Friday, January 14, 2011

A dying Sport?

As a paintball field owner, I have met and known lots of people who got into to tournament play. Almost all of them enjoyed it, at first anyway. Very, very few of them have ever stuck with it for any length of time. Almost all of them tell me the reason they quit playing competitive paintball is because they couldn't afford to shoot as much paint as they felt they needed to on an ongoing basis. If competitive paintball did not mandate huge volumes of paint, there would be far, far more people playing it.

So why aren't limited paint competitive tourneys/series more popular? I think it's because paintball is thought of as an extreme sport, so the highest level (and competitive players feel they are playing at a higher level than the rest of the genres), players feel they must play at the most extreme limits. Limited paint competitive play verses high volume competitive play are seen as being similar to flag football verses full contact/tackle football. It can be fun, but it's not for serious competitive players. Since a high percentage of competitive players are males in their teens and early twenties, they aren't going to play a "wimpy" form of paintball. For that reason, competitive paintball has very little chance of ever amounting to anything.

In recent years, as the industry has felt the need to pull out of sponsoring competitive play (or realized there is little fiscal value to support it), the game has become that much more expensive for many players who are now no longer subsidized by manufacturers and even most fields and stores. Competitive paintball, in its current formats will never regain its former levels, recession or not. The economics of the game (again, nothing to do with the recession) hinder the growth that is needed to make it a viable sport, in any commercial sense anyway. Long story, short...what those that play competitive paintball WANT to play and what they CAN AFFORD to play are two different things.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Moving on Up

I want to revisit or expand on a subject touched upon a few weeks ago in my A Step Between post (can be found here:

It’s been fairly widely accepted in our industry during the last few years that we must protect those trying paintball for the first time and provide a less extreme environment for them in hopes that they won’t get discouraged on their first visit and may actually decide to come back, hopefully again and again. I certainly share this view and feel that as an industry we are slowly making strides in that direction, although we still have a long way to go.

But I think there is a problem if we as an industry think this is enough. I constantly see people saying things like, “well a field needs to keep renters and gear owners apart so that the renters don’t get overshot”. Again, I don’t disagree that this is a bad idea, but I also don’t believe that by itself will fix our problems.

Another thing I see very often is players that have been involved with paintball who have quit, or are thinking of quitting, because they don’t like the way the game has changed. These players are not new players but are experienced players. These would be the players that are thrown together into the “gear owner” group, keeping them away from the renter group. They don’t like play at their local field anymore. I see this sentiment voiced often, but I wonder how many times it happens (players quitting for such reasons) that we don’t hear about it, when players just disappear off the paintball map never to be heard from again.

If seasoned players are quitting because of the way the game has become more extreme, how many new (no seasoning applied yet) wannabe players are we losing? I suspect that number is very high. Making efforts to attract and make the first time players’ experience a good one, only to throw them into an environment that is too extreme for many of them to want to continue with, seems like we are only going halfway with our efforts.

At our field we have more or less given up on trying to keep renters and gear owners separate. It’s not that I think it’s a bad idea, it’s just administratively a hard thing to do. There are many days where one group or the other (usually the gear owners)are not of sufficient numbers to have a decent paintball game. Yet we have still had tremendous growth over the past years, during times when many field have not. Therefore I know that keeping renters and gear owners separate, although not a bad idea, isn’t a necessity. There are other ways that can keep both groups playing together but still playing “nice”. Nice enough to encourage growth of both renters and gear owners (turning renters into gear owners and keeping them around).

I think our industry as a whole has a much bigger problem in thinking that once a player has made the choice to become a “paintballer” that they have also made a commitment to playing and accepting a much more extreme environment as they first experienced as a renter. Maybe there are players that want to play paintball more often and want to own their own gear (we all know the advantage of that) without making a giant leap to “extreme” paintball. Maybe there are many, many of them. Maybe there would be many more, if renters saw that a fun, less extreme environment was available and awaited them, should they make the commitment to gear ownership and regular play.

