Totally A Wake

By Brian Giebel

Cutting toward the wake, you pick up speed. One moment you're floating, the next you're flying. A soft landing and a boat-full of cheering friends welcome you to boating's equivalent of snowboarding. Wakeboarding is the sport of big wakes, big bucks, and big changes.

For more than a decade, wakeboarding has been one of the fastest growing sports in the world. Athletes and wannabe's of all ages try wakeboarding, and embrace it for the undeniable exhilaration and unique feelings. For some, it's the adrenaline-boosting speed.

Maybe it's the cool mix of water and a summer breeze. It could be the simple thrill of rebelling against gravity, finding that elusive, weightless space between sinking and soaring. Whatever the attraction, the sport's popularity is soaring. Wakeboarding camps and parks are spreading around the world. Spin-off sports such as wakeskating (wakeboarding without bindings) and wakesurfing are also growing fast, and wake-based watersports competitions appear on the cable network FuelTV and are included in the XGames.

Pioneering pro Shaun Murray started when he was 11. 'It was like no other feeling, he said. Anyone who's tried wakeboarding probably agrees. Murray has been at it for over 20 years, traveled around the world competing, and has seen his sport go from obscure to extreme to mainstream.

As celebrities such as comedian Stephen Colbert, and actors Milo Ventimiglia and Hayden Panettieri make the sport more and more hip, wakeboarding's ambassadors and top athletes, such as Murray, Scott Byerly, Jeff Weatherall, Dallas Friday, and Andrea Fountain, are becoming break-out stars in the general sports media — a phenomena in boating.

Wakeboarding's surging popularity has had a tremendous impact on the powerboating industry. Designs, sales, accessories, and styling have shifted to accommodate and promote the sport that is significantly more popular than waterskiing. Water Sports Industry Association Executive Director Larry Meddock said, 'Wakeboarding is by far the more dominant watersports activity. According to Meddock, wakeboarding revenues, including sales of everything from boats to sport-specific accessories, are now four times greater than those of waterskiing.

The sport is so popular, and its influence so pervasive, that new companies such as Epic Wakeboats were established to build wakeboarding boats, or 'wakeboats, exclusively; at least 20 boat brands now include wakeboats in their fleets. They are inboards, outboards, stern drives, jet boats, and even modified jet skis.

Let The Games Begin

After 1996, when the XGames introduced wakeboarding to television audiences, manufacturers introduced new wakeboarding-influenced boat designs annually. Demand and sales grew steadily. Correct Craft CEO Bill Yeargin said; 'It was around the year 2000 when wakeboard boat sales started to eclipse the ski-boat sales for their Nautique brand. Like MasterCraft, Nautique established its brand with near wakeless boats built specifically for waterskiing. Both are now industry leaders in wakeboarding. According to representatives of both companies, wakeboats now account for more than 60 percent of their sales. 'Those sales numbers are probably closer to 70 or 80 percent, Meddock said.

Dedicated wakeboats are typically equipped with both a tower and onboard ballast bags that can be filled automatically with water to increase weight by up to 4,000 pounds in some models, and make a bigger wake. Other than anchor-shaking, ballast-boosted swells, a wakeboat's most distinguishing feature is its tower, the sturdy, roll-bar-inspired steel arch that spans the boat's beam. It first appeared on boats in the late 1990s, developed and patented by Nautique.

'All boat manufacturers are marketing something with a tower on it, Meddock said. The sport is so popular with kids and adults today, even brands not primarily identified with towing athletes are obligated to offer options packages for wakeboarding. Extended swim platforms, towers, and other fittings are now offered throughout the powerboating industry. Sea Ray, Bayliner, and Regal, for example, all sell some wakeboarding options. Four Winns includes towers or tower-inspired 'arches on boats up to 30 feet. 'For three or four years, all our boats have been built with the structural integrity to add a tower, said Rick Fulmer, vice-president of marketing for Four Winns.

The tower provides a high point for rope attachment to make wakeboarding easier and safer. It increases leverage and helps wakeboarders soar off the wake and land softly. By keeping the tow rope out of the water and lifting and pulling simultaneously, towers actually enhance the safety and enjoyment of skiing, wakeboarding, and tubing.

