Sunday, January 25, 2009

What Have We Done To Our Game? Part Five

It’s a New Year & A New Day for Paintball

Thanks for sticking with me for this past few weeks. Starting has taken every waking minute (and many minutes I should have been sleeping). As I write this fifth part I’m still amazed at the response across the board. From players to field owners and people that have been in the industry for years, the overwhelming majority of people that have responded directly to me or in the various forums of the paintball world agree that it’s time to change the old thinking in our game.

In each of the past four parts of this series I focused on one major topic that I believed to be hindering the game. In this final part I’m going to touch on a bunch of possibly smaller issues, and then I’m going to wrap this series up with some ideas and some challenges. Let’s get started.

Skateboarding in NOT a Crime

Admittedly the “Skateboarding is NOT a Crime” campaign of the 1990s seemed like a lame attempt to market skateboarding nationally, but it worked. Paintball had its own version of this when Skirmish began the “Paintball: The Fastest Growing Sport in America” campaign in the late 1980s. That slogan was picked up by stores, fields, manufacturers, distributors and eventually the mainstream media, who bought into it hook, line and sinker. A few years ago Darrin Johnson, a field owner in Wisconsin, came up with the idea to have a “World Paintball Day” in honor of the first game played in 1981. It was a great idea, but again, not picked up or supported by the industry. So why has the industry not adopted a national-level marketing campaign in the past 20 years? Because “the industry” can’t agree if the sun is shining or not—and despite efforts by the IPPA in the 80s and the PSTA in the 2000s, the term “industry cooperation” remains an oxymoron.

Support for the Fields and Stores

As a former paintball field and store owner, I can tell you with absolute certainty that the industry does very little to support paintball stores and fields. Markups for paintball retailers are ridiculously low. I don’t know of any other industry where a small retailer (not Wal-Mart that makes money on volume) can sell a $150 product and make a profit of $15 or less. And to add insult to injury the reward is some manufacturers will sell directly to the public so you have to compete with your own supplier if you own a store. Nice business practice.

Our Next Scenario Game is June 14th, 2007

Okay field owners, time for some of you to get your act together too. Every month someone that works at the magazine is responsible for updating our Calendar of Events in the magazine and website. And every month that someone sends me 25 links to paintball field websites that have dates two, three, or four years old in their “Upcoming Events” section. How can you expect a customer to feel confident that you will run a great day of paintball games when you don’t do something as simple as updating your website. I understand you’re busy. But if you’re too busy to cut and paste a few dates into your website, then take down the events link. The bigger picture is many fields owners need to change the way they see their businesses. If you’re too busy working your “real” job to make paintball your “real” job, it’s time to change or get out. Paintball doesn’t need fields that are run like second businesses. The culture of how to run paintball fields needs to change.

Poor Startup = Quick End

The first time I played paintball I was already thinking about trying to open a paintball field. I did the math. There were 100-plus people playing that day and each of them were spending $50-plus. The quick math said the field was taking in $5,000 or more every weekend day and some weekdays and that was a lot of money 23 years ago. I know I’m not alone in this way of thinking. Over the years I have gotten hundreds of emails from people saying something like, “I played paintball last week for the first time and loved it! What do I need to know to open my own business?” I used to think the answer was you need to play for a few years, hang around paintball players a few years, and be ready to work really hard for not a lot of money. But that’s not entirely true. I think what is needed to open a paintball field the right way is a year’s worth of operating money, a good business plan, good knowledgeable help and guidance, the right type of tools and resources, and the dedication to work hard. Clearly many fields are missing most of these elements when they open. Garbage in, garbage out. If you think you can get away cheap you’ll just wind up working for very little money for a year or so and then you’ll throw in the towel like the 100 or so other field owners did in 2008.

By the way, I did eventually open up my paintball field and I did do what I just told you. It works.

