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Don’t Forget the Youngsters

We’ve labeled them Generation Z. They’re now 10 to 24 years old. They’re moving away from interactive sports like baseball and soccer, as well as boating and fishing. They’re being hijacked by Xbox and PlayStation, Fortnite and Minecraft, and action is needed to reverse the trend.

According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, youth participation was declining even before the Covid-19 pandemic. Surveys in 2018 revealed that only 38 percent of kids ages 6 to 12 were regularly playing team sports. That was down from 45 percent 10 years earlier.

It shouldn’t be surprising, although it doesn’t get the acknowledgement that it deserves. Investment bank Piper Sandler’s annual survey of 10,000 young people found that 87 percent of U.S. teenagers have iPhones. And 26 percent of Generation Z identified video games as their favorite activity. Only 10 percent picked watching television. And 52 percent said they expect to purchase a next-generation gaming console.

“There is a lot more stuff competing for the attention of young people. E-sports is a big one,” said Travis E. Dorsch, associate professor and founding director of the Families in Sport Lab at Utah State University. He’s right, and I know it personally.

My wife, Kay, and I have two teenage grandsons in Tampa, Fla., where the year-round boating and fishing are excellent. Fortunately, the 14-year-old still plays organized baseball, although he doesn’t always agree to go out on our boat.

The 17-year-old most often takes a pass when we offer a day on the water. He opts for E-sports on his cellphone. They don headsets and talk to other players somewhere out in the video game sphere as if they were all sitting on the same couch. I shake my head and contend it would be better for them to be reeling in a grouper.

At least one thing has become obvious: The odds of kids becoming boat owners are getting longer and longer. And that trend will hurt the success of dealerships going forward.

Studies for the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation have concluded that 78.1 percent of today’s boat owners started boating when they were kids. Moreover, kids can positively influence a parent’s boat purchase consideration.

There’s even more to be concerned about. Today, the largest age group of boat owners are in their 60s. While we’ve enjoyed a once-in-a-century sales windfall, that song has now been sung. Looking back, other than during Covid, our industry stopped automatically keeping up with the nation’s overall recreational spending; our annual percentage began to decline, with some exceptions, more than a decade ago.

Moreover, the downturn and recession of 2008-09 crippled our industry. We sank from 360,000-plus boats annually to 167,000, according to figures from the National Marine Manufacturers Association. I’m reminded that just prior to the “Covid bubble,” we were rejoicing at 295,000-plus units.

It’s obvious that to safeguard long-term growth, at least two things have to come into focus.

First, dealers must put emphasis, as never before, on building stable relationships with existing customers, especially Generation X and Millennials, the latter now the biggest demographic in our country. Gen Xers are receiving the wealth being passed down from baby boomers, and Millennials are cruising into their top earnings years.

Second, dealers should plan events and activities that appeal to kids, especially those in middle school and high school who are being drawn by video games. Many dealers do an annual open house or organize a group cruise. Some sponsor a boating-safety clinic or docking-and-operating seminar, perhaps a fishing or boating session for women. This is all good for the adults, but what about the next generation?

It’s a rare dealership that holds events exclusively for kids, but aiming at that group could pay dividends for the with the parents now and in the future. Consider holding a kids’ fishing day or a kids-only tourney with gear giveaways, ribbons and trophies. Or a kids’ hands-on boat-handling day or cookout. Let the dealership team create a series of special events.

Does it work? Maybe. One idea to keep our grandsons coming aboard was forming the Schultz Family Fishing Team. We had shirts and hats made, and entered our team in the King of the Beach Kingfish Tournament. We went to the captain’s meeting as a team the night before and fished together the next day. The kids were into it, as were Kay and I. It was a great two days with the boys and the boat, and although we didn’t win anything, it didn’t seem to matter.

As retailers compete with other activities in the recreational space, it’s important to reimagine relationships and develop new outreaches that will set the business on a course for sales and success.

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