How Much Is Surfing Worth? - Stab Mag
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Go on, commodify this moment. Photo by Kim Feast

How Much Is Surfing Worth?

Around $3 billion a year in Australia, according to new study.

news // Jul 5, 2024
Words by Jack O'Neill Paterson
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Humans, ey? Just flimsy apes, really. Brilliant intellect though. Really quite witty. Kind of scary how witty, in fact. Too smart for disease, time, even death. Too smart for our own good. Too smart to be good. 

We’ve created the world we live in. Built it with our hands first, with our sweat and blood, altered it to look the way we wanted it to and forced the forces of nature into submission. Cold? Put the heater on. Need oil? Drill for it. That lion scare you? Shoot the fucker. Shoot them all, actually. Good. Very good.

We’re smarter and older now. Further along. And we run the world with money. A global economy, you might say, which is fabulous if you enjoy the pleasantries of income inequality, the thrill of global economic crisis, or the undermining of local cultures and industries. 

Everything on the planet can now be commodified in terms of monetary value. Data, intellectual property, experiences, ecosystem services, human capital, mental health and wellness, health in general. Even human life can be given a dollar figure, based on a few charming allotments. Lifetime earnings gives you an average human value of around $2.8 million in the United States. The statistical value of a human life, according the the EPA, is around $10 million. A singular kidney will set you back around $200k, and the chemical worth of our flesh? Only a few bucks, says science

Now, a new study out of the Australian National University has managed to slap a dollar figure on surfing. The study found that surfing’s growing popularity means that it now contributes almost $3 billion to Australia’s economy every year. For context, that’s more than soccer, tennis, basketball, and professional crocodile wrestling. 

Adoring Australian surf fans at Snapper. Photo: WSL

The study, which surveyed 569 participants over the course of a few months, was then aggregated to represent the entirety of Australia’s adult surfing population which, according to the Australian Sports Commission, is precisely 727,382. 

Let’s unpack a few key findings, now quantified, about the country’s second most popular water sport (after swimming, obviously).

Surfing is a very big deal in Australia

Around 85% of Australia’s population reside within 50km’s of the coastline. This is mainly because the centre is hot and hairy and less than favourable for unskilled survivalists. For the most part, we live and play and build cities by the water and, for those of us who arrived here under dubious circumstances a few hundred years back, we melt beneath a sun that our caucasian ancestry could have never prepared us for.  

The Australian Sports Commission lists the number of adult surfers in Australia to be more than 700,000. 22% of respondents declared themselves to be of advanced or competitive level, 41% reported themselves intermediate, 26% competent, and only 11% admitted to being of a beginner level. 

Add grommets to the sum, and the percentage of the population that surfs nears the 10% mark, which is a remarkable figure, really. This means that in Australia, surfing is more popular than tennis, golf, and yoga, and holds a similar level of popularity to cricket, in terms of active participants. 

Really makes you wonder why the industry is flapping around in the trenches of financial famine.

Our Sal, a very big deal indeed. Photo: WSL

Surfing is food for the establishment 

Governments generally declare things to be worthy of protection only once they can make money from them. Now that surfing has been given a dollar figure, the Australian Government may begin to notice that it exists, and will perhaps consider it important enough for lawful protection.  

According to the study, the coast of Australia features 1440 known surf-spots, with each break contributing roughly $1.88 million a year to the economy, just for existing. Additionally, routine purchases of coffee, pies, and ciggies contribute $800k to the surrounding area, per surf spot. If there’s three waves in the area, then you’re looking at $2.4mil straight into the local economy.

Surfing brought in $542 million to the Goldy in 2019. Photo: WSL

Despite your local churning out nearly $2mil a year for the government, only 20 waves in Australia have some form of legal protection, which is less than 2%. Considering that a majority of the world’s high-quality waves are situated within marine biodiversity hot-spots, the benefits to mental and physical health, and the now proven economic perks of surfing, altering the coastline and potentially destroying waves seems a sinful act of negligence. 

Alternatively, rather than going to the trouble of protecting the environment, tax-payer money might be better invested into large-scale wave pool development. Less variables, ya know?

What exactly are we spending money on? 

According to the study, the average surfer in Australia spends a modest $3719 per year on surf related expenses. Here’s a price breakdown of how you’re spending your money: 

Food items: $8.30 per surf, $697 per year. 

Surf equipment (boards, wettys, repairs): $1381 per year

Domestic surf trips: $1901 per year

Additionally, the average Australian surfer spends $1975 on international travel, but because this figure doesn’t impact on the Australian economy, it was left out of the findings of the study. 

The inclusivity/elitism paradox

“Surfing was a sub-culture for blokes, and was very unwelcoming,” says esteemed surf writer and novelist Jock Serong, who grew up surfing in the 80s and features on the recent ABC podcast. Time has obviously changed surf culture, and it only took us a few decades of misogyny and mild child-abuse to realise that an activity dominated and ferociously guarded by intolerant white dudes, is kinda outdated. 

Anyway, we’re correcting that now. Cast your eyes on any body of water and you’ll find a floating smorgasbord of different colours, genders, sizes, ages, scenes, sexual preferences, skill levels, zodiac signs, and dietary requirements. In theory, this is a wonderful thing.

All is well then, right? 

Well, nah. Surfing’s growing popularity, among other things, means that coastal real estate is now completely unaffordable for the working class. In towns with good waves, the housing market gets even more competitive, and this is a crisis not unique to Australia. A recent pricing study in the US found that residency near Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz is about $100k more expensive than an equivalent property just one kilometre away. 

Basically, the working class are being forced to search for affordable housing inland, in more remote and often disadvantaged areas. 

Due to waves being a limited resource, surfing will probably always be an exclusive activity. Only now, instead of it being guarded by financially challenged degenerates, it will be left to the business moguls, the bankers, and the plastic surgeons to flounder, thrash, and exclude. 

What a time to be alive. 

Read Jed Smith’s detailed account of how gentrification is changing surfing, here

Are surfers smart or just privileged? 

The study revealed that 55% of surfers hold a university degree, compared to just 31% across all Australians. Surfers also tend to come from higher income earning houses, according to the study.

Whilst surfing is often marketed as an activity that costs us nothing, the results from this study make the economic, geographic, and social barriers to entry emphatically clear.

Surfing is good for you

The joy of surfing, demonstrated by Matt Wilko.

99% of participants of the survey reported positive mental health outcomes from surfing. Here’s the statistical breakdown of where you tend to feel your jollies after a session and, to be frank, probably the reason behind why you surf.

Improved physical Health: 95%

Ability to deal with stress 94%

Community connectedness 80%

Ability to form new relationships: 82%

Increased productivity: 61%

So, how much does it all mean to you?

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