I think as an industry we are missing the boat in not making more of an effort in providing a safe haven for gear owners who seek it, just as we are trying to do for renters. I think it’s affecting the whole industry. For sure it’s affecting attendance numbers at recreational paintball fields, but it’s also going to affect sale of paintball gear and participation in every other genre of paintball including tournament play (tournament players most often rise up from recreational play). So why aren’t more field owners making efforts to do this? Is it too difficult of a task for field owners to accomplish or does the average field owner not have the capability to understand that not all gear owners want to play extreme versions of paintball? Or maybe it just gets back to field owners going after the fast buck and trying to sell more paintballs to customers? I don’t know, but I do wonder why there seems to be a lack of common sense in our industry.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Paintball is Expensive (mostly)

The most common reason I hear that people play less paintball than they want to, or they have quit playing entirely, or their friends don’t play is that paintball is too expensive. There are other reasons, but expense is by far the most common that I hear. The reason for that of course is that paintball, for the most part, is an arms race and those not wanting to arm themselves and load up as much as the other guys feel at a disadvantage. Yes, there are those of us who go out and actually enjoy being the underdog (as far as arms go), but we are not the average player. We are more the exception to the rule. Most people do not enjoy themselves as much if they feel they are being overpowered by others with better equipment and more ammo. In order to not feel that way, you need to buck up, financially.

This is quite obvious when you look around the paintball industry and you identify the trends of the last few years (and yes it started before the recession). Tourney play is down. Tournament play is the most expensive form of paintball if you want to compete even halfway seriously. Tournaments cost money to enter and even more money to arm up for. Take into consideration the money and time commitment (time is money) needed for practices and it’s not difficult at all to see why only a small number of people can afford to take part or stick with it for any length of time.

Big game scenario paintball has increased dramatically in the last decade. Players are willing to travel great distances, shoot lots of paint and even pay a premium sometimes for that paint. Does that mean that big game scenario paintball is bucking the trend? No. Because those taking part in the big game scenario games are playing fairly rarely, for the most part. Many of the participants are only playing a few games per year. Sure they are paying hundreds of dollars per event between entry, paint, travel and other associated expenses, but if they are only doing it 2 or 3 times per year, it’s a much smaller bucket than the tourney guys need to fill, for instance. Big game scenario games are well attended, but if they were readily available every weekend at your local field, they would not be, for the simple reason that players could not afford to play these events that often.

Local recreational field play has always and will probably always be reliant on new players and those that only play a few times per year. There are fields that try to cater mostly to “regulars” but those are also the fields that have suffered the most in the last few years (and yes, more so during the recession). But there are not enough people in most areas that can afford to play every week or even every two weeks for fields to not be reliant on the new and occasional player. It’s not that these people don’t have fun playing paintball. Many of them go home ecstatic, but that doesn’t change the fact that they can’t afford to come back week after week. But it does mean that a certain amount of recreational paintball fields can exist in most areas catering to the occasional players.

The trend also means that a certain amount of big game scenario games can be held and will continue to be well attended. If however the market gets flooded with big game scenario play, not only will the separate games be less densely attended, but the overall attraction to the events will fade away. This is because many players go to these big events because they are big events. I have met several people who have gone to big events, such as D-Day for instance, who said it was a great thing to experience and they are glad they did it, but it wasn’t something they would do very often. If the numbers were to start dropping at these events, the allure would fade. It’s much like going to a popular night club. Once the novelty wears off and the crowds start to thin, they tend to thin quite quickly.

Tourney play during the late part of the last century and the early part of this century was “the” form of paintball that was going to dominate paintball participation, or so many thought at the time. Technology brought prices of gear down and mass paintball sales brought the price of ammo down. With the falling prices, how could the game not gain more and more popularity? And it did. Recreational play also increased during those times, but the focus was on tournament paintball. But of course we all know now that the dropping prices of gear and paint didn’t make the game cheaper. It just changed the game (not just in tournament play). We had markers that could shoot higher volumes of paint more reliably and paint priced such that we could do so. In the end though, a player’s pockets were just as empty at the end of the day and the next practice and/or tournament was approaching fast.

Unless a player chooses to play a form of paintball that handicaps them or plays with a group of players in a version where it has been predetermined to play with a lower volume of ammo and/or reduced technology like pump play or hopperball (which will result in lower ammo consumption), paintball will continue to be a relatively expensive past time. That’s just the reality of the situation.