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Paintball has been on the decline since 2007, a recent market research report has found. The report calls for a softening of the decline starting this year, and blames weak economic times for initially dropping participation in the sport, but even as economic times have started to turn around and a favorable demographic trend, the sport has failed to make up for lost gains.
The report says that paintball field revenue has declined at an annualized rate of 8.1% in the five years from 2007, and calls for a slight uptick in revenue of 2.3% in 2012.
The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association states that paintball has declined from 5.5 million participants (USA) in 2007 to 3.7 million participants in 2010 (the latest information available), falling at an average rate of 12.6% per year.
A slight growth in the number of boys aged 10-19 should have boosted the industry somewhat, since this age group makes up over half of all paintball players, but the industry has failed to capture this key segment away from tablets and gaming consoles.
The report states that in the five years to 2017, industry revenue is forecast to continue falling, although at a slower pace.
The report suggests that operators that double down on attractions that will successfully appeal to adolescents and drive attendance and revenue, such as tournaments, will be best poisted for success regardless of shifts in consumer interests.
I myself have been warning of this since back in 2009. The recession in 2008 really caused young adults (the most underemployed segment of the population with roughly 26% unemployment) and parents of adolecsents to tighten their belts.
When a woodsball field charges around $120 per case of 2000 paintballs, a 300% markup, and woodsball accounts for rougly 80% of all participants in the sport and nearly 95% of first time entrants, the industry is using these new and casual customers as a cash cow to subsidize money losing speedball (where entrants are heavily sponsored and pay as little as $30 per case).
During the recession we saw a massive move to limited ammunition and pistol and pump play, as with nearly 10c per ball paintball prices this was a way for enthusiasts to continue to play regularly despite having lighter wallets. This is unsustainable for paintball fields however, an entrant forking over $20 for paintballs and field fee whereby they used to fork over $50-$75 means that some paintaball businesses, if they do not change, will not survive.
If the sport is to survive, some type of major paradigm shift needs to occur. My own theory is that they need to go the way of golf. Bring your own paintballs, or buy at exorborant rates at the field's pro-shop (not unlike the $14.99 box of 3 golf balls), and charge a field fee based on the quality of the facilities.
A quality course could charge as much as $50 per day for players to make use of a high end facility with bridges, doors, urban, indoor, outdoor. Most paintball fields across the country are made of rotting plywood structures and tires. These may be able to charge $15 or $20. To increase revenue, they will need to put work into their fields.
The core problem for paintball is the first timer. They usually end up with a cheap $75 Tippmann 98, often they get substandard paint (renters wouldnt know better, of course), and they are playing on muddy, slimy courses. Because they dont know the industry, they continually head back to the shop for one more ziplock bag of 100 balls for $10, and next thing they know they've blown nearly a hundred dollars each.
It takes a military enthusiast to come back for more at those kind of rates.
However the military enthusiast who is willing to pay these rates for that kind of experience gets flogged by the sponsored speedball players, who often get paint at a third the cost. Often lip from the referees (who are speedball players, again sponsored), and they tend to look for somewhere else to play.
And they often find it. Depending on the region, outlaw paintball is exploding. It is not neccesarily attracting new players to the sport, but rather financial orphans who have decided that they just dont want to pay so much money to fields anymore.
Two scuba tanks and a fill station head can be had for as little as $250. The tanks can be filled for $20. Thats enough for 10-15 low volume shooters having a casual day of paintball. So for $270, a group of players can save their entire investment in a single day's play, between lower paint costs and a lack of field fees.
This, in my opinion, is bad for the industry as a whole. Outlaw fields have varying levels of safety, and they do not market to the general public like paintball fields do; usually they have nothing in the way of rental equipment. The rise of outlaw amongst experienced woodsballers and the decline of rentalball with experienced woodsballers creates a chasm.
This chasm is that at the rental field, you see mostly inexperienced and first time renters, playing against the occasional experienced pump or pistol player who is trying to reduce costs. Gone are the hyper teched out guys with $1500 worth of cosmetic upgrades on their guns, gone are the military enthusiasts. These experienced players lure the newer players deeper and deeper into the sport.
There may be many different answers as to how to save and regrow paintball. Cost is one of the biggest factors. Another is the culture.