What does yesterday's brief history tell us, if anything? In pure numbers the largest events ever occurred after the woods were completely abandoned. Field size did shrink over the last dozen years but the biggest turnouts happened after most of the field shrink had reached present levels or were close to it. There was a dropoff with the introduction of xball but the numbers rose year to year until 2007, when WC fielded over 360 teams. And while 2008 was lower the numbers still topped 320 teams. Throughout the huge event era the 5-man turnout floated just below or above 200 teams. Capped ramping to 15 bps was the rule during a 4 year period during the build-up of xball. Prior to that actual ROF were all over the place as they have been all along in the various NPPL incarnations but not consistently crazy fast until the Halo hit the market. Today PSP is 12.5 for everybody. After an introductory season and the massive positive hype about HB the NPPL took off in year 2 with the 7-man format. One league focused on the perks and the other on the paintball. High end sponsorship dollars peaked around '05-'06. Both leagues were pursuing TV and the Russian Legion introduced a previously unseen level of professionalism in their organization and training. A level of professionalism the other pro teams needed to compete with to stay relevant.
Today events take up less time than ever. Guns are still fast. Across the board officiating is about as good as it's ever been. Running events is almost clockwork these days and if you take paint tabs off the table going to an event is still expensive but adjusted for inflation not a lot more expensive than it ever was. So how to explain the decline?
Some want to place the start of the decline before the current and ongoing general economic malaise with the flattening of industry sales. The idea being the sales numbers were indicative of a drop off in new players entering the game and the trickle down eventually has impacted tourney ball. (The player spigot got turned off and it took awhile for the reduced flow to reach the tournament faucet.) I find that explanation less than persuasive in part because the industry downturn was at least partly self-inflicted in my estimation. (Most of the rest of the conventional wisdom fits in here as well. Stuff like ROF chased newbies away. Funny thing is I think there has been a trickle down that has affected tourney play.) The last two years WC has had 191 and 183 5-man teams signed up with both years at well over 300 teams total. The consequential decline was during the season at the NOT World Cup events and, of course, all this year. What I think is fair to say is that the level of growth we were used to stopped prior to the full effect of the recession hitting. But at this point the economy at large is depressing competitive paintball across the board--along with pretty much everything else.
Here's where I take the leap and offer a different--if not altogether new--analysis of the situation. Some of the pieces remain the same, just re-ordered a bit. (This is, btw, focused primarily on the PSP, and its sphere of influence, as the larger more active league. That and NPPL 1.0 & 2.0 mostly self-destructed.)
The first piece of the puzzle was the move to xball. Xball was intended to be a format compatible with and comparable to mainstream sports. It was designed for TV and it skewed tournament paintball's core demographic younger. (The younger demo has less resources and less ability to organize.) Until this last year the classification system pushed too many players up the ranks--and during part of that period it was done by design as a way to try and fill the upper ranks. Instead, it dumbed down the skill level and pushed players (not teams) into ranks that made it difficult for them to continue competing at the national level and almost impossible at the local and regional level. (None of the PSP affiliates operate a division above D2.) The last piece of the puzzle is what I'm calling the sports mindset--which is something that was cultivated in the xball era. At the pro level the arrival of the Russian Legion and the drive toward a truly professional league pushed all the top teams to develop more formal organizational structures along with expanded training & practice routines. (It also drove up the team costs that have since forced teams to drop out.) And that attitude--along with a practice regimen--trickled down the divisions. Which isn't, of itself, a bad thing but it has changed the definition of tournament paintball. It isn't your Daddy's tourney ball anymore. It's demanding, it's expensive and it has raised the entry bar to potential new players and teams. The end result has been an artificially short competitive paintball "career" for players starting at a younger age in a more expensive, cutthroat version of what used to be tournament paintball.
Tomorrow (eh, next time) what to do about it.