U.S.A. — If you thought Tom Cruise and Paul Newman sparked the ultimate pool craze in 1986 with their film “The Color of Money,” then wake up and smell the chalk dust. Today pool is hotter than ever, boosted by million-dollar purses, breathless cable TV broadcasts, and sexy female stars. Indeed, from Seoul to Cincinnati, the sport of billiards has reached an all-time zenith of popularity and appears poised to keep rocketing ever skyward as prize money, TV coverage and celebrity influence all expand.
The state of the coin-operated pool sector appears to be as strong as ever in 2005, also. For amusement operators, the VENDING TIMES Census of the Industry continues to show pool as the number-one earner on the national route, as it has done for seven years running, since 1999.
Coin-op pool has likely benefited from many favorable factors, but high on the list is an explosion of positive TV coverage. Glamorous pool tournaments on ESPN and other cable networks in recent years have featured million-dollar purses and celebrity players.
They have made stars of female winners like “the Black Widow of Billiards,” Korean-American player Jeanette Lee, who was the number-one ranked female player for two years by the Professional Billiards Association. A current favorite is eight-time world champion Loree Jon Jones, a perky blonde with a wholesome all-American appeal. Competitions featuring such charismatic contestants keep men and women around the world glued to their TV screens.
Such white-hot media coverage also inspires millions of fans to pick up cue sticks and become players themselves. The hype has boosted strong sales for home pool tables, driven amateurs into busy pool halls and pool boutiques and helped create flourishing U.S.-based international finals for traditional pool league programs, such as those sponsored by the Valley National Eight-Ball Association (which celebrated its Silver Anniversary this year), and others organized by the American Poolplayers Association and the Billiards Congress of America.
A powerful newcomer this year is the International Pool Tour, sponsor of the aforementioned million-dollar event, which was broadcast worldwide from Las Vegas on Aug. 20. The broadcast featured Jones in a head-to-head shootout against nine-time men’s world champion Mike Seigel. Some observers said professional pool hadn’t seen such a high-profile event since 1978, when Howard Cosell did play-by-play commentary on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” for the legendary Minnesota Fats’ cue-stick bout against Willie Mosconi.
Yet the super-heated popularity of pool as a sport does not always translate into super-full cashboxes for operators of coin-op tables. Nor does it necessarily guarantee mega-popular local league programs, or record-breaking sales for pool table manufacturers. While factory executives say coin-op sales are steady, even brisk at times, they also acknowledge that they would like to see more sales, plus more aggressive expansion of coin-op pool tables into more and different types of locations. In addition, manufacturers believe the industry needs more aggressive expansion of coin-op pool league programs into states and regions that still don’t currently have them.
Operators, for their part, are uniformly enthusiastic in praising the earnings power of pool from coast to coast. The strength of local coin-op pool promotions programs, however, is a very different story. It varies sharply with regional conditions, which in turn range from the challenge of location-owned tables in some states and cities, to the support of operator-run leagues in others… while backing from state operator associations runs the gamut from very strong to non-existent.
An old saying from the realm of government holds that “All politics are local.” When it comes to amusements, all economies may be local, too. Whether the focus is on video games, tavern popularity or FEC strength, the consensus among industry leaders over the past year has been that it’s difficult to formulate a consistent or universal trend for the industry as a whole. Conditions are spotty, with each region or state telling its own unique story.
Pool, it seems, is no exception.
OHIO: ‘BUSTIN’ WITH PLAYERS’
A strongly upbeat assessment of pool and league popularity comes from David Corey, executive vice-president of the Ohio Coin Machine Association. “The level of pool league participation and the strength of the cashbox for pool is very high in Ohio,” he told VT. “Our annual state pool tournament and local leagues are bustin’ with players. Eeverything I am hearing from OCMA operators is that pool leagues are staying at 2004 levels, or increasing. I have heard absolutely nothing about pool shrinking anywhere in the state.”
Ohio operators recognize that “The key to pool leagues is that P word – promotion,” said Corey. “Guys know they have to get out every night and promote these leagues, Monday through Thursday. And the better operators do it.”
The 2005 OCMA state pool tournament took place as it traditionally does during the last weekend of April. The contest drew 288 A-division teams, 42 AA-division teams, 80 women’s teams and eight Lady Masters teams for a total of almost 2,000 players. Matches were played on 70 pool tables. Players competed for more than $60,000 in prize money plus several thousand dollars in trophies and other awards.
“Counting fans, friends and families, the OCMA pool event draws close to 2,500 people,” Corey reported. “Our AA division will grow even more this year. We will grow our women’s divisions and are forcing better players to compete in higher divisions, making it more competitive for all. That is an important key to the growth of our tournament. You don’t always see the same top 10 finishers.”
