreational dollars on gear that directly impacts their chosen pursuit. A quality shotgun. A GPS enabled portable fish finder. An expensive fly rod.

To reach the hunting and fishing sportsman you have to prove to him that the canoe or kayak will improve his experience with his favored sport. For the enthusiast, the canoe or kayak is the sport.

Problem is, as an industry, we do a better job connecting with enthusiasts than utilitarians.

The Great Divide
This is likely because most of the people who work in the paddlesports industry are enthusiasts themselves. Some of us, for whatever reason, just like messing around in boats. People work at a kayak shop because they like kayaks, and it’s far more likely that they will be interested in developing their personal skills and learning the subtleties of canoe and kayak design than the average person.

On the other hand, an interest in paddling doesn’t necessarily correlate with an interest in hunting, fishing, or even camping.

This sets up a divide between the interests of people who work in the paddling industry and the interests of a good portion of their potential customers. A disconnect.

Again, there’s a lot of overlap. There are plenty of people who work in paddlesports who hunt and fish, and there are plenty of sportsmen who know how to paddle. That’s not my point. Instead, I want to suggest that, in general, a couple things are true:

  1. Most people don’t know how to paddle.
  2. Most shop employees don’t know how to hunt and fish.

Without a certain level of skill it’s impossible to really judge how one boat compares to another, so if the average person has no paddling skills it’s nearly impossible for them to see the value in higher quality canoes and kayaks.

Without a certain understanding of the details of hunting and fishing, the shop employee will struggle to connect how the performance of a certain canoe or kayak will help his customer to improve their experience in the field.

There’s a divide built into the industry that we should work to overcome. Its not THE problem with paddlesports, but if we can solve this problem, we’ll also fix the biggest challenge that the industry faces.

Let’s take a look.

Bridging the Gap
As with most things, it’s easier to meet in the middle if you start from both directions. The best way to bridge the gap between paddling enthusiasts and the traditional sporting customer is to improve knowledge on both sides. This means teaching more people how to paddle, and encouraging people within the paddlesports industry to learn more about hunting and fishing.

The industry side of the equation is easiest to solve. A savvy shop owner would encourage his staff to take advantage of the numerous learn-to-hunt and learn-to-fish programs that are available through state DNR and Fish and Game agencies each year. These programs already exist, and are available at low or no cost to participants.

If I were a shop owner I would pay my key shop employees to participate in these programs and subsidize any costs associated with their participation. By doing this, I would be building my staff’s product knowledge in an area that would directly improve their ability to connect with customers and educate them about the advantages of different kinds of watercraft.

Of course, teaching shop staff about hunting and fishing will only take you part way. We need to help our customers learn enough about the sport that they’ll be able to appreciate the performance of a quality boat. To do this we need outreach.

The paddlesports industry would benefit dramatically by developing and promoting a simple program of instruction that targets everyone in the country. An outreach program that puts people into boats and teaches them a few basic skills.

Two things will happen if we’re able to expose more people to basic paddling instruction. First, we’ll create more enthusiasts. This is just simple math. If five percent of the population has the potential to get bit hard by the paddling bug, then exposing more people to the sport will produce more paddlers. Five percent of a million is a lot more than 5 percent of 10,000.

Second, if we’re able to expose a wide range of people to the most basic paddling skills, the average person will have a better understanding of what paddling is all about. He’ll have a better chance of paddling his rental canoe in a straight line. She’ll have more fun on the water. Be more likely to realize that a canoe or kayak is a valuable tool. This knowledge can be a huge driver of growth for the industry.

What’s the best way reach out to the public and teach them how to paddle?

I can think of three potential conduits for simple skills programming: private business, school programs and public parks initiatives. I’m sure there are more, but lets start here.

There are plenty of private paddlesports instruction programs in the US and Canada. Many of these are associated with paddlesports shops and focused on skills development for aspiring enthusiasts. These programs serve people who are seeking out instruction, which, by definition is a smaller pool of people than the general population. If private paddling schools are to have an impact on more people they would need to create a separate, basic curriculum and figure out a way to promote it to a broader audience. They would also have to sort out a way to pay the costs. Both the actual cost of running the classes plus the opportunity cost of assigning instructors to outreach who could be teaching more profitable courses.

