USA - In an age of high-tech simulators, online tournaments and super-deluxe video games, the simple game of pool has managed to do more than just endure the test of time.
By all accounts, pool has been providing operators with a much-needed element of stability for decades. Its stature in the tavern market, for example, is such that it is only rivaled in its consistency by industry stalwarts like darts, jukeboxes and countertops.
In recent years, however, evidence suggests that billiards have become an even more important contributor to the bottom line.
According to the VENDING TIMES Census of the Industry Issue 2000, pool now represents the strongest coin-operated game category, producing almost 27 percent of amusement dollar volume last year alone, with a total of $1.6 billion. Between 1998 and 1999, dollar volume for the category increased by an average of 11 percent, one of the strongest gains of any coin-op segment during that period.
Those figures finally vaulted pool ahead of video games, which held the top spot from 1980 through 1998.
While the numbers may be surprising, a closer look reveals that the upward trend has been underway for some time. In the past decade alone, approximately 110,000 tables have been placed industry wide, an indication that the game's popularity is by no means a new phenomenon.
Operators surveyed for this story attributed pool's continued success to three main factors: consistency in weekly earnings, ease of maintenance and its popularity among a wide demographic base.
These attributes, however, also make this equipment type very attractive to location owners, who can operate their own tables with relative ease, at least compared with other coin-op equipment.
For more than two decades, the most important tool for operators in their efforts to maintain their existing accounts has been leagues, according to Ed Borgia of Warner Coin Machine Co. (Erie, PA), who credits league programs with helping to stem the growth of location-owned equipment.
"Leagues have been an unbelievable factor in helping us keep the locations that we have and in helping us get new accounts," said Borgia, who has been involved with the Valley National 8-Ball League Association (VNEA) for 19 years and currently serves as its state director in Pennsylvania.
"When we first got involved, probably 20 percent of our locations owned their own pool tables," he said. "Today we operate tables in all of our locations, including those 20 percent."
Borgia, like many operators, employs an aggressive yet effective strategy to convince location owners to join the company's league program.
"The basic idea is to surround the non-participating location with league locations," he explained. "When the location owner discovers that his customers are playing at another tavern, they eventually call and ask us to put them in the league. That's when I tell them that we can't do it unless it's on our table."
The strategy appears to be paying off.
In Erie alone, Borgia reports that Warner has an active player base hovering around 1,600, more than one percent of the city's entire population of 100,000.
Such success, he emphasized, also is due in large part to the company's philosophy of offering top-notch service to its locations. "We make it a point to maintain the tables in pristine condition," he said. "We re-cover our tables early on instead of letting them go until the threads are showing through the cloth."
Experience has shown, he added, that not offering quality service can be a major mistake, one that will eventually impact the bottom line.
"It's kind of a double-edged sword," he explained. "If you don't do a good job with the league and/or take good care of your table, you're going to open up the location to another operator. But we also look at tables at other locations as well. It's made us better operators because we know we have to stay on our toes."
Although pool tables are widely regarded as easy to operate, Ken Goldberg of PLK Vending (Woodside, NY) noted that there's a lot more involved than most people realize.
Among the list of service calls, he added, are coin jams, foreign objects in pockets, missing or stolen balls, broken cues and ripped or damaged felt.
"If you add it all up, you're at the locations a lot more than people think," he said. "It may not be the same as operating pinballs, but it's up there."
Location-owners, especially those who decide that it would be easy to operate their own tables, often learn that lesson the hard way, he added.
"The locations that own their own tables think there's not a lot to do, but if you look at their tables you can tell the difference right away," he said, noting that a tell tale sign is multiple balls with same number or felt that hasn't been replaced in two years.
"I've also noticed that they are not as critical with their own tables as they are with mine," Goldberg joked.
A LEAGUE OF ITS OWN
Pool's continued success in coin-op is perhaps best evidenced by the rapid growth of the VNEA itself, which boasts an active sanctioned player base of 100,000 in 42 states and 17 countries. The association currently boasts approximately 400 operator members, compared with only 100 in 1990.
The Bay City, MI-based organization, founded in 1979, was established specifically to promote billiards play on operator-owned equipment and to keep locations busy on slow nights, according to executive director Greg Elliott.
While there are other pool associations, including the American Pool Players Association and the Billiards Congress of America, Elliott noted that the VNEA is unique in that it is the only operator-run association , a major factor in helping operators pick up new accounts. "Because it's an operator-based program, it's like a built-in contract," he said. "When a given location is doing well, the other locations eventually want to be a part of it. It's a great tool to pick up new locations and always has been."
The VNEA, he added, also differs from other associations in that it targets the everyday player, not pool sharks.
"Our whole philosophy is to make sure all players have a good time and to provide competition for every skill level," he explained.
The VNEA employs a handicap system that assures that players of all abilities will have a fighting chance during state, regional and national tournaments.
"We offer three levels of ability," he said. "If a player does well, he will get bumped up, and if he plays poorly he will be bumped down. Either way, players play a minimum of five matches during our tournaments."