I’ll Sell That to You and I’ll Throw In Five Million Paintballs for Free

The internet has changed buying and selling in every industry. It’s hard to justify going to the mall to buy a baseball cap at the “Cap Store” when I can go to Ebay and find 20 times the amount of colors, types, and styles to choose from—and usually they are cheaper. Online paintball retailers have taken that a step beyond and whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is debatable. If you’re bored sometime go to a few paintball stores and look at the marker prices, keeping in mind these stores are making very little profit on their items. Now look at that the same markers at a few online paintball stores and they’ll be pretty close in price. The difference is the online guy will usually throw in some goggles, a barrel cover, a squeegee, some paint and a C02 tank---and they’ll pick up the shipping. Great deal, right? It’s a great deal if you don’t mind pushing retail pro-shops to the curb. Write this down in your journal—if online distributors continue to sell everything at a five percent markup (because they can make their money in volume sales) in three years there will be only a handful of retail paintball stores in the U.S. I realize this is a slippery slope. In essence it looks like I’m asking distributors to raise prices so their competition can survive—and that’s not going to happen. Maybe what I’m hoping for is that manufacturers will see the benefit to keeping retail pro-shops around. And to do that they may have to level the playing field between online stores and walk-in pro-shops somehow.

Custom This & That

I was talking to Renick Miller, owner of Bad Boyz Toyz and the Badlandz a couple of years ago. We were talking about the many ways in which the game had changed from the 90s to the early 2000s. One thing Renick said stuck with me for a long time. He said, “We can’t take a $400 Autococker, carve it up, add some internal upgrades and sell it for $1,300 anymore. The days of making that kind of money are gone.” Those days are gone because you can now buy an electronic marker for under $100. You can buy a premium electronic marker for under $500. What’s left to customize? This is another huge reason pro-shops are going by the wayside. But in the end one of the big reasons players go to the local pro-shop is because of the culture. Paintball pro-shops are like the Elks Lodge of the 2000s. They are a place to go hang out with like-minded people—a place to live paintball. A place to get away from reality for a while. If I owned a paintball store I would do everything in my power to make walking through the door an experience that can’t be duplicated shopping online. People pay for experiences. Just ask anyone that’s been to Disney.

We’ve Reached Maturity

Chris Remuzzi mentioned in one of his “comments” to my first blog that the game of paintball “reached maturity” and that the growth we experienced in the 90s will probably never happen again. There’s no doubt in my mind that Chris is correct. So how about we try to keep the paintball players, also known as customers, we all have? We need to make the playing and shopping experience special. One marketing director at a large paintball manufacturer mentioned to me recently, “We need to bring new players to the game. There are just not enough people playing anymore. We’re (his company) spending a lot of money advertising non-endemic magazines to do that.” No disrespect to the author of that quote but bringing players to the game is not and never will be a problem. Keeping them is the problem. And all of the things we’re discussed here and all of the comments readers of this blog have left and all of the emails I have gotten have confirmed this problem. Instead of spending a bazillion dollars on advertising in other magazines with similar demographics, maybe companies should consider a program to teach and help small paintball business owners do things right.

The Parking Lot Pro Mentality

Okay, I stole that from Renick Miller. There’s a mentality brewing in the player base that has players believing that the only way to play the game is to make it faster, smaller, quicker, and more athletic. In Renick’s words, “There are far too many ‘17 year old parking lot pros’ that think the only way to play is uncapped semi-auto or ramping and have no idea just how amazing our game can be.” Paintball was “amazing” when everyone used Nelspots, or Phantoms, or 68 Specials, or Automags and Autocockers. It’s amazing now when everyone on the field is using Egos, Angels, and Shockers. But the common thinking is this is “the only” way to play the game. Need proof? The PSP just lowered their rates of fire to 10.5 balls per second outside of the Pro Division and other leagues are following suit. If you have 30 minutes take a look at the tournament forums in the various paintball forums—people are up in arms about it.

John’s Ten Step approach to Fixing the Game of Paintball

It’s really pretty simple. This blog series was more than 10,000 words—a small book. But in the end fixing what’s wrong with paintball won’t take much from any of us. No one entity is to blame and no one entity can fix the mess.

