U.S.A. - Pool is back. After decades of taking a back seat, first to video and then redemption, the category has leapt back into first place as the biggest moneymaker for operators. The VENDING TIMES annual operator Census of the Industry continues to show pool earning about a third of every dollar that operators make.
Play pricing for pool has risen hand-in-hand with its popularity. "One dollar play is pretty much the norm now," reported Dave Courington, vice-president of sales and marketing for Valley-Dynamo Limited Partnership. "You're seeing $1.50 play coming on strong. With our electronic 'Great 8' table, operators are raising single-game play pricing, but if you play five games it's often $1 per game. This increases pool volume through incentive pricing. [However,] operators need to make more money from pool. Valley has sent out all its tables factory-set for $1 play for the past five years, but some operators still object because they can't charge 50˘. Our reply is that in today's market, there is no reason you should not get $1 or even $2 for this great entertainment value."
Signs of pool's resurgence go well beyond the cashbox. Movies and TV broadcasts give the message that "pool is cool," with cable sports channels frequently showcasing women players in tournament competition along with occasional male trick-shot artists. New pool manufacturers are proliferating, with many of these specializing in sales to the booming home market, with coin-op sales being a secondary line. Existing manufacturers are investing in new models and electronic upgrades.
Pool leagues are growing their player bases, including , slowly, but steadily , women players and youth leagues, the latter in non-tavern locations. Local, state and national pool tournaments are achieving or matching record attendance. The player base has grown every year for 25 years, according to top league and tournament officials.
Challenges For Pool
As always, some aspects of the current pool market could be better. The league marketing dynamic has traditionally meant that pool leagues flourish more in rural areas and small towns than in heavily populated urban areas. The reason is simple: the former require an attraction to maximize repeat traffic by a limited local customer base. City-based locations tend to enjoy a steadier stream of traffic, with or without league nights. "These types of locations are often unwilling to split the revenues with an operator," said Gregg Elliott, executive director of the Valley National Eight-Ball Association.
In addition, the existing location and player base for pool continues to shrink. "We're seeing certain markets devastated by social change , smoking bans, DUI laws, and so on , so customer traffic is considerably down and bars are closing," said Courington. "Smoking bans in particular are proving devastating to many bars and restaurants. If more of these locations had been part of pool leagues all along, the decline in customer traffic would not be as sharp." He added that this market backdrop makes the stability of league and tournament organizations and their player memberships all the more remarkable.
Another challenge for the pool market: an apparent ceiling for the overall percentage of operators who participate in leagues. "There was a real push on leagues industrywide about 10 years ago, but we've gotten away from it the last five or six years," observed Elliott. "Good, solid operators always stayed involved; they never wavered. But many went off looking for new things , countertops, legalized gaming , whatever. Where we could use strengthening is in a wider operator membership base. We need to bring these guys back because VNEA in particular is a slam-dunk. It never fails. In terms of building on past membership recruitment, we've done a good job. In terms of future potential, we are still scratching the surface."
Location-owned tables are on the rise in certain markets where legalized gambling has arrived. "In states where gaming has become prominent, we have lost a lot of pool tables to locations," Courington observed. "Operators are willing to give up pool and music if necessary to keep their poker machines. As gaming becomes more prominent, more socially accepted, it hurts the amusement industry. There is just so much money that comes through that door, and gambling equipment represents easy money for operators. So this trend means we are losing pool tables to locations in many environments."
A final challenge is experienced by pool manufacturers: much like the makers of downloading jukeboxes, the companies that build electronic tables sometimes have more admirers than buyers. "Our pool sales overall are steady and consistent," Courington said of Valley-Dynamo. "That's very good in today's market, [the fact that] we're not losing market." But like every manufacturing executive, Courington and his fellow pool professionals would like to see even higher sales. Conversion from traditional to electronic tables is occurring, but sales resistance remains considerable.
"Even though pool is the number-one earner on the national route, many operators are reluctant to spend $3,000 or $4,000 for a top-of-the-line, electronic table," commented Courington. "They may spend more for a new video game, pinball or jukebox, but somehow pool is viewed differently. Many operators are just as happy to keep refurbishing 10-year-old tables."
