by Dave Gardner
A mix of old-fashioned activities and new technologies is fueling changes within the bustling business of outdoor recreation.
Domestically, a healthy retail market for recreational goods is enjoyed by various players in the supply chain, according to Nick Rigitano, research and information manager with the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA). He cited data indicating that the domestic market for fishing equipment expanded from a 2013 sales total of $1.5 billion to $1.6 billion in 2017.
Other associated product sectors enjoyed similar growth. Sales for camping equipment as a whole grew from $1.6 billion in 2013 to $1.9 billion in 2017. For the broad category of hiking shoes and boots, the 2013 sales total of $1.3 billion expanded to $1.5 billion during 2017.
“The rise in fishing equipment sales was driven by rod-reel combinations, separate fishing reels and tackle boxes,” said Rigitano. “The increase in camping equipment was driven by increases in all camping product categories tracked by the NSGA, and was led by increases in ice chests, tents for three or more persons, backpacks and daypacks.”
One of the organizations driving market forces for outdoor equipment is Trout Unlimited, which is now celebrating 60 years of existence since its inception in Michigan. Charles Charlesworth, immediate past president of state council for Trout Unlimited PA, commented that the nation as a whole is now encountering a first-time generation of youth who largely have not been taught to fish by time and career-stressed parents.
This societal evolution within the fishing arena has directly impacted the total number of fishing licenses purchased within Pennsylvania. According to Charlesworth, during a four-year period, annual license sales dropped statewide from 1.4 million to 900,000.
To counteract these market changes, Trout Unlimited is expanding its outreach toward groups that were largely ignored in the past. This includes females, who during 2014 purchased 13.9 percent of Pennsylvania’s general licenses and a full 13 percent of fly-fishing trout permits.
“The joys of fishing start with education about the sport itself,” said Charlesworth. “As sales of equipment shift from the mom and pop stores to the big-box retailers, efforts have to be made to continue the education to the smaller stores once provided.
“This is one of the segments of our outreach to new groups, including those of ethnic diversity.”
As the face of the sport of fishing changes, so does the inherent technology being applied. Charlesworth endorses computer-enhanced equipment such as electronic fly rods that can measure the physical activity of a cast and then display metrics such as velocity, motion, strength and what segments of the cast require improvement.
Compact electronic fish finders utilizing sonar are now commonplace. One of the ways these units impact ice fishing involves the ability to drill many holes in the ice, snake the sonar unit’s transducer down and almost immediately detect the presence of prey.
Clothing is also evolving for comfort. Waders are now available that are so warm within cold water, the fisherman will perspire. When matched with thermostatically controlled socks, a day of waterway comfort is almost assured.
Charlesworth declared himself a traditionalist with most sporting activities, and jokes that he still uses a wooden tennis racket. With fishing, however, he is a realist, and has endorsed the use of technology that can enhance the angling experience.
“I still have my bamboo rods, but they are now centerpieces of my fireplace mantel,” he said.
He added that Trout Unlimited’s educational program within Northeast Pennsylvania now includes the annual STREAM Conservation Camp at Keystone College. Within this effort, STREAM stands for science, technology, recreation, engineering, arts and math, where a one-week summer camp strives to deliver education about these subjects as they pertain to environmental management.
In addition, Trout Unlimited is offering a “5 Rivers Program” statewide on college campuses. This effort organizes college campus clubs to teach students subjects that include fly casting and waterway conservation.
“We take the job of preparing students for environmental and conservation careers very seriously,” said Charlesworth.
Advancing digital technology has also invaded the popular sport of golf.
Tony Barletta, director of golf at the 27-hole Blue Ridge Trail Golf Club, explained his facility now offers state-of-the-art GPS units on all of its carts via a tablet that hangs from the roof.
The cart can therefore be parked and the GPS can measure metrics such as the distance from the ball to the pin. Food and beverages can also be ordered from the GPS, and management can track the location of every cart out on the course.
“This is a pretty awesome system and separates us from the competition,” said Barletta. “In addition to management seeing the position of every cart, we can immediately send messages to the golfers.”
Technology is also serving as an educator with Blue Ridge’s use of the Trackman simulator. This technology uses Doppler radar to detect the speed, trajectory and distance of both an indoor practice shot or out on the driving range, while indoor golfers can “play” a simulated game complete with lifelike images on 50-60 famous courses around the world, including the British Open.
“We have one of the first indoor tracker systems in the United States,” said Barletta. “Offering technologies such as these definitely give a golf club a competitive edge over the competition,” said Barletta.