If You Build the Waves, Will They Come?
New generation of surf parks gamble on surfing’s popularity away from the coasts
Opening a surf park in New Hampshire in December may seem like a tough sell, but one company is betting on its success—and there may be more to follow. SkyVenture Indoor Skydiving in Nashua, N.H. is set to open its Surf’s Up indoor wave park on December 21 with a 32-foot-wide SurfStream wave machine, the longest artificial standing wave in the country.
But at a time when board sports-loving New Englanders are heading for the slopes, the big question is: will anybody show up?
American Wave Machines, makers of the SurfStream, are banking on one simple fact: more people want to surf than are able.
“The industry is doing a good job selling surfing as a lifestyle,” American Wave Machines president Bruce McFarland told Reuters. “It is fun. It influences culture, music, fashion, all that. It is imbedded. But it is hard for anybody who doesn't live near the ocean to do.”
Matt Reilly, spokesman for industry news website Surf Park Central agrees. “If you really look at it, [surfing] and skate is a 6-billion-dollar industry,” he said. That may sound like a lot, said Reilly, but when you compare it to other outdoor activities you get a sense of how small the industry really is: Nike alone reported $6.5 billion in revenue in the fourth quarter of 2012, according to the company.
“[Surfing] in the ocean has a very restricted opportunity for growth,” continued Reilly. “It’s reached this plateau. Even if we expanded to every possible surf break in the world, it’s still going to be capped.”
Participation numbers reflect this. According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s annual outdoor activity report, only 2.9 million Americans surfed in 2012, or 0.9 percent of the population. To put that in perspective, three times as many people mountain biked last year.
And yet, more people likely know who Kelly Slater is than can name a single pro mountain biker. This gap between the visibility of the sport and its low participation numbers is where surf parks hope to step in.
The technology for making consistent, high-quality waves has made leaps in recent years, and several companies are getting in on the game, including Webber Wave Pools, Wavegarden and, of course, American Wave Machines. Even Slater has slapped his name on a wave pool company. (Previously)
Increases in efficiency mean newer pools can push out more frequent waves at a lower cost per wave, said Reilly. And more waves mean more surfers. “Surf parks are going to be the unlock for what’s possible in the industry,” he said.
Standing waves, like the one at Surf’s Up, are cheaper to manufacture and can help build an audience for the newer, more advanced technology, said Reilly. “In countries and communities where surfing does not exist, stationary waves are a lower barrier to entry and will aid in the proliferation of larger authentic surf park facilities.”
(There’s a distinction between standing waves like those created by the SurfStream and so-called “skim waves,” which are extremely shallow and provide an experience more akin to wakeboarding than surfing, he said.)
Wave pools are also getting a big push by the International Surfing Association, which has been lobbying for years to get surfing into the Olympics. “Without man-made surfing waves, our Olympic surfing dream would be just that—a dream,” said ISA president Fernando Aguerre to Reuters.
In an essay on the ISA’s website, Aguerre elaborates on this idea:
On the competition side, the ISA believes that Olympic Surfing will, of necessity, incorporate man-made waves. By standardizing the waves for surfing competition, the luck factor of getting a certain wave in the ocean will cease to become a, sometimes, important factor in determining the winner or loser of a surfing competition.
Reilly predicts that new technology, like the state-of-the-art wave pool at Wadi Adventure Park in United Arab Emirates, will allow for a kind of standardized training previous generations could only dream of. He points to the example of pro surfer Sally Fitzgibbons, who’d previously had difficulty mastering the technique for going airborne. “She went to Wadi and got 600 waves across the course of a weekend, and by the end of the weekend she was sticking those aerials.”
Given the relatively recent inclusion of snowboarding in the Olympics, it seems possible that the IOC could one day be convinced of this logic. After all, snowboarding is a sport that thrives in both its natural environment and artificial terrain parks.
But whether this new crop of wave pools can make surfing as popular as snowboarding in places like New Hampshire is a question only time can answer.
Wave pool slideshow captions by Heather Hansman.
For more information on surf parks, visit Surf Park Central at surfparkcentral.com.