The Business and Cultural Implications of Surfing’s Demographic Shifts

Craig P. Sims, Danny O'Brien*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractResearchpeer-review


There is growing literature on the emergence of post-youth leisure lifestyles (Bennett & Hodkinson, 2020; Featherstone & Hepworth, 1991; Wheaton, 2019) and this emergence is altering the demographic composition of the sports that make up these lifestyle niches. Surfing has not been excluded.

This research, part of a larger study, sought to understand how demographic shifts in the sport of surfing will impact both surf culture and business. The study used a mixed methods approach comprising an online survey ( n = 1369) that investigated changes in age, gender, level of participation and media preferences among Australian surfers aged between 15 – 70 years. This was followed-up with semi-structured interviews (n = 17) that sought to unpack certain generational trends found in the quantitative data. The results, when analysed in conjunction with surfing demographic data from the Australian Sports Commission (AusPlay 2021, 2022), revealed interesting trends about the evolving composition of the Australian surfing population.

The findings showed a clear trend of an aging surfing demographic in Australia (AusPlay 2021, 2022; Sims et al., 2022). With peak surfing participation now in the 45-54 age category for men and in the 35-44 age category for women, surfing can no longer be positioned as a youth sport tied to youth culture. This finding has far-reaching commercial implications for surf industry producers who have traded off surfing’s youthful image for decades (Jarratt, 2010; Pearson, 1982; Ford & Brown, 2005). The phenomenon of an aging surf population is especially relevant in Australia because it is compounded by an aging general population (ABS, 2020).

While the survey and interview data revealed a gender split of approximately 80% Men: 20% Women, recent AusPlay data (2022) show a significant shift in the proportion of women’s surfing participation. The AusPlay report (2022) indicates the adult participation gender split is 72:28 (Men: Women); while for Under 15s, it is 54:46 (boys: girls), which suggests a much more gender-neutral future. Increasing women’s participation is a trend to watch because it could alter surfing’s male-dominated cultural norms (Ford & Brown, 2006; Shields, 2004). The mere presence of more women is likely to alter gender power relations in surfing as feminine interpretations of surfing’s social, operational and performative norms become inculcated into the sport’s subcultural melting pot.

The industry implications of these shifts can be profound. Since subculture is an always-evolving phenomenon that is negotiated daily by the people and contexts within it (Olive, 2016), media and brand representations of the subculture must align with the status quo, or risk being labelled inauthentic. Equally, there will be need for acknowledgment and atonement for past attitudes and conduct which, by contemporary standards, might be considered deplorable. With growing interest around aging populations and post-youth leisure lifestyles, this study on the cultural and commercial implications of surfing’s demographic shifts adds empirical insight to this burgeoning body of literature (Bennett & Hodkinson, 2020; Wheaton, 2019).
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - 29 Nov 2023
Event2023 SMAANZ Conference: Facing the Future – Academic Research Supporting Industry - University of Canberra, Canberra, Australia
Duration: 29 Nov 20231 Dec 2023


Conference2023 SMAANZ Conference
Abbreviated title2023 SMAANZ Conference
The 2023 SMAANZ Conference will be hosted by the University of Canberra and will be held in Canberra, Australia from 29 November - 1 December 2023. The conference chair is Stirling Sharpe.

Our vision for the SMAANZ conference is ambitious: focused on connecting the Academy with industry and government. We seek to unlock the potential of SMAANZ and the sport community to deliver a conference with an exhilarating and productive experience. Consequently, the theme for the conference is: Facing the Future – Academic Research Supporting Industry Practice. We believe this theme is extremely important and relevant as the various stakeholders in sport seek practical outcomes and solutions driven by evidence that allow us to face the future together.
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