Nick Carroll: 5,690,634 Surfboards in Just Five Years

16 May 2019 11 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer




How the Asian board machine is way bigger than anyone thought.

In recent years there has been a hell of a lot of talk about surfboard imports. Specifically from eastern Asian nations.

The gist has been, Asia-based board manufacturing is taking over the world and swamping surfboard markets in Australia and the US with foreign-made product.

Whether this is good or bad or totally indifferent depends on where you’re standing. A lot of the imports are on behalf of Australian or US brands and companies, like Firewire and Global Surf Industries. If you like their boards, or work for them, you’re probably fine with it.

A whole lot are probably softboards and bodyboards, craft that aren’t made anywhere else, and that right now are filling a real market hole. (In Australia, softboard sales right now are up nearly 80% year-on-year.) If you’re a family guy with start-up kids, you’re more than fine with it.

For sure a few are sneaky orders destined for board labels who would otherwise be trumpeting their core cred, you know, “we pride ourselves on hand made quality”, etc etc, but who want to fill a few more stock racks than the crew at home base can manage. If you’re buying one of those, you’ll never know the difference. If you’re selling 'em, it’s your little secret. 

But there’s quite a few home town boardmakers, big and small, here and in the US, who really have the shits with imports, especially those filling surf shop racks on consignment. These pissed off boardmakers feel the importers are taking advantage of lower labour costs and weaker environmental laws to put product on racks in ways no home grown maker can match.

They wanna see tariffs — and in Trump’s America, they’re likely to get a hearing.

This is probably why not long after attending the Boardroom show in San Diego, CA, I was leaked a document.

The document purports to be a data dump from the US International Trade Commission. It lists surfboard and sailboard imports into the US, by nation, number, and value, over the past five years, 2014-2018.

It blew my tiny mind.

According to it, 5,690,634 surfboards were imported into the US in that time. A smallish number — 46,738 — were from Australia. Way more — 312,383 — were from Mexico, where several foam-makers and quite a few US labels do a heap of production. But the vast piling majority of these imports were sourced from three eastern Asian nations: Thailand, Taiwan, and mainland China.

Thailand, home of the Cobra factory, Firewire, and GSI, accounts for 268,693. Taiwan, home of bodyboards, ticks off 407,505. But China, home of so much manufacturing it is almost incomprehensible, was the source of surfboard imports to the US in that period of 4,334,098.

Have a second look at that. Four million three hundred and thirty four thousand and ninety-eight.

We’re not talking about sailboards here, they’re listed separately. (Kind of weak numbers actually.)

For sure we are talking about softboards, particularly the WaveStorm softboards sold in the US by big box retailer CostCo, and sales of which have been estimated by observers to be around 80,000 a year. (CostCo won’t tell ya.)

But still! Over a million boards a year altogether, crossing US borders, presumably in search of US buyers, and obviously succeeding in finding them. Or it wouldn’t have been going on even for the five years listed.

You’d have to be kind of a knucklehead to think something like it isn’t going on here. Much reduced from the US number — after all, there’s about 10 million more people just in California than there is in the whole of Australia. But I bet on percentages, the import/homegrown ratios are very similar.

Evidence suggests that Australian boardmakers are doing OK right now, just as their US counterparts are. American makers struggled three years ago but they’ve bounced back well. All the design innovation is happening in these markets; they need to be strong for surfing to flourish.

But what part are these imports really playing in the market? What gaps are they really filling? The numbers are not even a tiny bit matchable by current US-based boardmakers. They’d have to multiply their production by factors of 100. Why didn’t they do that before imports did it for them?

This shows you why tariff walls were abandoned in Western nations 30 or more years ago. Trade opens up markets. Tariffs close them down.

But that’s economics. That’s something else. I’m still reeling from the five million thing.

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