This week I have been reading The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. As Anderson explains at his website...
The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of "hits" (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail. As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly-target goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare.
One example of this is the theory's prediction that demand for products not available in traditional bricks and mortar stores is potentially as big as for those that are. But the same is true for video not available on broadcast TV on any given day, and songs not played on radio. In other words, the potential aggregate size of the many small markets in goods that don't individually sell well enough for traditional retail and broadcast distribution may someday rival that of the existing large market in goods that do cross that economic bar.
For example, 25% of Amazon's sales are of products not available in offline retail stores and an astonishing 40% of Rhapsody's music sales are also of tracks not available in a typical record store.
Then it struck me that we see a similar phenomenon in the popularity of sailboat classes. Just look at the table on the Yachts and Yachting website of attendances at UK National Championships. At the top of the list are the "hits", the classes that turn out over 100 boats, Optimist, Topper, Laser Radial, Mirror, Enterprise and Firefly. But there is a huge long tail of over 200 classes down to such "niche" boats that I'd never even heard of before such as Pandora, St. Mawes One Design and Swordfish. And these are just the classes that bother to organize national championships. There are probably hundreds of smaller classes that never even make it on to this table.
So it seems that a surprisingly high percentage of sailors are not sailing the "hits" - the Lasers and Enterprises and Mirrors and so on. They are enthusiastically sailing in obscure niche classes and some of them are getting together and racing them in small fleets.
Of course the economic and social factors driving this must be very different from the ones that Anderson discusses in his book for such markets as online sales of books, digital music and video rentals. The classic "long tail" market is driven by near zero marginal costs of production, distribution and inventory which make it profitable for vendors to offer huge number of products that individually only sell in small numbers but collectively are significant parts of their businesses.
What is it that keeps the small sailboat classes alive and thriving (sort of)?
Part of it is geographical of course. Many of these smaller classes are confined to one country or one region in one country. They never achieve the world-wide distribution of the larger classes. No World Championships for these guys -- though they could organize an Intergalactic Championship. Presumably at least one local boat builder is finding it just profitable enough to build boats in the niche class. Or perhaps sometimes they are home built?
Another factor is that I am really comparing apples and oranges. Anderson's book is about current sales of products whereas the Y&Y regatta attendance table is about current usage of boats that may have been manufactured years ago. With loving care such boats will last decades and so the regatta attendance table may not be a reliable guide to the pattern of current sales of racing sailboats.
And then there is the "cult" factor. Niche boats have their wildly enthusiastic fans just as much as obscure garage bands do. Talk to an owner of a niche class sailboat and he will be rabid in his fervor and will explain why his particular class is far superior to any other. This can be expressed in negative as well as positive ways. The "why I hate Lasers" posts on forums and blogs are just as intense and fierce as some of the vitriol heaped on Britney Spears or Michael Jackson.
Yikes. I can't believe I really wrote that. I compared my pride and joy, my Laser, to two slimy, seedy, over-exposed, mass-market pop stars. Is that really how you Laser-haters see us Laser sailors?