The early years of SUP racing saw participation double in many events year over year. Of course, no sport will see this kind of growth indefinitely. SUP racing is reaching a saturation point, retention rates are declining and growth is slowing.
We have to ask ourselves, “How do we continue to grow and improve SUP racing?”
I don’t have all of the answers but I have a few suggestions outlined below.
1.) Average Joe is more important than elite pro.
2.) Standardization of some race distances and rules.
3.) Build SUP racing as a participation sport, not a spectator sport.
4.) Eliminate the 12’6 class. Relax, read below for details.
5.) Throw a PARTY!
6.) Exceed athlete expectations.
7.) Don’t forget the essentials of racing. Tip #1: Water at the finish line.
8.) Get involved!
This post is an effort to share ideas and start a dialogue between race officials, athletes and the industry as a whole. We’re all in this together.
Most Paddlers Are Not Elite
What does ‘elite’ mean anyway!? Elite SUP racing is great, but the vast majority of SUP race participants are recreational paddlers. For maximum SUP racing growth, SUP events need to cater to the average recreational participant (this will be a theme throughout the article).
Look no further than the large participation at running races. An extremely small percentage of participants at the New York Marathon are elite or pro runners. They are the average Joe and Jane.
It’s about the experience and challenge!
I believe SUP racing would benefit by switching from the mindset of, “I want to win my class”, to, “I want to conquer the course.” Most runners go into a race to conquer the course or set a personal best time, not to win the race or their class.
There are some great SUP races that are attracting paddlers for the experience and challenge. Most paddlers race the 11-City Tour, Paris Crossing, Molokai and the Chattajack for the these reasons. It’s no surprise that each of these events puts a cap on registration and sells out almost immediately!
Events should also focus on creating a short recreational course from 1-3 miles so as to not intimidate new paddlers. Courses with flat water and minimal boat traffic are ideal.
Don’t forget about the kids! Every race should have a junior class to encourage youth participation. They are the future of our sport.
I wrote about standardization in May of 2014 when we first launched SUPAA. Instead of reinventing a magic formula for stand up paddle race formats, let’s take cues from running and other racing sports to institute standardized race distances.
Standardized distances are provided and written into the SUPAA Rulebook in an effort to promote uniformity. We encourage race directors and athletes to provide feedback on the 5K, 10K and 16K distances suggested in the rulebook so we can work toward unified global race distances.
Not all events will fit into these exact distances, but we believe many can. There can still be opportunities for alternate distances.
Standardizing the distances of SUP races has countless benefits for all stand up paddle constituent groups.
Athletes can compare times to paddlers racing the same courses around the world and goals can be set to consistently improve on personal best times and to progressively enter longer races. I’ll use the running analogy again.
A runner enters a 5K because it is short and easy. A 5K race can be completed “straight off the couch.” They enjoy the 5K and decide to challenge themselves with a 10K. The 10K is done and now it’s time to train for a half-marathon and then finally a marathon.
You get the point. There is a clear path to challenge oneself through a series of progressively longer standardized distances.
Now picture this.
A SUP training group in Arizona compares their 5K times to a training group in Germany and Japan also paddling a 5K course. With a NK Speedcoach GPS users can then upload their data a fitness tracking website like Strava.com and compare their time, average speed, cadence, heart rate and more.
Suddenly the global community of SUP becomes more connected with racers competing against each other from all corners of the globe at the same time!
Obviously there will be external factors like wind and current but these conditions will have to be taken into account. Much the same way that certain running courses are more conducive to fast times, certain bodies of water will be faster or slower than others.
The more uniform stand up paddle events become, the more appealing they will be to regular participants and new ones alike.
Race directors will have a more clear picture of the courses they should offer in order to draw the most competitors. Standardized course distances combined with a comprehensive rulebook will help stand up paddling become more organized. Better organization will allow our sport to continue to gain participants and create a much broader appeal through user familiarity.
I am not proposing to eliminate the 12.5K race around your hometown island. A variety of courses and formats will still be popular and necessary to keep the sport fun and interesting. However, I believe the sport can benefit by creating some level of uniformity for the reasons explained above.
SUP is NOT a Spectator Sport
It’s a participation sport! There isn’t a phrase I dislike more than, “It will be good for the spectators.”
Often times what is good for spectators is not good for athletes. Athletes should be the #1 priority at SUP races.
I understand that some race organizers feel the need to attract and cater to spectators to please sponsors. There is a balance to this need and it should not shift toward pleasing sponsors at the expense of athletes.
I believe it is the wrong mindset to build SUP into an elite athlete, spectator sport. I don’t think the sport is even capable of this and it often comes at the expense of the sports overall growth.
We don’t need more people watching, we need more people participating. There is room for spectator friendly events to help people see the sport and to showcase top-level athletes. However, I don’t think this should be a large part of a race organizer’s focus.
Look no further than some of the largest participation races in the world and they are often the least spectator friendly.
I thought that section title would get your attention.
Many races have so many categories that athletes are bound to win something simply by showing up at the start line. What’s the difference between winning a class with 3 other participants and a participation medal?
