Play is big business in San Diego. Lucky for this city there’s plenty of places to play.

You can’t hit a golf ball in Greater San Diego without hitting a golf company.

TaylorMade-adidas Golf, Callaway and Cobra are headquartered in Carlsbad, and other equipment manufacturers dot the landscape. The area, with about 90 courses, is a top international destination for golfers.

A study estimated that golf-related activities in San Diego County, from manufacturing to tourism to tournaments, had a total direct and indirect economic impact of more than $3.7 billion in 2008, more than the legal services, aerospace, agriculture or software industries.

But if golf represents the conventional side of the sports economy, San Diego is even better known for action sports, a $14 billion industry.

After all, it was San Diego surfer Peter Parken, who in 1947 created the first modern skateboard by attaching rollerskate trucks to a wooden plank. And when author Tom Wolfe went looking for a 1960s counterculture to profile, he found the Pump House Gangsurfers at Windansea Beach in La Jolla.

Surfing, skateboarding, hang gliding, kiteboarding, bodyboarding, windsurfing, motocross, mountain biking, paddleboarding, BMX – San Diego’s confluence of sunshine, warm weather and the ocean put the city at the center of the country’s action sports industry. It’s even where the (online-only) Action Sports Hall of Fame is produced.

What most of the country regards as a break from work, some entrepreneurs see as an opportunity.Watch and accessories company Nixon got started when Chad DiNenna wanted a better timepiece to wear while surfing. Dave Felker founded Polara Golf to build a golf ball that won’t slice. Firewire Surfboards was started by a surfer who fell in love with a new surfboard design.

When that urge strikes, they often turn to San Diego Sports Innovators, a trade organization and incubator affiliated with CONNECT, the city’s uber-incubator. Basketball great Bill Walton is executive chairman of SDSI, whose board includes the inventor of the wakeboard and a former world champion surfer, as well as the usual lawyers, bankers and investors.

SDSI offers business mentoring, education, networking, direct investment and access to capital. Sports entrepreneurship generally doesn’t offer the enormous returns that biomedical and tech can, and not all investors are comfortable investing in new surfboard designs or sunglass lenses, said Executive Director Lisa Freedman. But, San Diego has had big successes, such as Nixon and sandal company Reef, which was bought by apparel giant VF in 2005.

“The culture of the sport and active lifestyle community is very conducive to the San Diego culture and community. It’s fairly laid-back and we’re not a buttoned-up group. When people arrive in ties at our events, it’s like, ‘You’d better take that off,’ because that’s not who we are,” she said.

The recession hurt spending on golf travel, equipment and club memberships. The California Association for Golf estimated the industry’s economy at $6.34 billion in 2011, down from $6.87 billion in 2006. The economic downturn also led to consolidations and bankruptcies in the action sports industry. The Action Sports Retailer trade show, a twice-yearly event in San Diego for more than two decades, was canceled in 2010.

Sports is recovering, Freedman said, adding that the lifestyle is too integral to San Diego to lose much impact. And as long as people crave the adrenalin rush of action sports, there will be entrepreneurs looking for new ways to supply it.



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