Shooting For Greater Prosperity
Pool supporters are confident the industry will get past these bumps in the road as they move toward greater prosperity. For every problem facing the pool market, there is a solution, experts say.
Faced with urban operations that don't want to share pool revenues, "leagues give the operator a bargaining chip," VNEA's Elliott pointed out. "The operator can say: 'I know you're busy, but I'll make you even more busy.' And he can point to successful VNEA league programs because plenty of urban areas have them."
Location-owned tables, even in urban environments, can also be combated with political ammunition provided by city councils and state legislatures. The ever-growing number of smoking bans across America makes league support desirable as an insurance policy. Committed league players keep patronizing their favorite taverns, even after they can no longer light up.
For this reason, pool leagues will be the salvation for many operators as the anti-smoking juggernaut rolls through the rest of the communities that don't yet have tobacco bans, according to VDLP's Courington. "More bans will happen. It is going to be everywhere," he warned. "Operators who don't have leagues should start them now as a defensive measure. They should establish player loyalty while the players are still there. They must not wait until after a ban comes along and decimates the customer base in their tavern locations. Once those customers are gone, it's a darn sight harder to get 'em back."
New Types Of Players, Locations
The answer to shrinking markets, according to pool enthusiasts, is youth leagues, more female players and new types of locations. VNEA launched its youth leagues 15 years ago, headed by D&R Star (Rochester, MN). This year's anniversary youth league program will run on 100 Valley tables in the city civic center. Young players from 20 states, plus most Canadian provinces and New Zealand, will compete in three age categories.
"Operators who previously expanded into the youth market are seeing players transition straight from youth leagues to tavern leagues," Courington noted. "It's a good tactic that is really starting to catch hold. Viable alternatives for pool include arcades; pool is a non-violent game."
Non-traditional locations are excellent opportunities for junior programs to recruit the VNEA players of tomorrow, explained Elliott. "Players under 21 can't play in bars," he said, but "restaurants, fast food chains, bowling centers and other places that cater to non-smokers and non-drinkers are good places for youth leagues. Today we have 70 operators running junior leagues for some 5,000 younger players. About 1,000 of these players go to our national tournament. Our members and sponsors donate cues and pay their entry fees. We had a 25% increase in the youth league program last year."
Another factor helping to counteract shrinking markets is growing participation in the sport by women. "We're seeing more women playing pool, particularly the younger women," Courington noted. "We have a higher percentage of women in youth leagues than in taverns and that's good. Social acceptance of pool is broad. Anytime you turn on sports cable TV channels, you see women playing pool. This is encouraging more women to play."
Pool leagues, like trade associations, have attracted a large and enthusiastic minority among the U.S. operator population. Many operators, it seems, just aren't joiners. Here again, pool supporters believe there is a solution: just keep pushing forward. VNEA gains an average of 50 new operator members per year, representing better than 10% gains in the rank and file. This year 35 new operators were recruited. "A decade ago we had 100 tables at the national tournament; in 2005 we will have 300 tables," Elliott said of VNEA. "We see no end in sight; the national tournament is already 10 days so it can't get too much longer!"
Finally, operator buying resistance , an old headache for manufacturers , can also be overcome, experts say. Tools for promoting more sales include "pull-through marketing" such as exposing players and locations to new table models at competitions and location trade shows. In addition, the dollars-and-cents argument does carry the day with some operators.
"Our 'Great 8' electronic table is generating minimum revenue increases of 23% across the board, even in weak locations," said VDLP's Courington. "That's why one operator recently decided to replace all the pool tables on his route with this upgrade. The investment more than pays for itself, because players can conveniently pay for their games with dollar bills, dollar coins, and quarters. We are seeing the table take in all three types, with players spending bills over coins by about three to one." And, he added, "You don't want the guy at the bar making change; you want him making drinks. Simpler payment means longer play, which is what locations want."
The best news in pool is that "pool is still cool," the experts contend. "People like to play," Courington concluded. "Pool is a great way to meet people and have fun. It's always been a staple in street routes and it's gradually moving into leisure centers as well. The future of pool looks very, very good."