Fed data: Retail is backbone of outdoor recreation economy


While the major takeaway from last week’s federal report on outdoor recreation economy data was retweeted with vigor, it’s hard to blame folks for not going much deeper than "Outdoor Recreation accounts for $373 billion and 2% of the economy.”  It's a killer talking point.

But like a dive bar martini,  the Federal Bureau of Economic Analysis “Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account” report was big, dry and a little disappointing. Maybe even a little watered down. Tough to tell.

The BEA data is officially a draft, of course, and describes itself as “experimental data.” Yet while the feds are open to changes in the packaging and arrangement of the outdoor recreation data before the official release next fall, the hard numbers are likely to remain. 

For Outdoorists, the report’s biggest letdown was that the overall economic impact number for the outdoor rec economy was quite a bit smaller than previous private-sector estimates. Like, a lot smaller.  As recent as last year, industry voices were pinning the outdoor economy at $877 billion. Reasons given for the discrepancy between that and the BEA number began with the difference between gross and net -- ie, since industry numbers don't have access to other categories, they can't cull out redundancies and determine a net or "value added" figure. And the feds' figures for gross output in outdoor recreation are a lot closer ($674 billion).  An interesting point was also made that the Feds didn't include direct expenses from close-to-home outdoor recreation (50 miles or less) in their count, which counts for something.

The second big question mark — at least for those rooting for the biggest single number reflecting the impact of outdoor recreation — was that the tent set up by the BEA data was perhaps a bit too big and wobbly, wrapping its arms around everything from mountaineering and music festivals to water polo and amusement parks. 

For example, in the report's summary of Gross Output by Activity, there are some hefty chunks that stray well off trail from conventional outdoor pursuits. Stuff like "Trips and Travel" costs that include airfare and gasoline receipts for your spring trip to Moab (34% of total gross output); “Other Recreation Activities” including anything done outside from tennis and lacrosse to photography or a day at Six Flags (22%); and "Motorized Vehicles,” a broad swath that covers RVs, motorcycles, ATVs and other brapp-brappppers (9% of gross output). 

That said ... the good news is that the "big number” simply had to come down, as previous estimates were regarded by most sober viewers as optimistic at best, and pretty squishy at worst.  While the BEA report arguably has includes too much detail at this stage of the process, it's certainly far better than having too little info. The big goal here, after all, is to identify and strengthen an industry based on outdoor recreation, with the foundation of legitimate and trusted numbers that we can all stand on.  

Best of all,  when you take a deeper look at the detailed numbers in the BEA report, the takeaways are both compelling  ... and revealing.

Takeaway #1:  Retail is the backbone of the Outdoor Recreation Economy

If you're somebody who likes being able to cite stats about the "power of the outdoor industry," then it's time for you to wrap your arms around retail and give it a big hug. 

The BEA breaks out data for both compensation and employment by industry, and the clear winner in both areas is retail, accounting for almost a third of all jobs in the Outdoor Recreation Economy as well as more than $41 billion in total annual compensation. The retail category in the Outdoor Recreation Economy also shows significant and measurable growth from 2012 to 2016, moving up 3.2% in total jobs and 10% in overall compensation.

The only sector that comes close in the jobs and compensation tables is the grab bag of “Arts, Entertainment, Recreation, Accommodation and Food Services," of which the individual pieces don’t come within a whiff of retail.

Takeaway #2:  Go easy when you compare Outdoor to Oil & Gas

My spider sense starts tingling every time I see a piece that cites outdoor recreation as being “larger” than extractive industries in the GDP.


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.


The third way: could Outdoor emerge as an independent political platform?


On Wednesday in Denver, one day ahead of the Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show, the first-ever Americas Outdoor Recreation Confluence will draw eight delegations from Vermont to Oregon for a day that’s all about establishing common ground. 

Driven by the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, the Confluence is an invite-only event designed to gather all states with an up-and-running outdoor industry initiative at the State level.  
From the perspective of an attending delegate -- it’s awesome, needed and certainly welcome. States like Vermont have a ton to gain from attendance, ranging from simply reinforcing their position at the leading edge of the Outdoor movement to identifying best practices and serving up some on-the-job training for coalition members who are policy first-timers. 

