Although China’s outdoor sports market has been expanding rapidly in recent years, there is still a gap behind false prosperity. When the fever fades, where will the outdoor industry go?

In China’s outdoor sports industry, consumer purchases consist of two main components: outdoor sports services and outdoor products. Outdoor sports services can usually be divided into three categories. The providers of the first category are specialized outdoor sports clubs, which provide professional outdoor sports organization services. These outdoor sports have a high entry threshold and generally require a qualification certificate to perform. The second category is the outdoor travel products provided by travel platforms, which include outdoor sports in the travel itinerary as a product feature and mainly focus on outdoor leisure sports. The last category is the activities organized directly by communities of amateurs, where people can instantly engage in outdoor sports. Outdoor products are another major category of consumption in the outdoor sports industry, including outdoor sports clothing and equipment, which consumers purchase according to their conditions.

China’s outdoor sports goods market size has proliferated in recent years. It reached CNY 315 billion (USD 45.64 billion) in 2020 and is expected to reach CNY 599 billion in 2025, with a compound annual growth rate of 13.7%, according to Euromonitor data. According to data released by JD.com, vintage cycling clothing grew 700% year-on-year, and adult Frisbee grew 340% year-on-year. The consumption scene related to the outdoors is proliferating, more and more consumers are focusing on the life experience of returning to nature, and outdoor sports that break through the traditional sports scene are becoming popular.

Four main factors promote the development of the outdoor sports industry, which include outdoor sports meeting the social needs of young people, favorable policies, the unique nature of the post-epidemic era, and the marketing campaigns of social media and variety shows.

Participating in outdoor sports strengthens and expands people’s social circle and gives family and friends time to spend with each other. According to TopKlout, 91.2% of people often play outdoor sports in a group, while only 8.8% play alone. Outdoor sports can meet people’s social needs and fitness needs at the same time, thus forming a new popular trend.

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In terms of policy, the national and local governments have issued several approaches to encourage the vigorous development of outdoor sports and promote national fitness. The provincial government has also introduced related policies according to each city’s geographical environment and climate at the local level. 

Moreover, due to the unique nature of the post-epidemic era, most people cannot travel out of the country and be afraid of the risk of sealing control during domestic travel, so outdoor sports have become the best choice. Compared with formal tourism, outdoor sports are less costly and allow consumers to experience nature and escape the urban chaos for a while.

The online way for most people in China to get in touch with outdoor sports is through social media platforms. Outdoor brands are promoted through online KOLs, and some outdoor bloggers specialize in sharing outdoor sports experiences. In the mainstream social media platforms, there are three main types of content sharing for outdoor activities: outdoor sports combined with dressing tutorials, skill demonstrations and vlogs. The rich and creative content is eye-catching, making potential outdoor sports people feel a different experience. It also plays a role in planting outdoor products and promoting them to catch up with outdoor sports trends. Meanwhile, in recent years, variety shows such as “Camping Together” and “Super Fun Ski Conference” have brought different outdoor sports into the public’s view. Whether it is the bloodthirsty sports in the arena or the leisurely outdoor scenes in the peach blossom garden style, all of them are subconsciously awakening people’s yearning for nature and prompting them to take a break from their busy lives.

From the viewpoint of the audience of outdoor sports, different age groups have their preferences for outdoor sports, with a specific correlation with age group characteristics. According to TopKlout’s data, post-80s and post-85s are most inclined to fishing and Frisbee sports, while post-90s like surfing and snorkeling most. Post-95s love wild camping, and post-00s’favourite is skateboarding. Taking the two age endpoints of the statistical population as an example, middle-aged people are quiet and calm, so fishing, which may seem boring to outsiders, is one of the most popular outdoor sports among this age group. The most popular outdoor sport among post-00s is skateboarding, its entry threshold and cost are low, and there is no excessive requirement for the location. At the same time, the rebellious color of skateboarding itself is also a significant reason attracting the post-00s.

Based on the wide variety of outdoor sports, the related outdoor products can be divided into five categories: costumes, bags, professional equipment, accessories and personal care products. As the participation rate of outdoor sports in China is not high, most outdoor products are still mainly cost-effective and low-end.

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From the global outdoor pattern, it seems that overseas brands occupy the high-end position, and domestic brands are concentrated in the middle and low end. Therefore, in the future, domestic outdoor products will undoubtedly develop into mid and high-end brands, increase investment in research and development and transform into specialized products. In addition, given that different outdoor sports have their characteristics, consumer demand is subdivided and involves a wide range of categories, outdoor brands should also be subdivided and accurately target consumer demand. Finally, more and more women have entered the outdoor sports field in recent years. Ctrip data shows that female users participating in camping and hiking reached 51% in 2021. Female users are not only concerned about the functionality of outdoor products but also have high requirements for fashionable appearance and comfort. Outdoor brands can actively expand the female market and understand the consumption needs of female groups to make the gender ratio of target consumers more balanced.

Though more and more people have taken part in outdoor sports in recent years, the development of the entire outdoor industry in China is still in its infancy. According to data released by China Outdoor Alliance, as of 2019, there were about 130 million outdoor sports enthusiasts in China, while the number in the United States reached 154 million during the same period, with a participation rate of 50.7%.

Meanwhile, its entertainment attributes gradually reveal industry pain points in various types of marketing. Much marketing has brought in consumers who follow the trend, whose primary purpose of participating in outdoor sports is to take photos and sunbathe on social media platforms rather than doing this activity for an extended period. This has led to the fact that some organizers of niche sports do not have a way to stimulate consumption, leaving only a gap in the market after the fever has worn off. To seize the market among outdoor sports service providers with serious homogenization, many organizations are using follow-up photography as a marketing highlight, and entertainment attributes are gradually covering the sports attributes of outdoor sports. Also, many outdoor sports require specialized abilities and are more costly. Usually, only people with money and leisure can maintain their hobby for a long time.

In addition, the outdoor sports trend brought about by the epidemic may not be long-term. Due to the unique nature of the epidemic period, people’s travel costs have increased, and travel opportunities have plummeted, which has brought about the outdoor sports windfall. When the players on a whim return to their everyday lives, most will gradually give up outdoor sports, and the number of players who stay will instantly shrink. The false prosperity behind outdoor sports means that practitioners must spend much effort to maintain customer stickiness and expand the range of long-term consumers, which is crucial to maintaining the industry’s growth.