Public Schools
We spend a lot of money in our schools on team sports, and quite a bit less on sports that people can participate in for the rest of their lives. That seems upside down. It makes sense to create physical education programs that teach young people how to paddle canoes and kayaks. The benefit of this approach is that it would introduce thousands of children to paddlesports every year and help them learn the basic skills of controlling a canoe or kayak. Literally training the next generation of paddlers. The difficulties are manifold. Not only do you need qualified instructors, equipment and venues, you also have to navigate the complexities of public school regulations and liability concerns. School programs have a massive potential but also face some major obstacles.

Public parks and rec programs might be a better place to start. Many cities have summer parks programs for youth. Certainly these programs could be adapted to promote paddling skills through a series of day camps or drop-in events.

Kids and Adults
These ideas all work for youth. What about adults? I’ve been to plenty of kayak demos where people just wanted to get in kayaks to try them out. Why not expand parks programs to create demo days that double as informal instruction. Curriculum could be as basic as a stroke or two. Draw stroke. Forward stroke. J-stroke. A sort of “elevator pitch” version of paddling instruction that hits the most fundamental points in a minimum of time.

Why not also promote parent/child classes? Kids are often eager to learn canoeing or kayaking but if their parents don’t participate they’ll have little chance to enjoy the sport. Stacking parents classes together with youth programming seems like a likely way to create some new adult paddlers at the same time we groom the next generation.

Focus on Fun
All instruction should be focused on fun, safety and simplicity. There’s a irony to the world of paddlesports instruction that was made clear to me when standup paddleboarding came on the scene a few years ago. I realized that much of the appeal of standup was that it was simple, fun and safe.

We used to promote kayaks this way.

Over time a focus on instruction has made kayaking seem like something difficult.  Something that requires special learning in order to enjoy safely. We may have let our enthusiasm for the sport carry us too far. If we place too much emphasis on the need for training we create an unnecessary barrier to participation. We make paddling seem hard.

It’s a paradox. We have to promote training, but we need to do it in a way that makes canoeing and kayaking seem more accessible. Not less.

It has to be fun, safe and easy.

Paying for It
All this instruction and outreach is going to cost a lot of money. How do we pay for it? I have a couple ideas.

Remember those learn-to-hunt programs that I mentioned earlier? How do we pay for those? Partly it’s through funds collected under the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration, or Pittman-Robertson Act. This law was passed in 1937 and created a federal excise tax on firearms, ammunition and archery equipment that feeds into a fund that is used for wildlife restoration, hunter education and conservation grants. Roughly 10 percent of sales in these categories is collected as taxes to fund conservation programs.

A similar fund was created to support fisheries conservation. The Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act (Dingell-Johnson Act) was passed in 1950 and collects tax on fishing tackle, trolling motors and other fishing related equipment.

Few people outside the hunting and fishing community are familiar with these two conservation programs, but they account for a significant portion of the monies spent on wildlife conservation in the US each year. In 2019 over a billion dollars of funding was provided by taxes collected under these two laws. That money goes directly to improving habitat and access and developing the next generation of sportsmen and women.

Should the paddlesports industry pursue a similar law?

It might sound strange to ask government to tax your business, but that’s exactly what firearms and ammunition manufacturers did back in the 1930’s in the leadup to Pittman-Robertson. Hunting equipment manufacturers realized that they would go out of business if there wasn’t a concerted effort to rebuild wildlife populations from their historic low point. They worked with government to create a program that taxed the industry and used the resulting funds to restore wildlife. It was an extraordinary forward-thinking moment.

That said, a 10 percent tax on paddling equipment (similar to excise taxes on hunting and fishing gear) might be too much for the industry to sustain. Margins are tight. Retail prices are already high. Bumping everything up by 10 percent has the potential to put serious pressure on sales.

One solution might be to phase the tax in slowly over time. One percent per year for a decade. Slow enough that it isn’t a shock to the system.

Or maybe there’s a different way to pool resources and fund paddling outreach.