From the broader perspective -- I know what you're thinking --  an Outdoor gathering with the goal of finding common ground doesn't exactly sound like a headline. Even a rook knows that Outdoor is plenty good at agreeing with Outdoor.  But this Colorado Confluence feels different.  Not just because of organization, energy and concept. But because of the timing. 

Imagine the same event being held anytime in the last 25 years, and you’ll conjure up a picture of a far different rodeo.  Interesting and informative, sure, but absent of the undeniable national context.  Like sticking your hand in a cold April river, it’s physically impossible not to feel the energy. We’re all leaning in.  

Now for the next metaphor. On any given day, it would be super easy to notice a crowd climbing a ridgeline with their heads down into the wind.  Even at a distance, you could probably figure out a general idea of where they’re headed (“up”), but you’d be guessing wildly to really know what each individual is actually thinking. 

Welcome to Outdoor, a truly varied group of interests and individuals. Capitalists and hippies, for-profit and for-fun, do-gooders and climb-highers, fishermen and fat bikers, morning break surfers and lunch break walkers, trail runners and trad climbers, van lifers and RV retirees. Lots of people. Lots of differences.  And lots of challenges for anyone trying to build a conveniently tidy list of where Outdoor stands on every single issue.  

On the other hand, if you narrow the scope down just a little bit -- and center it around the group’s deep personal and professional ties to the Outdoor world --  there’s a pretty happy crowd inside a pretty big tent.

Imagine the same event being held anytime in the last 25 years, and you’ll conjure up a picture of a far different rodeo. Interesting and informative, sure, but absent of the undeniable national context. Like sticking your hand in a cold April river, it’s physically impossible not to feel the energy. We’re all leaning in.

And there lies the rub.  Fact one:  There’s not much agreement out there these days, other than agreeing that the stakes seem to get higher every time you wake up and turn on the news.  Fact two:  within arm’s reach of Outdoor, there’s a lot of people, a lot of agreement and a lot of leaning in going on.  Broad is beautiful.

So say you were thinking about building something a bit more solid for Outdoor to stand on.  Wrapping your head around the simultaneous outdoor shows going on this week (OR + Snow Show in Denver, SHOT in Vegas) you might start with a cup or two of Outdoor’s economic impact-- you know, big picture talking points like “Outdoor is manufacturing. Outdoor is trade. Outdoor is jobs. Outdoor is retail. Outdoor is innovation and entrepreneurship.”

You’d of course want to make sure to have a heaping helping of stewardship in the mix -- a historically strong commitment of both Outdoor businesses and participants  …  “Outdoor is blue sky. Outdoor is clear water. Outdoor is our greatest natural treasures, as well as the town path built by volunteers. Outdoor is protection when we can, and adaptation when we must.”

Although it’s frequently baked into the final results, you’d be remiss not to connect the dots with public health (“Outdoor is inspiration. Outdoor is participation. Outdoor is access for all”).  And, don’t forget a tasty topping of Unity (“Outdoor is not a Democratic issue.  Outdoor is not a Republican issue. Outdoor is not bipartisan -- Outdoor is non-partisan).

Admittedly, those are soft targets.  To really hone in on the idea, you’d want to get more specific, and to do that you’d be wise to enlist some experts -- people from around the country who are on the front lines of the Outdoor Rec movement, people who’ve rolled up their sleeves to think about this stuff and how it relates to local issues for years -- and see what they have to say. Where do they stand firm? Where do they wobble?  Where do they differ … but mainly, where do they agree?  You might even gather those experts in a central location, a day ahead of a huge Outdoor industry and Outdoor community gathering. 

The idea of a unifying, independent, non-partisan Outdoor platform might be a fantasy, sure. But not the deposed-princess-with-platinum-hair-on-a-flying-dragon kind.  It's more of the maybe-I’ll-quit-my-job-and-move-to-Jackson kind:  a recurring daydream that’s rooted enough in reality that there’s something worth paying attention to in there.