ProPaintball caught up with John Robinson, President & CEO of KEE Action Sports (home of Empire, JT & BT Paintball), for a quick chat about NPPL vs PSP debate, his background in paintball, and growing the game. Read on for an awesome interview!
1: How did you get involved with paintball? What career path led you to becoming CEO of KEE?
John Robinson: I played paintball for the first time in 1995 at a field in Fanling, Hong Kong. I was living, playing pro basketball and working in Hong Kong at the time. I started working in paintball in 2006 when I was transferred to JT. At the time, K2 owned JT and it was the last of my 5 stops in my K2 career. After Jarden bought out K2 and made the decision to sell the paintball business to KEE, I was asked by the KEE ownership to join as CEO. So, my path to KEE was by over 20 years of sporting goods experienced and I am now in my 7th year in paintball.
2. Lot of discussion last year about a league merger. What was KEE’s position?
John Robinson: KEE has been fairly vocal for the past year that we would like to see a merger between the PSP and the NPPL. There are many reasons for our position, which starts with pure economics. But more importantly, it’s about making a league more meaningful and aspirational for new players. We aspire for our Pro Players to become more recognizable and marketable, while earning a living by playing and promoting paintball full time. KEE’s vision includes a plan to get to that point and beyond. One Pro league makes that much, much easier.
3. Once the merger talks fell apart what were the major decisions KEE had to make regarding
John Robinson: We remained committed to our position that we would only sponsor one league. That didn’t and doesn’t mean we won’t support both leagues. There is a difference in the two terms. But it was important to us to understand and discuss a “vision” with both leagues and then sponsor the league that best matches our views and direction on growing the sport. To do that, there must be a tie back to our grass roots efforts. In short, our marketing plan for new players has to ultimately point to a league and its players.
4. PSP Press Release – why choose them?
John Robinson: The PSP knows who they are. They are committed to a format, a structure, locations and they have a clear vision for the areas they want to grow and improve. In our discussions with the PSP, I was convinced what they want to do and what KEE wants to do and that has the potential to be a very good match.
5. What does this mean for the NPPL?
John Robinson: In short, we will not sponsor the NPPL. However, we will support our teams, partners and customers within the guidelines of the NPPL. We will certainly send our Techs to events and support those that own Empire branded equipment. We will not display or sell our products at the events.
6. What about the Valken rumors?
John Robinson: In our discussions with the leagues, we absolutely brought up the economics of having an open door policy on paint vendors. People have to understand that being committed to sponsoring a league means investing several hundred thousand dollars in sponsorship fees, travel, freight, event support and free/discounted product to sponsored teams and customers. That is before we sell one box. There are a few really good events with 120+ teams, but there are more events with less than that, sometimes as few as 60-70 teams. Throw in 2-3 other paint vendors and there is simply no math that makes being there from a short term economic perspective a good idea.
7. What is your position on the market today?
John Robinson: Competition is a great thing and critically important in any industry. I respect the companies that build their brand through innovation/great product, packaging, sharp marketing and clever ideas. Dye, for instance has done a great job with their brand. In particular, the Rotor launch and execution a few years back was tremendous. Tippmann, historically is another who has done a really good job with their brand. I would also throw in DXS and Eclipse. To me, that is where the game amongst companies is played. I want to out develop and out promote the other companies in our industry. If that’s where the game is played, the consumer and the industry win.
8. Growing the Sport – what are your thoughts about how to do this?
John Robinson: Everyone is using this phrase as if just saying it is actually going to do something. It doesn’t matter if I am listening to a pitch from a league, watching chatter on a paintball website, or reading something another company is trying to do. The reality is for the past 5-6 years there have been no significant impactful initiatives to grow the sport. But that is about to change. This summer we are introducing a comprehensive concept/product line to drive new participants to our sport. I believe it is going to be a tremendous shot in the arm for paintball.
9. Can you elaborate?
John Robinson: The SPLAT of the paintball and the adrenalin rush of our game is what makes paintball great. There are many other qualities, but that’s our hook. For the first time player though, the barriers are high. It may be a kid’s mom who doesn’t like the noise or the bruising. It may be a kid that get can’t handle getting hit. It may be the expense of getting into it, the logistical issues of finding a field, or the many other areas that prevent someone from getting in. We have to attack all of these areas. Personally, I think Airsoft is lame, but they have capitalized on these and other areas to build a solid industry. So, it’s time for us to address these issues and ensure when a kid pulls a trigger for the first time, a paintball is what comes out of the barrel.
10. KEE is sometimes referred to as the “Evil Empire” – how do you respond to that?
John Robinson: It’s part of what comes from being the largest player in the industry. We certainly have our shortcomings, as all Companies do, but we work on improving every day. Our focus is on developing great products and driving people to our sport. Our record over the past couple of years demonstrates our commitment and what is coming in roughly 5 months will send a strong signal to the market we are serious about driving participation. I pay very close attention to thoughtful commentary about our company and our product. I completely ignore the emotional banter that lacks fact or credibility. Our focus is on building a great, branded Company that sets the standard for supporting our teams, players, leagues, customers and most importantly, drives new people to and retains them in our sport.
11. One of KEE’s flagship brands, JT Paintball, has been marketed pretty aggressively in big box retail stores like Walmart, Dicks, etc. What is your plan for big box retail and how does it fit in the big picture?
John Robinson: We feel strongly that the Mass/Retail channel is critical to exposing a broader group of consumers to paintball. The JT brand is the cornerstone of that strategy. We have worked exceptionally hard to offer quality, value based product in the Mass/Retail channel specifically targeted at first and second time players. Our belief is if the consumer has a good experience with this product, they will graduate to higher end product that is available in our Traditional channel. Obviously, there is a delicate balance and we try to manage that through branding and product features. The Empire brand, for instance, has very little visibility in the Mass/Retail channel and is intended to be more aspirational and Traditional channel focused. All that said, the JT brand has a rich heritage in the traditional market. There is no group more passionate about the JT brand than the guys from XSV. They definitely have some great ideas for JT and it will be exciting to see what they do in the months and years ahead.
12. Where do you see paintball (in general) in 3 years? Up, down, flat, left, or right? Which way?
John Robinson: We are very bullish on the future of paintball. We believe we have a great opportunity to start moving the needle with our product launch this summer. In addition, we have really worked hard to increase our product development pipeline for Empire, Empire Battle Tested, and JT. I believe people will be excited at the new products we will introduce over the next 12 months and beyond. Over the next 2-3 years, as we more firmly establish that link between the first time player and the Pro, we believe there will be tremendous opportunity for everyone from Field/Pro Shop owners to the Pro players. It should be a fun ride.
Thank you very much for your time John. We appreciate Empire’s continued support of professional paintball. For more information on Empire, please visit EmpirePaintball.com.