Friday, September 19, 2008

A New Pro Paradigm

For those who'd like to cut to the chase (cause this is really long) go down to the START HERE and read from there. Then you can come back and look over the foundational arguments and the alternatives later. Slackers.

If, as has often been bandied about, the pro teams are in some senses being carried by the league(s) then my question is; why? Why does the PSP pay out of pocket to keep the NXL going? (While we can debate the dollars, at best--at best--the NXL may come close to breaking even) And if the Pro Division in the NPPL is no better than a break even bracket (between reduced entry fees and prize payout it's probably a net loser) why is so much emphasis put on the Pros and why isn't anyone talking about "fixing" the league(s) by dumping the deadbeats and losers?
Stop spluttering and answer the question.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating dumping the (pro) deadbeats and losers. That would leave me in a bad place. (And I don't buy the conventional wisdom anyway.) But, in order to address the issues confronting the pro divisions it's important to begin at the beginning, with our assumptions. Without offering the answer there are a couple of things that can be said that reflect the current thinking. (Irrespective of its practicality or rationality.) The pro divisions aren't simply about dollars and cents. The leagues do assign a value to the pro divisions that isn't strictly represented by the bottom line. A significant element of that perceived value is in seeing the pro teams (and players) as the epitome of competitive paintball and the public face of competitive paintball and the likely wedge into wider mainstream acceptance and recognition.
What assumptions underlie this thinking?
Try these: The pro division (and players) represents the best of the sport; makes the best argument in favor of paintball as sport; inspires and motivates players at every level of competition. Which is good for the league and for paintball. The pro division (and players) is the draw to compete on a national level. Which is good for the league.
The pro division (and players) is the primary marketing vehicle for competitive paintball and PBIndustry. Which is good for the paintball, the league and PBIndustry.

We'll come back to the assumptions and their validity in a minute. But first--
Let's review the state of the pro teams today. Teams are failing. More are expected to follow. The cost of competing is overwhelming a (probably significant) percentage of the remaining teams. Everyone involved is concerned and uncertain where equilibrium is to be found. And the one critical factor that hasn't been taken into account is that the league(s) are directly competing with the teams for increasingly scarce sponsorship dollars. Reread that last part. Let it sink in. Today's post is brought to you by the word counterproductive. Say it with me boys and girls, counterproductive. Now let's play a game of 'What If' with the NXL. (I'm not gonna deal with the NPPL only because I think the option offered in the "Brave New PB World" posts could work for them but their situation is complicated by a number of factors including money already spent and a lack of nationwide support for their format.) Back to the NXL.
WHAT IF the PSP kills it? It's gone. In its place a PSP Open division that operates like any other division. What's the result?
That depends.
On a lot of things that never were particularly relevant to the teams or division. The more expensive scoreboard. Does it stay or go? Grandstands. Stay or go? A dedicated field. Stay or go? The NXL refs. Stay or go? Big prize money. Stay or go?
The first point is this: Calling the pro division the NXL and separating it from the other PSP divisions didn't make it more expensive nor did any action taken at the behest of the pro teams as a group. Every decision--let me repeat that--EVERY decision that added to the cost of running the NXL was predicated on one or more of the assumptions listed above and was made by the same peeps who now expect the NXL teams to pay for those decisions. I almost forgot. What would be the result if the PSP killed the NXL and put the pros in an Open division?
The league could operate the new division on the same cost/benefit calculus as all the other divisions, the pros would refuse to be gouged for entry and administration fees and everybody could reconsider their assumptions. SEE above.
Let's take it a step further. WHAT IF we do away with pros altogether? No more pro teams or pro players. The PSP to become four am brackets of xball (plus the 5-man stuff). D3 up thru Open. Everybody who was pro gets reclassed as Open or D1. Does it make any of the ex-pro teams or players any less skilled or accomplished than they when they were called pro? Of course it doesn't.
Point Two: There is nothing to be gained with a purely semantic restructuring unless it also involves a reappraisal of the assumptions above. (Even if the assumptions are invalid there is nothing gained in a simple semantic distinction.)
WHAT IF the assumptions are wrong? Then the sooner they are repudiated the better.
WHAT IF the assumptions are basically sound? Then they will factor in the future of competitive paintball--at some future time--but the issue confronting the leagues today is at what cost and can it be sustained. Pro football turned out to be a lucrative idea but even so teams and leagues failed in the process.

