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Boys’ Club

Where are the younger, more diverse boat buyers?
A broader swath of buyers can help level the playing field for dealers.

A broader swath of buyers can help level the playing field for dealers.

Dedicated core boat owners are a group that is 91 percent white and 90 percent male, says Jack Ellis, managing director for Info-Link Technologies. In fact, boat owners are more likely to be white males than they are to be parents, despite the fact that 80 percent of them have children.

And the average age of boaters is 58, having leveled off after years of increasing about six months year-over-year, possibly because the same people who bought boats in their 30s kept buying them into their 60s and 70s. “In the last three or four years, it came screaming to a halt,” Ellis says. “Is that because this trend has stopped and we are attracting more young people, or are we losing people because, how long can that average go up?”

Info-Link’s data also show that women have made few inroads into the male- dominated sport. Two decades ago, only 11 percent of primary boat registrants were women; the percentage is just 13 now.

Today’s first-time boat buyers, however, do tend to be younger, bringing overall averages down. And among that group, diversity is somewhat better: 84 percent white, 12 percent Hispanic and 3 percent African American, Ellis says. “I don’t know whether to credit that to National Marine Manufacturers Association and Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation’s efforts, or just demographics, but it’s a good thing,” he says.

Stacy Greenwood, owner and general manager of Cleveland Boat Center in Tennessee, says the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas has done good work to attract new boaters, but the process has moved too slowly. “We need more people to get into it because we’re all fighting very hard for the same customer,” Greenwood says, adding that the dwindling middle class has been a pain point at her business.

Only 13 percent of primary boat registrants are women.

Only 13 percent of primary boat registrants are women.

Eric Smith of Colorado Boating Center says that a couple of years ago, he saw an uptick of younger buyers, but it has dropped off. “The bulk of our buyers in the last fiscal year have been 45 and up, which is concerning,” he says. “With some of these potential younger buyers, there’s a larger debt load. There’s an apprehension to tying themselves into 12- to 20- or 30-year loans on a product when they may have just gotten their first house. It’s not that they don’t want to boat; I think it’s the economic barrier.”

MarineMax chief revenue officer and executive vice president Chuck Cashman says the industry has to prepare for changing demographics. “We’re running out of 55-year-old white males,” he says. “This new wave of buyers is coming. The older millennials are going to start reaching their 40s, earning some money, and will be right in their prime.”

Cashman points to the list of Fortune 500 companies 50 years ago as an example of why things must change among marine businesses. “These were proud, proud companies,” Cashman says. “They ran businesses well, created wealth and were parts of your life. They’re all gone. I think companies that don’t prepare for the future are going to be swallowed up by it.” 

This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue.

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