I freestyled this in the CHUM Newsletter this morning and have had such a response that I felt it wise to bring it over to the main site with some additions:
The posts continue on how to fix the race scene and there’s an interesting post and string on Facebook about the PPG and SUPs super hot ex, the BOP. It was a great opportunity to wax nostalgic on where things used to be and how great it was and I agree, it was awesome. But at some point in our sport, our lives, our towns, our country everything ceases to be new and the only thing left is to point out what’s different.
It’s like we’ve become incapable of seeing what’s going on nationwide. Instead, those of us who have been around for a long time, simply see the changing landscape as loss and those losses as in the case of SUP culture pioneer Bob Risner and Sparky and the BOP dominate in October as we move into the winter.
There is a misconception out there that the races aren’t succeeding because the brands aren’t stepping up. Yes, early on, brands made it possible for events to start and flourish. Today, I can tell you that it is impossible for brands to step up when most are either barely standing or have fallen completely. The budgets that came with stocking the country with the first and second waves of boards and paddles and the marketing pushes that brought pros and ambassadors to every nook and cranny of this vastly diverse nation have been spent. Imagine opening a wallet and moths fly out. Then there’s the “just get a big brand like a car company or Coca Cola” suggestions, which sounds awesome. Not that we’d want a soft drink sponsor for our sport, but even if cash full, this type of sponsor is totally unrealistic without a tightly run governing body, consistent and connected online and television coverage and someone who actually is in those LA and NY PR and Brand management and promotion circles who can do the ROI studies and make the pitch, and land the sponsors. There are professionals who do that and get paid a ton of money to find and manage outreach branding and promotions. It’s not as easy as sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and pitching a 100 person SUP race. Believe me, I’ve emailed.
Here’s a related question: Are we overlooking the growth of the flatwater paddler and the disconnection of the surf culture? At first, with legends like Laird, Dave Kalama, Chuck Patterson, Jamie Mitchell, Colin McPhillips and all the surf brands leading the way to the promised land, paddlers could instantly step into the lifestyle and capture a piece of the surf culture even if they hadn’t stepped on a wave. When they were introduced to waves through SUP, it was also a faster learning curve. The BOP gave them something to aspire to and an invitation to surf with a group of paddlers just stoked on being out there. You could paddle and fall and everyone would cheer you on. Do that at a crowded surf spot and see if you get the next set wave. It’s not happening.
As the surf culture rejected SUP, only begrudgingly allowing it on the fringes of most breaks and rarely on the best days, that stink eye set in. Longboarders, who should have kissed SUPers asses for taking the heat off them, now slipped into the shortboard lineup and adopted that same judgemental vitriolic nod of discontent when SUP paddlers cruised out. Most of us couldn’t care less because we know where to go, know people in the lineup, know how to find our own waves. We love our wavescounts and love SUP surfing. But new people no longer have a crew of equally new people flooding the lineup and making the same newby mistakes. There is no safety in numbers. There is no welcome mat. There are fewer places to hide. And there are fewer allies as there once were in the lineup.
And as these flatwater paddlers came to the BOP—and again, we’re talking about the massive bulk of all paddlers nationwide—many lacked the ocean skills necessary to compete at this highest level. How could they? They live on rivers and lakes. And while many have used their environment to improve, it’s not quite the same. Over the years, it’s natural for someone who sees the ocean once or twice per year, perhaps for a week at a time or just on select weekends of an event to come to the conclusion that if the pinnacle of the sport is an ocean based race, they will never be able to truly reach that peak unless they move to the beach, which they’re not going to do. So what’s the point? I’m not talking about all paddlers here. This isn’t everyone. These people have either found other opportunities, like a Chattajack or a Riverfest or a NYC SEA paddle. They found race series’ and trained and showed up to race.
It was suggested that the race culture started in SoCal be reincarnated there. They have a great race series and there are definitely people paddling. I don’t dispute that. But perhaps the growth and emphasis needs to come from elsewhere. Maybe the interior. Maybe the Great Lakes. I don’t have the answer, but I do think there was a moment where the whole race world seemed to shift, to recede and that was when BOP moved.
The Salt Creek BOP, from my perspective was the turning of the sport—the moment where flatwater paddlers, stoked on the sport no longer saw their place in the sport they loved. Even those who didn’t attend watched online and said to themselves, “I’m not going out there.” At that point, I believe many people asked themselves if this race scene was for them. I’m not starting a #blamesparky blame game. But as our soul and center shifted, it gave people an opportunity to ask themselves if this was the SUP that fit them. Did they need something new? At the time, other races were in full push, so there were many options. As the BOP went away and the brands receded, the regional races pulled back. As they pulled back and local races followed, we had this full moon low tide thing that… that stunk like low tide.
Now, the good news. The sport continues to grow.
Are we growing with it? Are we too focused on what’s different and turning off the new people? Has our open-door policy of inclusion for all shapes and sizes changed? What would happen if every time you went somewhere, they said, “you should have been here an hour ago, or a year ago, or 4 years ago”? You’d be bummed. And it’d reinforce that you were new and they were established. It’s exclusive.
I got this note from Larry Cain about the growth of SUP and it’s so damn true, “SUP is not dying. It’s changing. It’s expanding and including whole new demographics. Nurture these participants as they venture into something new and the sport will continue to grow as if it has no bounds.”
Paddlers are here now. There’s crossover. We’re a part of a larger inclusive paddling world and not a smaller exclusive surf culture. How can we meet these new padders where they are? How can we enjoy what’s here now? How can we let go of our past and grow? And how can we take personal responsibility for our events and stop looking to someone else to bail us out?
Is this just a pause?
The wealthy paddlers who originally could buy custom board after custom board before production models came through are gone. They fed the first wave. The secondary market explosion fed by the culling of individual quivers and the dumping of excess inventory is the underlying feeder for the future of this sport. I see it every week. More people can get into the sport more cheaply than ever before. And just as the first wave of growth paused between the custom boom in 2008, 2009, 2010 and the ironing out, somewhat, of finding retailers and retail outlets for the gear, simultaneously ramping up production overseas, lowering delivery times and increasing quality control (reducing or eliminating deliveries with defects). This is the pause. There is more to this story. It might be a longer pause, but it’s temporary.
Maybe it’s time for us to let go of the past and embrace what’s here now. Celebrate the foil. Crossover to OC and Surfski and back. I wish I had real answers. These are just observations. There is a viable population of real paddlers waiting to join this community. Our traffic is way up. We’re seeing people from all over the world. The people are there. And given the right circumstances and attitudes, great things will come. Maybe just from a new source, a new setting.
Publisher, Distressed Mullet