Will China becomes surfing’s new frontier? Don’t hold your breath

Recently, Surfer Magazine ran an article by Jeff Mull entitled “Will China Become Surfing’s New Frontier: an emerging surf industry without any surfers“.

Well, my on-the-ground research to date has shown that the future of surf sales is not going to be China any time soon.

Having a few contests on Hainan does not equal breaking into the Chinese market and the potential “1.2 billion consumers”. The contests are hardly making any changes in surfing numbers and sales of surfing products on the island of Hainan. Have numbers of surfers and sales of surfing products exploded there? Well, no. There has been a small incremental change but that seems more organic than forced.

Yes, in China there are a few surfers on Hainan and in other places like Fujian, Hong Kong etc. The numbers remain very small. Anyway, the areas where surfing is taking place have relatively small populations.  The vast majority of people don’t live near the coast and have no interest in anything to do with surfing or even know what it is.

If there is market growth I would put money on there being domestic brands that imitate and then over-run the foreigners, and make it hardly worth the foreign companies’ time persevering in the local market (see the Li Ning sport brand for a case study). Shanzai [imitation/copying] culture is still powerful in China and even celebrated. They took my FCS cover and copied it exactly and put their own label on it without even blinking, all within two weeks. Good luck to the brands wanting to crack the market when Shanzai culture trumps copyright, patents, etc.

Also, people in China tend to prefer domestic brands unless they are blue chip brands (see Gucci et al – but these appeal across a wider segment of the population and for different reasons). The surf brands have no ties to prestige and status here, at all. And purchasing for prestige and status is important here. Otherwise, it’s a matter of buying the cheapest to save money. That is, there is no recognised cultural capital attached to surf brands as there is in the West.

Further, the cultural context of China (responsibilities of single children due to the one child policy) will stifle middle-class young people having the lesiure time to pursue surfing and the culture and so buy surf products for some time yet. There just isn’t the leisure time for vast swarths of the population – even what some are calling the “new rich”.

Further still, the coastal cultures and environment here has been broken down to the point of being completely wrecked in most places, except in some very small areas. And those areas are subject to rampant commercial development for tourism, but not tourism as we know it – group tours and whereby the beach is one of a long list of things to jump off the bus and get your picture taken then back onto the bus. Even Hainan has been hammered in this regard. Most people who actually live in coastal areas are poor, working 7 days a week and struggling to even survive.

Further even still, interpretation of leisure and sport and participation in them is very different. Work and education take priority above all else due to the responsibilities to family etc mentioned earlier.

In other words, China is not simply the next frontier for surfing sitting there like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow like some people suppose and that surfing magazines like to keep suggesting.

Really, people need to go beyond Hainan (which is an exception to the rule). It is not appropriate to extrapolate from what is happening on one small island in China to the rest of this very diverse, complex, culturally different and huge nation. To do so makes it patently clear that the person doing such extrapolation doesn’t know what they are talking about.

Yes, I agree surfing will grow here (albeit slowly).

However, it is important to understand the context and be sceptical of the cd replication marketing consultant telling you there are 1.2 billion consumers here. Be wary, the reason why the 1.2 billion consumers line is trotted out is that middle-men want to suck money out of the companies wanting to get into this market and local officials can scam money out of government troughs.

There is a small crew (expats and locals) who have carved out small niches. But a surfing market on a grand scale? I wouldn’t be putting all my eggs in that basket.