The More Hunter Numbers Remain the Same,
The More They Actually Change
By Rob Southwick
President of Southwick Associates
If someone asked to picture the archetypical American hunter, the first thought that pops into many peoples’ minds is an image of the diehard sportsman — someone who lives and breathes for the outdoors and sets their vacation schedule around opening day of hunting season. They imagine a person who must obviously be a passionate, ultra-experienced sportsman who never fails to buy a hunting license or miss a day in the stand/blind as long as they don’t have work or other obligations. In truth, imagining is a large part of what they’d be doing.
While countless marketing campaigns are built around selling products to hunters who hit the woods season after season (and need the gear to carry them the distance), and a large number of game department resources are spent on attracting, teaching and, ultimately, building new hunters that will grow into the next dedicated outdoorsman, the fact is this image of the steadfast American hunter is in large part a myth. The typical hunter is really a part-timer! In fact, a study of 10 years’ worth of license purchasing habits and other data from 12 states found only 13 percent of hunters purchased a license in each of the last 10 years.
This study — conducted by Southwick Associates on behalf of NSSF and funded through a Multistate Conservation Grant from the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies — discovered in any given year as many as 22 percent of all hunters fail to purchase a resident hunting license. In fact, the “typical” hunter actually only buys a license 2.8 out of 5 years. That’s a fairly big step back from the image of the “typical” hunter hitting the woods each and every season, which is why businesses and agencies serving hunting sportsmen and women need to understand the real story behind hunter numbers.
The “Churn” Factor
How do the above findings make sense when the annual number of people hunting has remained fairly steady at around 14 million since 2004? The phenomenon is called “churn,” and hunters (as well as anglers, according to our research) do quite a bit of it. Churn is when people drop in and out of an activity year to year, and there can be quite a number of reasons behind this. While hunter numbers remain fairly constant overall, the data suggests nearly a quarter of all participants drop out each year — which means about the same number of new participants is stepping in to take their place. Some of these are new hunters, while many will drop out for a year or two and then return. Wildlife agencies and marketers might see this as frustrating, but it also represents an amazing opportunity for them.
Up until recently, efforts by state agencies to build and retain hunters largely focused on developing introductory programs (typically held over the course of a weekend or even in a single day) to show would-be sportsmen and women how to do a certain activity. These so-called “one and done” programs would ideally teach the essential skills to interested people — who would then conceivably go out and become regular hunters. But what if greater attention was paid to keeping our current hunters active? If half of this year’s hunters that would normally drop out could be encouraged to return next year, we’d see an 11 percent jump in participation and sales. Fortunately, more and more state wildlife agencies have focused their efforts to retain current hunters. We need to support them. To understand how, let’s take a closer look into the churn issue.
Who’s Buying? Who isn’t?
To identify which sportsmen and women are sliding in and out of the hunting ranks, the above-mentioned study needed to examine both the demographics of the hunters that dropped out, as well as identify key reasons why they did so. With assistance from Responsive Management, another outdoor-focused consulting firm, we were able to talk directly with new and regular hunters to learn more.
Young Hunters: Younger hunters are less likely to renew their licenses. While 22 percent of overall hunters are less likely to buy a resident license in subsequent years, that number jumps 11 percent to 33 percent of 18–24 year olds who will not renew the following year. Younger hunters, besides often having less disposable income, also have a lot of activities — school, work, sports, non-hunting friends — that vie for their time. They’re also more likely to test a wider range of new activities: If they hunt in one year, they’re more likely to try a new activity the next year. Considering the importance of socializing among this age group, we must strive to incorporate social media into daily hunting activities and to market hunting’s social opportunities and benefits to these younger hunters.
Women Hunters: While the number of female hunters has grown remarkably overall in recent years, they’re also more likely to lapse in buying a license than their male counterparts. Twenty-five percent of men won’t renew their license this year, which is eclipsed by the 37 percent of women who won’t. Finding out why women are not as satisfied with hunting to encourage repeat visits is important — as is then implementing solutions to better serve women hunters.
Rural Hunters: Hunters living in rural areas are more likely to renew a license each year versus hunters from suburban and urban communities. This isn’t surprising, considering there’s greater access and social support for hunting in rural areas. The need here is to help suburban and urban hunters find reasonably convenient and affordable hunting access, and to keep them tied into the hunting culture in the off-season before they commit to non-hunting activities in the fall with their non-hunting friends. Regular year-round communications that encourage hunting and the establishment of urban and suburban hunting social networks is one way to approach this problem.
Facing The Challenge
The challenge is to not only recruit new hunters, but to also recognize a large majority of them do not purchase a license every year. While creating new hunters is perhaps the greatest long-term challenge to building hunting participation, keeping hunters active is no less important. So, the focus should be on identifying various segments of hunters and finding out what motivates them to not only join the hunting ranks, but to return to the stand or blind year after year — this will be critical to sustain hunting participation. More participation translates into a number of benefits: additional revenues needed to support conservation, an increase in product sales and the growth of a pro-hunting voting bloc that will fight back against anti-hunting (and anti-gun) legislation.