Can Woodsball Save Tournament Paintball?
by Chris "IQ" Iaquinta
Photo by Christopher Dilts
Tournament paintball hasn't had decent televised programming in years, and some would say we've NEVER had a good representation of our sport on TV. Tournament teams of all levels, including the professional squads, are finding themselves hocking guns online through Facebook and Craiglist in order to make ends meet and pay for travel arrangements. Industry sponsorship has all but completely dried up, putting a deep financial strain on most teams that don't have "rich dad" or other means of supporting themselves. With all of this taken into consideration, one starts to wonder if whether or not tournament paintball in general has reached its peak.
Don't get me wrong, the airball tournament format still has plenty of interest. World Cup drew hundreds of teams despite the poor economy, and the NPPL managed to pull out a great season despite having to relaunch their brand name due to previous league ownership sending the company into bankruptcy. What does appear to be lacking at events however, both on the national and regional level, is the feeling that you're participating in a world-class competition. There are very few spectators, even fewer vendors, and overall the general magic and excitement that used to be buzzing at tournaments of this caliber just seems to have vanished.
And how bad is it for the teams? At one major tournament this year, a number of the referees at the host field had no idea who the pro teams at the event were, despite the fact that they themselves were avid paintballers and love the game. They just simply didn't care about that side of the sport, mainly because there isn't enough media attention on it anymore. As for the financials, I had one of the best teams in paintball tell me at World Cup that they didn't have enough paint to practice with on the weekends. This is a team that just a few years ago had companies coughing up the largest sponsorship contracts in history in order to get them supporting their brand. So now we ask ourselves, with sponsorship and general interest in tournament paintball nearing an all-time low, is there a different way to go?
If tournament paintball went away tomorrow, how much of the paintball community would be affected? If you've been tracking the nationwide participation numbers then you'd know that the number of paintball players in the United States is tracking lower than it has in many years. That means that there are literally millions-less paintballers this year than say half a decade ago. Now how many of those remaining players follow the tournament scene? Well, figure that even at World Cup there were fewer than 3,000 players in attendance, and many of those same participants are also members of the NPPL and a handful of regional events, which further dilutes the total number of tournament players in existence.
Even if there were 1,500 teams with at least 7 players on the roster, that's still fewer than 11,000 players. Add another 9,000 tournament players just for a fun of it and you're just now cracking the 20,000 mark. That's 20,000 players in a niche format of a niche sport that still boasts at least 5 million players in the US alone. So now there's 4,980,000 non-tournament oriented players left running around on the field. Even if you notch it up to 100,000 tournament players, which no one believes is possible anymore, you're still left with 4,900,000 participants with little to no interest in the airball tournament side of paintball.
This isn't exactly a revelation to our community either, as many of our industry leaders have taken note of the lacking interest in tournament paintball and the resurgence of popularity of standard woodsball. The common mindset used to be that a large number of walk-on/woodsball players would strive to one day become tournament players, or at least maintain a level of interest in that side of the game. What we're seeing now though is that the vast majority of paintball enthusiasts are happy with sticking with their local field and smaller events such as big games and scenario productions. And the biggest product developers in paintball aren't just sitting around twiddling their thumbs either at this newfound interest in woodsball either.
Take a look at the catalogs for the upcoming product lines for companies like DYE, Valken and Empire and you'll notice a lot of woodsball-themed gear in there, including full lines of jerseys, pants, harnesses, gloves, goggles, hoppers and markers bearing a wide variety of camo patterns. Their businesses can't be sustained anymore by purely supporting the current tournament mentality, especially now that regular walk-on players have stopped wearing tournament apparel in recent years in favor of more practical and traditional woodand styles. Now also take into account that this gear for the most part carries the same MSRP as their tournament counterparts, so it's not like the decision to return to a woodsball gear setup is financially driven, it's actually what the players want.
If they are to survive, tournament leagues around the nation are going to need to think of something in order to up their conversion of turning walk-on players into tournament competitors. The amateur divisions in these leagues used to be where the future all-stars of the pro world started making a name for themselves. Now those divisions barely exist at all, plus the falling number of incoming rookie and novice squads is fostering doubts as to whether or not there can even continue to be enough players for the mid to high level divisions in the upcoming years.
In my opinion there are a couple ways to go. One would be for existing tournament leagues to partner with one of the newly created woodsball-themed competitive series that have cropped up in recent years, such as the Ultimate Woodsball League (UWL). The UWL is headed by Tom Cole, who was also appointed the commissioner for the 2011 NPPL season. Together, Tom will be able to expose his UWL woodsball players to the thrill and advantages of organized tournament paintball on a turf arena that the NPPL has to offer, and vice versa. Many NPPL pro players actively participate and play in UWL events already, many of them calling it the best paintball experience they've had in years.
Another important step is to reintroduce recruiting events that were used in the peak and prime heydays of tournament paintball as we know it now. These intro tournaments were used to educate both new and veteran walk-on players as to how tournaments functioned and how much fun they could be. An event like this hasn't been produced in years, and the lack of interest in actively trying to revitalize the growth of tournament play on a hands-on basis is certainly starting to show. Events like these should be produced by the main national circuits, hosted by top pro players, and be presented in a manner that is non-intimidating and cost-effective. That's one reason why regional tournament participation was so low this year, because it was still fairly pricey to register and buy paint, plus the lack of tournament education made the competition level in these leagues appear far too extreme and intimidating, scaring off any potential new tournament players.
By no means am I calling for the dissolvement of tournament paintball, as the strong arguement still exists in the theory that our sport will only acheive true mainstream attention, support, and sponsorship through tournament representation. I don't care how many cameras you put on the field, you'll just never be able to capture a woodsball event properly. But the future of big global tournaments is hanging off both sides of the fence, and it's going to take a real effort on the part of the tournament ambassadors to hit the local fields and start reviving interest in the tournament movement before it's too late.