It's understandable — particularly in the light of current land battles throughout the country -- that many want to put a sharper point on things by comparing the two. But if you're going to use the data, you need to know the data.
The BEA report shows that Outdoor –- like just about every other economic sector counted in the GDP –- leans heavily on fossil fuels and the machines that love them. When you look at the "value added" breakdown of Outdoor, the biggest numbers (other than Retail and the Arts grab bag mentioned above) are manufacturing ($51 billion) and transportation/warehousing ($35 billion). Within those two, line items for oil and gas stuff are abundant, ranging from motor vehicles, petroleum and coal products, chemical products, air transportation, rail transportation, water transportation, truck transportation, transit and ground passenger transportation and so on.
The current report doesn't split out the "value added" industry categories by each recreational activity, so you can't easily hone in on how much the canoeing economic impact, for example, relies on "chemical products." Or, probably more relevant, how much of the "petroleum and coal" line item is attributable to RVs and ATVs.
Takeaway #3: Human powered recreation is growing. Motorsports aren’t
As a guy who's been treading the aisles of Outdoor Retailer since dinosaurs roamed the earth, it's hard for me not to narrow down the definition of Outdoor in the BEA data to look more like the aisles of the Colorado Convention Center. To achieve that, the first thing is to remove some big soft targets from the big activity list -- like motorized vehicles, concerts, field sports, country club games and non-hunting shooting -- leaving behind a fairly familiar space occupied by bicycling, canoeing/kayaking, camping/climbing/hiking, skiing, snowboarding, hunt, and “other conventional activities” which includes stuff like running and standup paddleboarding. Plus, of course, multi-use apparel and accessories for those pursuits.
Numbers for these core outdoor pursuits are generally pretty happy ... showing 18% growth since 2012 and a total of $125 billion in gross output. If you add in "Fishing and Boating" (which the report doesn’t split apart), the numbers bump up even more to 23.8% growth since 2012 and $160 billion in total gross output.
In contrast, one of the few downward trends in the activity report is in "Motorized Vehicles," with overall gross output for the group sagging by 4.5% since 2014. The line item for snowmobiles and ATVs ("Other Motorized Vehicles") is likely the culprit, trending downward by 16% since 2012.
Takeaway #4: Outdoor needs a new equation
in the late 1990s, the outdoor industry was all about participation stats, talking about how often people went outside, how frequently they booted up and hit the trail and how many Americans made the outdoor experience part of their everyday lives.
Since then, economic impact has ascended as the big data in the room, primarily because it’s a metric that policy makers seem to understand. But likely also because broad economic impact stats are a way to include the wide economic girth of outdoor "lifestyle” products and pursuits that don't have a natural home in participation stats.
I found it interesting that one item that doesn't seem to be broken out in the BEA data are the dot-orgs ... the national and regional advocacy groups that are both employers and leaders when it comes to getting people off their couch and engaged in meaningful outdoor work. Is there another industry measured in GDP in which people use vacation days to volunteer? One that prompts people to surrender precious free time to roll up their sleeves and move rocks?
At the end of the day, the aggregate total of $337 billion for Outdoor Recreation is damn good. And there are plenty of breakout categories with numerous positive trends and bight spots.
But is there a better way to reflect the true impact of outdoor recreation? Money + time + health + happiness? Or users/population x voters (and campaign contributions)?
Thanks to the feds, all the data is now out there. The outdoor industry just needs to pull it together.