But towers aren't just for the kids and athletes. They're also a new place to add storage and accessories. Manufacturers and aftermarket companies routinely mount high-performance speakers, lights, and video cameras across the top, while wakeboard racks fan out from the sides like wings. By giving boaters more space for electronics and luxury technologies, dealers can increase prices and profitability.

Tricked-Out For Doing Tricks

In 2009, luxury brand Cobalt also added wakeboats to their inventory. 'Remember when GM used to sell Suburbans without bucket seats and video screens and all the aftermarket companies were adding them? Cobalt's vice-president of marketing, Gavin Hunt, said, explaining why the company paid attention to wakeboarding. 'When we saw towers and speakers being added in the aftermarket, we did what they [GM] did, and started offering it to our customers directly.

Luxury wakeboats such as MasterCraft's 28-foot X80 retail for up to $170,000. The stereos alone can cost $15,000, including intercoms and four tower-mounted speakers. With those kinds of numbers it's not surprising that sales revenues for wakeboarding equipment, ranging from boats to tow ropes, grew so quickly. According to Meddock, gross revenues grew 39 percent from 2004 to 2006, and 20 percent from 2006 to 2008.

Future sales can't be predicted based on history, especially in this economy. Wakeboard-related revenues fell in 2009 along with sales throughout the boating industry. It's possible that the sport's rapid rise and sales of wakeboarding boats and accessories may have peaked, but probably not. The sport's popularity and profitability was due partly to loose credit, television exposure, and home equity, growing in a freewheeling, free-spending era when consumers embraced all things 'extreme. Sports, snacks, drinks, and even deodorants wore the label proudly. When cable network 'Fuel TV was launched in 2003, extreme sports such as wakeboarding got exponentially more airtime, just as home prices soared. Flush with cash, shoppers eagerly fueled the growth of wakeboarding, and bought big boats with big wakes, boards, gear, and all the flashy accessories.

Observers and insiders have reason to believe wakeboarding will continue to influence boating, and feel positive about industry prospects. Sure, wakeboarding is extreme, but it‘s also a fun and relatively easy sport to enjoy with friends and family. Cobalt's Hunt agrees: 'For wakeboarding, boats only have to go 18 miles per hour instead of 35 for slalom skiing. Wakeboarding is easier to do and uses less fuel. Meddock suggested that the sport's social aspect will continue to increase popularity. 'The more people in the boat, the larger the wake, he said — a good thing for wakeboarding. All the added equipment, people, and accessories just make the wake better for launching athletes. 'People like to show off, Meddock added, 'and therefore it's a much more social activity than waterskiing. That's part of why it's so fun and successful.

Part of the positive outlook for the wakesports market, and wakeboats specifically, comes from the fact that the sport has room to grow, and future boat buyers embrace the sport every season. 'You can wakeboard behind anything, said Eric Williford, Epic Wakeboats' director of marketing. 'I wakeboarded behind a pontoon boat!

Kids don't need smooth water or an expensive boat to get into the game. Actually, cable tow parks are popping up throughout the country, allowing anyone to learn to wakeboard without even seeing a boat. They barely need water. Sometimes it's just a set of towers and cables pulling people around shallow puddles. Specialized schools and camps also offer kids more opportunities and bring more consumers to wakeboarding. Williford predicted, 'Those kids are going to buy wakeboats when they get some money.

'I think wakeboarding sales will continue to increase as more people get exposed to it, said Meddock. 'All the boat manufacturers are indicating increased sales activity in 2010.

The sport's influence and innovations appear to be here to stay. These days, modified tower designs are appearing on all types and sizes of recreational powerboats. Where a wakeboat might have board racks or speakers for example, other models have fishing-pole mounts, and an integrated bimini. But the innovations could reach far beyond options packages and styling. Epic Wakeboats introduced the industry's first electric hybrid sport boat last year, and recently unveiled an electric model that runs for 10 hours and can go 40 miles per hour. A big wake in exchange for zero emissions may be a good trade. Regardless, in today's powerboating world, extreme is mainstream. 

Writer Brian Giebel spends summers wakeboarding along the Adirondack Coast of Lake Champlain.

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