Is paintball dying? Is this the end? These questions have been around the paintball world and date back to 2008 when the global economy began to stutter. These troublesome thoughts have been further augmented by a recent article in Bloomberg dated 12-14-2014 entitled “Why Paintball has gone splat”. Industry consolidation, companies going bankrupt and further rumors haven’t helped improve our perceived outlook. However, there is much more happening here than meets the eye.
Yes, as an aggregate, industry numbers are down from the peak in 2007. Paintball is not alone in this. Motor cross, Golf, Skiing & Snowboarding etc. are all seeing reduced participation numbers. Insiders in those industries are dealing with their own battles and in many cases, trying to reinvent themselves, their companies, and their sports to attract a new generation of participants. From the spectator side, both NASCAR and the National Football League (NFL) have seen major reductions in attendance numbers. Fact is, we are not alone in our challenge to grow our numbers.
Paintball Agenda and the Bloomberg Hit Job
The oft-cited article from Bloomberg might be more than meets the eye. Yes, paintball being featured in a national news publication has always been exciting. Hurray. However, around the paintball water cooler, industry insiders are referring to this as a well executed hit job against the sport. The best (or worst) part is that rumors point to industry insiders as the source of the disinformation. This was done with a very self-serving agenda in mind. In other industries such as automobiles, fast food, travel, etc. misinformation is easily caught and nipped in the bud thanks to troves of data available from various sources. The paintball industry is much different. We are considerably smaller and count our attendance in the single digit millions. The companies that comprise the paintball industry are privately held not publicly traded. In most cases the paintball industry fly’s under the proverbial “big data” radar which makes us a ripe target for manipulation.
Whats really going on?
Cash rich investors typically look to buy businesses during down times. Smart money likes to buy when businesses bottom out and start to show a sign of improvement. The old adage “buy low, sell high” should be ringing a bell here. Pro Paintball Insiders commented that the agenda of those that shall not be named fed Bloomberg the information to intentionally drive down investment interest in paintball. They are attempting to keep new outside investors away. These insiders are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, they just don’t want anyone else to see it and jump on it before they have a chance. Certain groups are working to drive down perceived value of paintball, and there for the value of businesses that are involved. The end goal would be for them to make it easier to consolidate their holdings and better control the paintball market. Sound familiar? It should and for good reason. These are the same old shenanigans that ProPaintball.com and others have been telling about for years.
Hard work pays off.
I’ve talked to field owners that tell me that 2014 was one of the best years on record. Rental and recreational numbers are trending up. Some field owners are raising prices while others are introducing different styles of play, alternate paintball sizes and lower velocities. Whats old is new again and annual park passes, special group rates, store days, and scenario based recreational games (ie get the bomb, black hawk down, etc.) are becoming all the rage. The industry utilized these strategies but they mostly seemed to fall off the radar during our last boom time. Now after all these years the industry is growing up. Paintball businesses are becoming more business minded. Successful ones actively employing proven strategies to improve both their customer satisfaction and growth. In many cases the extra effort is paying off and people are coming back for more.
The Bloomberg article attributed the decline of paintball to the growth of new “rebel” sports such as Tough Mudder and the like. Yes, there are definitely cross over of participants — we are adrenaline junkies after all. However, they aren’t acknowledging the “jobless” economic recovery and its massive impacts on the spending habits of the middle class. Nor are they pointing out that certain categories within the game are starting to look up. Why you ask? Easy, positive news doesn’t drive headlines and it wasn’t the line they were fed.
True, many of the ‘big’ paintball companies are experiencing issues. There competitors though are gobbling up market share left and right. Companies that bet the future on big box retailers (Walmart etc.) are finding themselves refocusing on the traditional market. Companies that did not adjust their buying patterns to the changes in customers purchasing habits are still reeling from those poor decisions. Smart Parts and their rapid dissolution was an example of this. Stores and fields that refused to embrace the internet are learning how to leverage social media, Groupon, and new marketing techniques to promote themselves. These folks were forced to make changes because of changing business environments.
Finding success in paintball.
The paintball industries largest retailer, ANS Gear, has seen their business continue to grow year over year. They were not always the industry leading retailer though. Far from it. 15 years ago they were a small no name paintball store in the Simi Valley, California. They worked hard, invested into their business and embraced new business models. Today they are calling the shots, setting their own prices and in some cases importing their own products. This is a great example of a company that has willingly adopted to the times and profited immensely because of it.
Valken Sports is another great example. Gino Postorivo returned to the game after selling his former business National Paintball Supply (now Empire Paintball). When Gino returned, instead of focusing his efforts on the old strategy of chasing professional paintball and the high end market, he focused his attention on paintball parks, retailers and the entry level market. He has made quite the business in a very short amount of time by focusing on an under served and unfashionable category. Its worked well for him.
Another example of an upstart is HKARMY. The Hostile Kids have transformed themselves from a group of paintball misfits, renegades and former pro’s to real businessmen. These ‘kids’ made good on their promise to challenge the paintball industry who refused to support them when they played and have made quite a business for themselves. Ironically, the old industry people who used to chastise, ban, and look down on HKARMY is now competing with and in some cases, working for them. Go figure.
Paintball has been in a period of adjustment since our peak in 2007. We as a game grew and contracted with the easy money economy. Companies involved did the same. This year will mark another major round of consolidation and in the coming weeks you will see more bankruptcy and purchasing rumors surface. You will also see the introduction of new paintball products, new start up paintball companies and a new generation of paintball players enter the game. If trends hold true, this year will mark another uptick in our annual participation numbers.
A new day will dawn.
There are agendas in any and every sport and industry you may find yourself in. I can’t predict when the snow is going to fall, or, when the NFL will make ticket prices affordable for working class people. I can tell you that while paintball seems rocky and questionable now, very soon we will see a changing of the guard and everything will sort itself out. Whatever variant of paintball and its industry emerge on the other side will be stronger and more resilient having had ample time to learn from our past mistakes.
New paintball companies are gaining traction (Exalt & HK, we are watching you) and with them comes new innovation, motivation and ideas for moving forward. National and Regional Paintball Leagues are once again becoming viable entities and making money with increasingly limited industry support. A new generation of players are discovering paintball for the first time and they in turn will introduce even more players. A new day is beginning to dawn.
As veteran paintball players, we need to recall why we involved ourselves with paintball to begin with. We didn’t come here get rich or play politics. To shut each other out or bad mouth the industry. We came here because we wanted to play a game where we could chase our friends around on a field, shoot each other up with paint and have a good time. We came here for fun.
Paintball is fun. That part has never changed. If you haven’t played in awhile, for whatever the reason may be, I encourage you to dust off your gear and go hit the field. Relight that spark and while your at it, bring a friend. Have fun!