A rare treat for y'all today. This is part of the 'Unnatural Selection' series of miscellaneous musings.
What better way to get the inside info on the SplatMaster effort to date and the plans for the future than to go right to the top--and ask? Probably against his better judgment, John Robinson, the CEO of KEE Action Sports, has generously agreed to answer a few questions.
VFTD: Am I correct in saying the SplatMaster products are aimed at a pre-paintball age demographic, say 6-10 year olds?
JR: The target was really 9+ as the packaging suggests. That said, we believed that with parental supervision younger kids would play as long as they could cock the markers. In our testing 6 and certainly 7 year olds could accomplish this. It was definitely targeted to pre-paintball kids.
Our view is paintball has two great components to it that are hard to match in other shooting sports:
· The Splat itself – instant gratification of the mark that you don’t get with airsoft or BB
· the adrenalin rush from the act of playing versus paintball
VFTD: While SplatMaster can stand alone as a safe fun for kids activity don't you see it as more than that?
JR: The vision was to portray SplatMaster as a backyard, target activity that highlighted the “Splat”. We also focused more on the skills side because Paintball is a dirty word to most Mom’s. We have a lot to overcome in perception, which is unfortunate because our industry has a great safety record. We knew that if we could get kids to pull the trigger, they would ultimately gravitate to versus play. So yes, we view SplatMaster as the T-ball of paintball and our on-going goal thru things like First Shot is to create the SplatMaster (T-Ball) to PSP Pro Player (MLB) connection.
VFTD: Is the concept behind SplatMasters to provide a fun less intense paintball lite if you will to kids in order to introduce them to paintball later? Or ease the transition when they're older?
JR: Yes – We (KEE) are focused and committed to paintball. The step from back door to .68 cal is too far for many and again, we have a perception that paintball hurts, etc. SplatMaster was created to make that first step manageable and let people who are cautious grow to paintball. As an industry, big box is important in that step because there are people who don’t currently play or consider paintball.
VFTD: How is it working so far? Are the numbers meeting your expectations?
JR: Here are some numbers:
· We have sold over 150,000 markers
· We are currently in 4,000 mass/sporting goods doors
· We are in 200 traditional fields/shops
· SplatMaster is offered in nearly 150 fields in the US.
I believe as a stand-alone product SplatMaster has been a success. That said, the goal was .68 paintball growth, so it has not met my exceptionally high expectations. To grow paintball, we need more mainstream acceptance.
Internationally, it is doing great and experiencing the fastest growth curve. Many countries have laws that prevent paintball or limit the age (18 in Australia). Country by country we are gaining acceptance from local and national authorities to get SplatMaster in or younger where .68 cal cannot. Again, we believe/hope that a kid in Australia who plays SplatMaster at 12 will ultimately play paintball at 18.
There are countless US fields who are reaching a younger audience with SplatMaster. You can speak with Sean Walker about his success with it. He does a great job and as you know, he is not necessarily in the “KEE fold”.
I wish it was doing better at places like Walmart, but a lot of that is merchandising. For places like Academy that take our POP displays it does great. SplatMaster is a hard story to tell at retail because they just throw it on the shelf. It needs to POP behind it to tell mom and dad the full story. At Walmart where it is one or two items, not always placed together and many time on the bottom shelves, it hasn’t done as well.
VFTD: Given the goal of expanding the player base isn't the ultimate success or failure of SplatMaster yet to be determined? As you've described it the process is both an ongoing one and also one that covers a number of transitional years.
JR: Correct, it is a long process and we really have to see those younger players, matriculate to the .68 fields. We are fully committed to continuing to push it as well as adding product between SplatMaster and .68 cal (see note below). You will see us re-load the marketing spend in 2014 to continue to reach the masses who are not currently paintballers.
VFTD: SplatMaster is available in a number of the so-called big box stores (and chains) like Walmart. Are those outlets reaching the bulk of the target audience or is KEE using other avenues to reach the intended market?
JR: That may have been true last year when we launched or TV campaign, but now the focus is clearly on trad and international at field level. Its grass roots. Its why Rich Telford, Thomas Taylor and Nicky Cuba were hired to be spokesmen. We have a 100x50 mega arena and other shooting booth assets we send to large non paintball events across the country and now world to provide a free shooting experience to raise awareness. The “Pros” are our link to .68 cal and promote the larger mission.
VFTD: Do local paintball fields have a place in the process?
JR: Absolutely, as mentioned above. Those that understand it gives them a new, younger customer are doing exceptionally well and are very happy. Those that are dug in on what they have always done, have either not taken it or haven’t marketed it. The reality is a field can get a new customer and start people on a paintball path earlier if they want. It’s more of a bowling alley model that actually provides fields better margins if they choose the path. There are so many great stories about younger brothers who couldn’t play, dad’s wanting to introduce their kids to paintball, but couldn’t… If you look at on line reviews, the product is still exceptionally well received. My mission, again, is more broad based awareness. If we can get them to pull the trigger, they always love it.
VFTD: Does introducing SplatMaster at the local field level open the door for full on 50 cal paintball for a growing player base that may have a different set of expectations?
JR: Using the T-Ball to MLB analogy, I believe paintball should have:
SplatMaster – spring loaded (no air/gas ever) shooting up to 170 or so fps
.50 cal aired product, shooting between 200-250fps
.68 cal – as we know it today
To me this provides the natural progression for the player. I am not dug in fps necessarily, I just believe .68 at 280+ will never appeal broadly to some people who are afraid or have a low pain tolerance. Like other sports, people will drop out at various times and that is normal. I would just like to see our sport offer more options for games, activities that require one to pull a trigger and a paintball (of any size) come out the barrel. Ultimately, I believe if we are successful with Level 1 and Level 2, .68 cal will grow. Though the consumables are more expensive than airsoft or BB, the experience is what we have to sell and in my mind paintball is far superior to airsoft, so we have to be committed to telling the story and getting people in at whatever level they choose.
VFTD: Keeping in mind this audience has ADD I think we'd best call it a day. Thanks, John.
JR: Sorry to be long winded, but I am passionate about this and First Shot. Our industry was down another 10-12% during 2013 and while we were once a $700 mil industry, we are now closer to $225 worldwide at wholesale. For too long our industry has not focused on the one critical issue that has faced us since 2005 – new player participation. I hate all the other drama that gets in the way of the one issue we all must address.
VFTD: No such thing as long-winded around here. I am confident the readership will appreciate your candor--and long-windedness, if that's even a word--in providing an inside industry view. Thanks again.