The Euro Tour has already streamlined race categories by instituting 14’ and under for pretty much every major European SUP race. This is for BOTH men and women. This article is not meant to get into the board class debate, but it’s worth considering in the conversation for improving SUP racing.
Why not eliminate the 12’6 class?
How about eliminating the men’s 12’6 class at least? Juniors and women can continue on 12’6.
Pretty much every major race in the world now uses 14′ as the main men’s category. Every major European race, Carolina Cup, Gorge Paddle Challenge, Pacific Paddle Games, The Doctor and more.
One board class would streamline results for race directors, eliminate buyer confusion when entering the sport thereby helping retailers, manufacturers and the industry as a whole.
Are you a diehard 12’6 male paddler? No problem. The 14′ class is 14′ and under.
By all means continue to race 12’6 against 3 other 12’6 male paddlers. However, if you are looking to challenge yourself against the vast majority of competitors entering a SUP race, you will have to step up to 14′.
Make it a PARTY!
One of the best parts about SUP racing is the community built around it. Paddlers race to challenge themselves and to hang out and socialize with like-minded individuals.
Pre and post parties can do more for an event than the actual race.
Don’t have a budget for partying? You don’t need one. Simply contact your local watering hole and tell them a bunch of fun-loving paddlers are coming in to celebrate after the race. Most establishments will be more than happy to host your party.
The Carolina Cup does a great job in hosting a pre-party the night before, a party on the beach directly after the race and another party later that night. There is even an after-after-party that involves bull riding at a country bar. Don’t miss it!
The point is this. It can cost nothing to host a party and paddlers love to hang out with old friends and meet new ones. Events should aim to create a festival atmosphere and not an elite sporting event atmosphere. Pumping music, lively announcing, food, vendors, beach games and more. Get creative and remember that people want to socialize and be entertained. Start your party planning now!
Putting on a SUP race is hard and unthankful work. Race organizers need as many volunteers as possible and need to delegate the work months ahead of race day. With sufficient help they can work to exceed the athletes’ expectations.
There is nothing better than showing up to a race and having streamlined parking, fast and easy on-site registration, someone grabbing boards at the finish and post race food. The little things add up!
If a race is charging a premium entry fee then there should be premium benefits. If you can keep registration fees low then even better!
Races should not use high registration fees to pay for a large prize purse to attract elite athletes. If a race has to do this then they are missing the point and it can hurt growth.
New Race Formats
The super lap and other unique race formats can create a level of novelty and fun in SUP racing. I still think we should aim for some level of standardization at a majority of races. However, new ideas can spark interest in well-established SUP communities that have seen the same things over and over.
SUP team racing is an area that I would like to see explored. Competitors can race as a team, drafting one another and using team work to battle other teams, much like cycle racing. I believe that team racing of this nature will become a necessity for pro paddlers in flat water races one day.
Another version of team racing could be a lap system where one member of a team paddles a lap at a time. There are countless possibilities for SUP team racing that have not really been explored. More on this in a future article.
Don’t Forget the Essentials
One of the major goals of SUPAA is to make SUP racing fun, fair and safe. Parties can be important and fun, but ultimately it has to be about the paddler’s SUP racing experience.
- Create easy online registration.
- Post race course maps ahead of time.
- Create a schedule and stick to it.
- Form a safety plan with sufficient safety vessel support on the course.
- Create a fair course that gives paddlers plenty of room at the start and on the course to avoid pileups and carnage.
- Use the SUPAA rulebook for fair and clear rules (rules are what define an activity as a sport).
- Provide water at the finish.
Get Involved (I’m Talking to you ISA)
If you are a race director, use these tools and tips as well as all of the information on supathletes.com to help SUP racing grow. If you are an athlete or industry personnel, volunteer at a SUP race and share these tips with your local organizer. Start a SUP training group, host local races and get your friends out on the water.
Talk is cheap. Be a part of solution and help on the ground where it counts.
The first step is recognizing that SUP racing is stagnating and the second step is working to fix it. SUPAA will continue to provide the tools, resources and support to help grow SUP racing. Part of this mission involves working with the International Surfing Association (ISA) to help them become more of a leader in our sport.
As the official world governing body of SUP, as recognized by the International Olympic Committee, I feel they can do much more to grow SUP globally. Working with national governing bodies to institute many of the topics in this article would be a nice first step from the ISA.
The fact that Surfing America has failed to EVER hold a qualifier for team USA and the ISA World Championships is a joke. However, the future is looking better for team USA as they have announced a proper qualifying system for 2017. Other national governing bodies are just as guilty for their failures to perform as a SUP governing body. The ISA needs to assist and be a leader to stand up paddle national governing bodies, in addition to holding the NBG’s accountable for poor performance.
I have more thoughts on how to fix this that I’ll share soon.
Get involved and implement some of these ideas. Share this article, give your feedback and join the conversation on our Facebook page or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let’s make SUP racing great again!
*This article is not a political endorsement of any kind. Vote SUP this November : )