The player-friendly format also goes a step further by offering players their money back, which is rare for a pool association. Each week, Elliott said, players pay a small fee, similar to a greens fee in golf, for participation in leagues. At the end of a session, that money is returned as long as the player participates for the entire season.
According to Elliott, the majority of leagues run their standard sessions from October through April, at which point players qualify for the national tournament in May, which is held in Las Vegas.
With the growing popularity of summer leagues, however, Elliott noted that pool is quickly becoming a year-round event.
THE PRICE IS RIGHT
With pool enjoying an unprecedented level of popularity, a growing number of operators have responded by increasing its price per play accordingly.
According to V/T's Census, an increasing number of operators in the U.S. report an average vend price of $1, with a select few getting as much as $2 for prime locations.
Just a few years ago, the idea of charging $2 for a game of pool would have been viewed as unrealistic, but it appears that the public's perceived value for a game of pool is gradually changing. That is especially true in a tavern environment, where the majority of customers, many of whom are willing to pay $4 or more for a draft beer, find value in paying $2 for a 15 to 20 minute game of pool.
According to Gordon Lee of Sunstar Vending (Brooklyn, NY), the difference between offering a game of pool for $1 compared with $2, or even 50 cents compared with $1, is critical.
"When it comes down to it," he explained, "it's all based on volume. You can only get so many people to play the game so many times a week regardless of what the price is, just based on the time factor."
If the same 100 people play every week, he added, it's easy to figure out that earnings will be $200 with $2 per play versus $100 with $1 per play.
And unlike other coin-op equipment that can be played rather quickly, he noted that it's simply not possible to increase the amount of plays to the extent that it makes up the difference.
"If you have it set for a dollar and the owner makes you lower it to 50 cents with the idea that it's going to make more money, you'd have to double the amount of plays," he said, adding that it's virtually impossible to generate the difference.
Although the majority of Sunstar's locations are set at $1 per play, a growing number are set at $2, especially prime city locations such as upscale nightclubs, taverns and gentleman's clubs.
"In city locations, we often charge $2 with no questions asked, because these guys are paying a lot of money in rent and they have to maximize every dollar they can," he said.
As a general rule, Lee said he usually starts the price at a higher level and then adjusts accordingly, rather than starting it off at a lower price point and then ramping it up.
"We've found that it's easier to do it that way and it avoids a lot of problems later on," he explained. "If there is a backlash from the higher price per play, we simply make an adjustment by lowering the price."
As is always the case, however, price per play is directly related to market conditions. While $2 for a game of pool may play out in New York City, it simply won't work in less affluent areas, regardless of how popular the game is.
In Erie, PA, for example, Warner's Borgia reports that 50 cents is the going rate, and may remain that way for some time.
"We operate in some areas that are manufacturing driven," he explained. "In Pennsylvania you've got a lot of workers left over from the steel industry that are either unemployed or have menial jobs. They don't have a lot of money, but they are the people that support our taverns."
In areas where money is tight, Borgia emphasized that operators have to make do by making the game affordable, with the idea that more plays will lead to fatter cash boxes.
That philosophy, he added, extends to all coin-op equipment, including the company's CD jukeboxes, which are still priced at a quarter per play.
"Of course we would love to charge $2 or even $1, but that's the reality of the situation," he said, " you just have to make the best of it."
In Ohio, Larry Van Brackel of A. Van Brackel & Sons (Defiance, OH), reports that price per play has finally reached 75 cents after years at 50 cents. In Ohio's bigger cities, including Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland, there are some $1 tables, but even those are the exception, he added.
"Our area was one of the last to go to 75 cents in Ohio," he said. "So far, we've changed over about 75 percent of our tables at 75 cents, while the rest are at 50 cents."
As is usually the case, Van Brackel encountered some resistance from players, especially those involved in leagues.
"They [league players] were a little upset at first, but after they went to the state and national tournaments, where the play was $1, they didn't feel that 75 cents was all that bad anymore."
In looking at pool in comparison to other coin-op categories, it's clear that pool has a number of advantages moving forward.
For one, it enjoys widespread casual play on equipment that is virtually identical to equipment used by consumers in their homes, allowing consumers to "show off" their skills in public. That is not the case with darts (soft tip vs. steel tip) or video games (consoles vs. arcade machines), each of which has its own unique characteristics.
Pool also seems to be less dependent on its nostalgic appeal than other equipment types, such as pinball, which appears to have lost the strong emotional connection with consumers that it once commanded. In Chicago, for instance, a city ordinance is forcing operators to choose between only three units per location, and pinball is often left out.
It's safe to say that such a situation will never happen with pool, as locations will always find room for it.
It may seem unusual, but it also appears that pool's popularity is only growing stronger with time. It could also be argued that pool will actually benefit, and not be left behind, in the rush for new and better technologies.
As the VNEA's Elliott puts it, the secret to the game's enduring appeal is its simplicity.
"Pool has always been popular, mainly because everyone, whether it be men, women or children, loves to play," he said. "Other items come and go, but pool has always been an icon and always will be."