Windsurfing? Tennis? Skiing?

One of the first posts on the new Skiing Business website is called “Is the Hardgoods Industry Killing Itself?” – and makes some comparisons between the fate of sports like windsurfing (virtually dead) and tennis (which rose Phoenix like from the ashes about ten years ago, and has been the fastest growing sport for the past six years in the USA). I would argue that comparing sales of ski gear and clothing with windsurfing and tennis is like comparing apples to lemons to oranges.

Windsurfing’s heyday was in the late 70s and early 80s, when people drove down to their local lake with the uber cool Windsurfer One Design strapped to the roofrack and… waited, and waited, and waited for the wind to blow. Windsurfing was a great sport for baby boomers who wanted to catch some surf stoke at the local lake – much in the same way that SUP (stand up paddleboards) are now – but the sport had two fundamental flaws. Number one – the average wind speed in the United States in something like six knots per hour – so, as wind generation proponents are finding out – it’s not a very cost effective sport for the weekend warrior. Number tw0 – generally speaking, once the basics of windsurfing were mastered, the sport was quite boring. Ergo, the rise of places like the Columbia River Gorge and Cape Hatteras, where people – ironically, mostly my fellow Canadians – would make hellaciously long road trips to. You only need to get skunked once or twice to think: enough of this, I’m taking up… tennis. And while ‘the wind is free’ – as the early Windsurfer ads put it – the gear most certainly was not. Indeed, windsurfing gear went through about a twenty year evolutionary curve that rendered sails, booms, boards, and fins pretty much obsolete about every three or four years. And short board sailing, similar to surfing – was very difficult to master. Kiteboarding has pretty much hammered the last nail into the windsurfing coffin because it attracted a crossover demographic from wakeboarding and even skateboarding.

Author Ryan Dionne then brings up the resurgence of tennis and wonders if skiing can mimic that sport’s incredible growth curve. Well, tennis was as dead as a doornail in the mid 90s and started to come back with the Federer-Nadal rivalry. That said, the good thing about tennis is that it’s really quite cheap to take up and play on a regular basis (though it’s a difficult game to excel at) and you can play pretty much any day that it isn’t raining. Tennis rackets haven’t changed much in price over the last two decades either – at least not at the mid/intermediate level – so it’s an affordable way to get some exercise.

Skiing differs significantly from both of these sports. Lift mechanization and snowmaking take both the force of gravity and the elements out of the picture. You can go skiing pretty much any time you want. Many North Americans only actually ever ski when they are on vacation, since most major metro centers are a long drive from even modest ski hills. What’s likely killing the hard goods industry is the fact that people are simply renting high performance gear for their annual trip to Whistler or Vail; the market for these rentals has soared in the past five years or so. Also, while retailers may stock a lot of SKUs, it seems to me that the specialty shops I go to in Vancouver and Whistler purchase pretty frugally on the hard goods side – they want those rockered skis and twintips out the door by the second week in February, sold at full retail. The story is right about one thing – a premium brand like Volkl can keep a ski in its lineup for quite a few years – the old P9 and Mantras being the best examples – and Salomon had a great run with the original Pocket Rocket.

I was a ski equipment editor at Ski Canada magazine about a decade ago and seemed to recall that manufacturers were trying to trim SKUs and keep skis in their lineups for longer. Then shaped, midfat, and fat skis hit the market and it went all to hell again. To my way of thinking, the challenge is that the ski industry has done a great job in convincing relatively serious skiers that they in fact need a ‘quiver’ of skis – rather than just one good all-arounder. I skied on Atomic’s R:EX for about four years in virtually every condition imaginable and they only thing they really balked at were super-tight trees in deep snow. They railed like crazy on hardpack and creamed both crud and moguls. Yet it’s almost impossible to find that kind of ski out there anymore – carve oriented boards either have a heavy plate and lifter (lousy for off piste skiing) and of course the ‘big mountain’ category is suffused with skis that are at least 100mm underfoot.

Ski retailers also have an advantage over both windsurf and tennis shops because they can sell tons of softgoods – which is where the high margins and profit can be made. You can rack a lot of Gore-Tex jackets on a shop floor and run the gamut from stocking outrageous, fashion oriented brands like Oakley and Spyder, or more conservative style from Arc’teryx and Mountain Hardwear. And you can always wear a nice Gore-Tex jacket on a rainy day at the park, whereas skis will gather dust if they’re not utilized.

I think the ski industry would do a huge favour to everyone if SKUs were reduced back to manageable levels. What’s interesting, though, is the proliferation of boutique brands like Moment, Icelantic, G3, and Black Diamond. Maybe folks do want to ski on something different, after all…

Without looking at SIA’s Retail Audit of hardgoods, I can’t say for sure just how tough things are in the hard goods industry. And while Ryan’s story is a good starting point for discussion about where retail sales are headed, the comparison with windsurfing and tennis doesn’t really wash…


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