The outdoor industry has several voluntary programs through which companies tithe a percentage of their sales to put toward conservation funding and environmental protection. 1% for the Planet is a program started by Patagonia through which participating companies pledge to contribute 1 percent of their gross sales to environmental causes. 2% for Conservation is a similar program that encourages hunting equipment and clothing manufacturers to contribute 1 percent of their gross sales and 1 percent of their time to conservation causes. These two programs provide a model for a voluntary alternative to an industry excise tax program.

What if we were to create a program called 1 Percent for Paddling? Participating manufacturers would pledge to contribute 1 percent of their gross sales to paddlesports education, paddle trail development and access causes. Those voluntary contributions could go to existing nonprofits like American Whitewater or the American Canoe Association, or they could be distributed through a grant program that directs funds to educational programs across the nation.

The disadvantage of the voluntary program is that it wouldn’t create nearly the volume of funds that a federal excise tax would. That, and the fact that some companies might benefit from the outreach efforts without contributing to the costs. There’s no way around free riders in a voluntary system, and we all hate the idea of being taken advantage of.

The problem is that our distaste for free riders can create a sort of tragedy of the commons, where no one steps up to do the right thing because everyone isn’t on board from the start. Sometimes somebody has to be first.

The Problem with Paddlesports
Which brings me to the real problem with paddlesports. The one that we all know about but haven’t been able to find a good solution for. For the paddlesports industry to be healthy in the long term it has to grow. We have to create more paddlers.

Where do they come from?

Today there is relentless competition for people’s time and money. Paddlesports manufacturers aren’t really in competition with one another. They’re in competition with iPhones and Xboxes and bicycles and all the other things that suck up people’s time and money.

And paddlesports is small. Back in the late 90’s when all the merger stuff was happening somebody told me that the entire paddlesports industry was smaller than the bowling shoe industry.

The bowling shoe industry.

The industry has grown since then, but it still doesn’t have a lot of clout. Everyone has a smart phone. Most people can ride a bike. Only a fraction of people have a canoe, kayak or paddleboard and the skills to use them. We need to reach more people.

Efforts to broaden the reach of paddling to a wider audience seem to have been focused on producing ever cheaper kayaks and selling them through big box retailers. It’s as if, instead of competing head-to-head with the rest of the consumer marketplace, we’ve decided to make things so cheap that we won’t have to compete. Cheap enough that somebody can impulse buy a boat like a candy bar in the checkout aisle.

This approach is fundamentally flawed. Not only are these boats inferior to quality kayaks, their low price sets an unrealistic expectation for what a kayak should cost. On top of this, the low quality and poor designs of these boats is sure to leave a negative impression of the sport on purchasers. Bringing people into the sport with cheap kayaks is an absolute dead end. It’s bad for the sport and the industry. We need a better way to reach more people and turn them on to the fun of paddlesports.

We’re not going to turn utilitarians into enthusiasts. That’s not the point. The point is to improve paddling literacy across the board, so everyone will have a better understanding of how canoes, kayaks and paddleboards work. If we want the sport to grow in a healthy way, we need to help everyone learn a little bit about paddling.

Which is why we need outreach. And for outreach, we need money. Unfortunately, the incentives are lined up all wrong. If an individual company spends it’s own money on outreach it won’t necessarily reap the full rewards of it’s investment. The only way to make it work is for the whole industry to get behind an outreach program.

There is a way to get people to understand the value of a quality canoe or kayak. You have to teach them that value.

For too long, the paddlesports industry has been focused on competing for enthusiast business and churning out junk to the masses rather than bringing new people into the sport. If we want to make a difference it the health of the paddling for in the long haul we need to nurture the next generation of paddlers. To do that we need to come up with some money. There are plenty of ways to do this, we just need to figure out the best one to get behind.

Let’s start the conversation.

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3 thoughts on “The Problem with Paddlesports

  1. Scott

    Dude, if I recall correctly, the quote was that the paddlesports industry was smaller than the left bowling shoe industry.

    1. Sounds about right.

      I remember those Watermark money guys saying they were going to turn Dagger into a premier composite canoe brand and do the same thing with Perception touring kayaks. Those guys never did get what paddling is all about.

      Crazy to see all the changes that have come to the industry over the past 20 years. Brands gone. Brands reduced to a shadow of their former selves. New players coming into the space. Old favorites still going strong.

      And still paddlesport is tiny.

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