The Outdoor Industry's Estimated GDP Contribution Gets a Big Bump

The Outdoor Industry Association tacks on another $200 billion in direct consumer spending to their 2012 estimate, but we won't get the official number until 2018

The Capitol Building and Reflecting Pool in Washington D.C. America, illuminated at night. (davidevison/iStock)
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On Tuesday, the Outdoor Industry Association made a bold announcement: according to research done by the trade association, outdoor recreation now contributes $887 billion in direct consumer spending to the U.S. economy every year—$200 billion more than the industry’s initial estimate. The new report bumps up several other numbers, too, estimating that outdoor rec generates 7.6 million jobs (up from 6.1 million) and $120.2 billion in tax revenue (up from $79.6 billion).

The findings were an update to OIA’s 2012 Outdoor Recreation Economy report, which estimated the industry's GDP contribution at an oft-quoted $646 billion—a number determined primarily by surveys commissioned by OIA. Most organizations have taken that number at face value, but it's always been unclear how much of the $646 billion is guesswork. That's what made last December's passage of the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act so monumental. (It's worth noting that the OIA's report was partly responsible for getting it passed.) The REC Act authorized the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis—federal economists whose job it is to evaluate the economic contributions of other industries—to officially assess the contribution of outdoor recreation to the nation’s GDP. When those findings come out by the end of 2018, they will set the benchmark by which the outdoor industry's contribution is judged.

So the question is: How much stock should we put into the OIA's new report with its $887 billion? Remember that it's in that organization's interest to put a big number on the impact of outdoor recreation. The 2018 GDP report authorized by the REC Act will be a far more authoritative number—it will be determined by the same economists who calculate the country's GDP, so they'll have access to the most reliable information.

OIA derived the $887 billion in about the same way as the $646 billion: through surveys. The new report is based on a lot more data, though: the 2017 findings collected 70 percent more responses than the 2012 ones. The report now includes results from all 435 U.S. congressional districts, in addition to national, regional, and state contributions, as opposed to jut regional and national estimates in 2012. It also includes activities that were left out of the 2012 report, including surfing, mountaineering, horseback riding, skateboarding, and sailing. The official GDP report, when it's released to the public by the end of 2018, may not include all of the same activities, so their findings could consequently vary.

“It’s quite common for organizations to restate data as more new information is released,” says Matt Powell, sports industry analyst at the NPD Group. “I don’t see this update as a big deal. I think this shows OIA’s commitment to accuracy and transparency.”

Regardless of how the final numbers shake out, the outdoor industry is a massive economic force and politicians are taking notice. This week, 130 outdoor brand executives and advocates will be joining OIA for the Capitol Summit in Washington, D.C., to lobby on behalf of policy issues like public lands, climate change, and international trade. It’s the largest outdoor recreation lobbying event to date, according to OIA. “OIA’s Outdoor Recreation Economy report continues to be a significant assessment of the value of outdoor recreation, not just for our health and enjoyment, but for the health of the United States Economy,” says Amy Roberts, executive director of OIA. “Our 2012 report helped us become a real player in national policy conversations and I expect that the 2017 report will continue to be revered as the gold standard of economic analysis of the outdoor recreation sector.”

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