Right. Let's now take a moment to draw a few conclusions. The status quo seems unlikely to hold. If it doesn't how many pro teams go under in the next year or two and what would be the impact? At what point is the pro league really exclusive and at what point is it just a joke? However you might assess that I think it's fair to say that doing nothing will result in fewer pro teams. That leaves the league in the position to be proactive or to simply wait and see what happens next. In the wake of the lost pro teams ending the '07 season the PSP adopted some new rules and instituted format modifications in an effort to stem the tide. It wasn't enough. If they choose to act again they will have a variety of choices.
Alternative 1 is to "fine tune" the status quo and do a head count to see if they'll have a sufficient number of teams committed for next year. (Sufficient being the operative word.)
Alternative 2 is to reduce costs to the pro teams. As noted above the NXL is using the teams to pay for a league run the way the NXL wants it run. Perhaps they need to reconsider, economize and pass the savings on to the teams.
Alternative 3 is to fully integrate the pro division into the rest of the PSP and call it whatever you want.
WHAT IF the PSP seriously considers the radical alternative league structure presented in the 'Brave New Paintball World' series of posts?
The concept relies on a traveling Pro Circuit so the costs to the pro teams aren't reduced the way they would be for the am divisions playing regionally. However, the same potential cost savings that applied to alternatives 1 - 3 could also potentially apply to a Pro Circuit with regional leagues. But is it enough?

START HERE: (if you have a short attention span)
Remember when I claimed the pro teams were in competition with the league(s) for sponsorship support? (It's not the way everyone is used to thinking about the relationship but it is undeniable.) And that the NXL has set standards of operation to its liking and expects the competing teams to subsidize those standards? (That's either hubris or stupidity or both.) And it's definitely crazy. In this economic climate it's practically suicidal! What is required is a new Pro Paradigm. If the assumptions everyone makes about the pro level of play are basically sound and the leagues want to maintain a separate and dynamic pro division it must rethink how it does things--and it must have help.
The Pro Circuit relies on the league operating in cooperation with PBIndustry. The new Pro Paradigm includes the pro teams as integral parts of the whole. It acknowledges the teams as partners in the process instead of the current quasi-customer/quasi-marketing tool status most have today. The Pro Circuit means the league can focus on the core elements of promoting the partner members in PBIndustry and marketing competitive paintball to a wider audience using the showcase of the pro teams. And the best way to facilitate this is if everyone is working together toward a shared goal and with a common purpose. At a minimum it should be the Pro Circuit's responsibility to operate the pro events–not the pro teams to underwrite it. Depending on how inclusive the involvement of PBIndustry the potential exists to pool resources to support the pro teams. This would be possible because what the league is promoting is the Pro Circuit and the competing teams are the essential component of the circuit. And marketing the circuit would be a unifying effort and would only enhance the participating teams allowing them to function as both fan favorites and tools of league promotion. Virtually any option for how to structure the circuit in a nuts and bolts sort of way is on the table and only requires agreement to move forward. With specific regard to the teams themselves some of the issues to settle would be continued private ownership, a new franchise model or even league ownership or sponsor ownership of the teams (which could be shared in percentages among as many or as few sponsors as desired in a given case.) If not ownership then sponsorships could still be partially assigned by team predicated on relative values which could allow smaller sponsors a direct share of the overall marketing value. If you wanted to get really off the wall you could organize the teams geographically for real and draw rosters from the pools of regional players. Once you stop doing things the way they've always been done the possibilities are nearly endless. [As a practical matter it would be a tremendous amount of work but it all starts with the old vision thing.]
The fundamental goal is to create a sustainable model that both develops competitive paintball and showcases competitive paintball and does so in a cooperative environment that benefits everybody involved. And the final point is to stop competing amongst ourselves where it is counterproductive and work toward a model based on common interest that can more effectively utilize the dollars spent.

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