  1. The industry movers and shakers need to continue to realize that the game of tournament paintball is only a small percentage of the game’s players. The obsession with small fields, fast guns, red, yellow and blue jerseys, and television needs to stop. Does anyone make an airball bunker that a 300 pound player can stand behind? The woods game is seeing a resurgence. Please, please, please see that this is happening in spite of your negligence (and mine).
  2. The vast majority of paintball field owners need to reinvent themselves. Stop treating your businesses like second jobs and start looking at your business in the bigger picture. And if you’re not a paintball field owner yet, don’t do it if you think $20,000 is enough to get you started or if you believe you’ll make extra money quickly.
  3. The manufacturers and distributors also need to take some responsibility for the reasons field owners are commonly failing. Stop trying to make people think all they need to do is buy this “20 gun package” from you and they’re ready to go.
  4. Paintball store owners (and field owners), you can’t compete on price, so stop trying. Make the buying experience special, you’ll keep people coming back and buying at a price where you can make money. Offer things that the online guys can’t—things like a quick turn-around on repairs, rewards system for frequent buyers, extra warranty on guns purchased at your store, free field play with large purchases, etc. If you are a store owner and don’t own a field, network with field owners so you can offer the complete buying and playing experience. Customers will be much more loyal to you if they see you as a one-stop paintball experience.
  5. Serious players—the every weekend walk-on types need to take a part in this. “Revrend,” a poster on our forums at, has suggested players take their old gun, non-electronic hopper, old butt-pack and accessories and give the package to a friend and take them out to play, with the condition that if they like paintball enough to buy a gun that they do the same thing for someone else. What a great way to bring new players to the game and to introduce them to the game in a more fun environment. There’s a million ways to be an ambassador for the game of paintball, you just have to be committed to do it. This could bring 2, 3, 4, or 5 new people to the game and will create new customers for the stores and fields.
  6. The paintball media—and this means websites and magazines--also need to see and promote the diversity of the game. I understand that if you’re URL is you’re only going to focus on that side of the game, and that’s fine. But if you see your website or magazine as diverse, then be diverse. Let’s stop glorifying one side of the game and leaving the other side on the back pages. There was a time when media and industry were worried about our game’s “image” so we were all hesitant to put the guy with the camo Tippmann on the cover because we were tired of hearing the “war game” stigma held over us. Look where that got us. Cover the game the way it is played.
  7. Paintball fields need to separate player skill levels and equipment. If you only have ten players at your field and you can’t do that, figure it out. Either figure out a way to get rental players their own day or fields to play on or you will lose 90-percent of them quickly. Stop throwing new customers to the wolves. Challenge your regular walk-on players, the ones that show up every week, to lay down their Egos (the gun and the personality trait) and play occasionally with rental gear.
  8. Players—stop being the wolves.
  9. Internet “giants,” are you really happy making $5 on a goggle system or $12 on a gun? I know raising prices is not what players want to hear but if this doesn’t happen from the distributor, you as internet stores, and the store and field level, the game is doomed. One thing about a free economic system like we have in America—it doesn’t help self-destructive business owners. Maybe your internet store can be the first online store to be creative enough to offer something of a shopping experience like I talked about with the walk-in stores. Maybe building a community around your business will allow you to actually make a buck? Be creative. There are 25 of you doing the same thing.
  10. Can we all get along—even for a moment? Can we stop the ridiculous lawsuits? Can we have annual meetings within the industry that are productive? Can we have demographic numbers that are real so maybe we can bring in some outside money? Can we stop jumping at the latest this or that and focus on what’s important? Can we support companies, leagues, magazines, players and teams that are helping the game grow, not bleeding it dry… again?

I will take as much responsibility as anyone from where paintball is and the direction it took. I’ve been writing about paintball, promoting national tournaments and owning stores and fields for twenty years. I’m tired of this. I’m tired of hearing of another paintball manufacturer being bought for pennies on the dollar. I’m tired of magazines going out of business. I’m tired of good people losing jobs. I’m tired of seeing the numbers drop. Will you join me? Will you do your part?

Thanks for reading this series. In the next month or so you’ll be hearing more about what I’ll be doing to hold up my end of the bargain. Until then, I appreciate all of the comments, feedback and even criticisms of this series. A good in-depth dialog is a great start.

Parting Shot

Can we stop referring to the great game of paintball as “the sport”? if you’re talking about the PSP, CFOA, or some other tournament league it is a sport. But it’s not a sport if you’re dressed in camos, crawling through underbrush trying to get that one good shot with your Phantom pump. To me this typifies the problem—we think we’re something we are not.

John Amodea