Tipping his hat to the Valley National Eight-Ball League, Corey stated, “VNEA’s importance to us is huge.” The 27 OCMA pool association charter holders are required to be VNEA members as well.
What makes VNEA so helpful to the local operator? According to Corey, “It gives you instant credibility with an organization that has been around for 25 years. It gives you an association with an international championship edition that is famous and popular. All of this translates into player demand, and that means healthy cashboxes and an almost invincible operator entrenchment in locations. For all these reasons, VNEA is invaluable.”
Play pricing for pool in Ohio is in line with the national average, or perhaps lagging a bit behind – mirroring the state’s struggling economy. “I’ve seen a couple of buck-fifty tables, but those are at high-end locations,” Corey said. “I’d say we’re in-between the 75¢ to $1 range. Probably the average would be skewed to the lower price, because Ohio’s economy did not recover as quickly as other parts of the country. We still have a ton of people who are out of work. Operators, and especially bar owners, are aware of that and it makes them very reluctant to attempt a play-price increase just yet.”
One obvious way to expand pool leagues – and fatten pool cashboxes – is to recruit more women players. In Ohio, female participation in the state pool tournament is stable and seeing “a little bit of growth perhaps,” said Corey. In darts, he noted, women’s participation is clearly growing. “The difference is the perception, right or wrong, that darts is an easier game to play,” he said. “We do promote women’s pool. We have mixed doubles pool events at our state event, and women’s-only leagues at the local level.”
Operators nationwide are increasingly becoming aware that in order to seed tomorrow’s market of pool players, it is advisable to begin placing pool tables now in under-18 locations. These range from college and high school gamerooms to arcades, bowling centers and the occasional pizzeria, among others. Corey said Ohio’s placement of pool equipment in youth locations is “increasing a little bit.”
“I know at least two operators, and maybe a third, who are really pushing youth leagues,” Corey added. They would like OCMA to eventually create a youth division in our state tournament. If we can pull them into the state tournament, we’ll do it with the attitude of ‘if you build it we will come.’”
Upgrades in pool equipment over the past couple of years include hi-tech cue balls, stain-resistant felts, and the widespread launch of electronic tables that allow operators to change play-pricing on a timer. These have “revolutionized” the game to the delight of players, according to some leading operators around the nation. “My players love all of these upgrades,” a Texas operator told VT last year.
In Ohio, noted Corey, players also welcome new and improved equipment, although such upgrades are moving through the market at the deliberate pace that characterizes the entire industry these days. Corey amplified: “Pool players especially are keenly aware of their playing surface and the equipment, so it does not surprise me that many operators report that various pool upgrades are popular.”
Yet Corey conceded that moving to state-of-the-art equipment is hardly a universal trend in the Buckeye State just yet. “I think progressive operators will always be willing to try new things,” he said. “This summer was tough on many members. Not bad, but most operators said they had a rough summer. Many won’t embrace upgrades until they see – from observing how another operator fares with it – that these upgrades really will do something for their bottom line. The typical operator is willing to consider new equipment, but at the same time he is waiting to hear what the guy across the state is doing. It is a follow-the-leader industry.”
Bill acceptors on pool tables are becoming more popular, but are “still kind of new out there,” Corey said. “We tested them for the first time at our state tournament and were very impressed with it. The handling is much easier. In my travels and location visits, you see this type of product more in upscale establishments.”
Overall, however, Ohio operators remain bullish on pool. In a challenged market, said Corey, pool is “doing a great job of helping us stay afloat!”
UTAH: PATRON APATHY
At the other end of the spectrum is Utah, where a once-thriving, 20-year state pool tournament finally petered out – not with a bang but with a whimper – just a couple of years ago. Robert Hoonakker of Rays Music Co. (Salt Lake City), is treasurer of the Utah Music & Amusement Association. He said UMAA ran the Utah Open Pool Tournament program for two decades, beginning in 1981, but the promotion was discontinued in 2001.
“It got tougher and tougher to get people to show up, so we have not run a state pool tournament the last four years,” Hoonakker pointed out. “We used to sponsor a 128-event program where players qualified through local leagues in the bars. We took the players to a casino in Nevada for the finals. Over the years it was a good program, but we saw it slow down. People are not holding as many tournaments; league play is down. We have not figured out the total reason yet, whether it is DUI or what have you.”
One major problem, as Hoonakker sees it, is not any shrinking popularity of pool but rather, growing competition to control the pool tables. He also sees pool as suffering from a general decline in terms of support, which is part of a broader trend that impacts the cashbox for every category of equipment in the industry.
“Pool is doing okay, better than many other items on the route,” he said. “But it’s still not as good as 10 years ago. I think part of the problem is many locations have bought their own tables and that takes control of the market away from us operators. We have locations that own their own tables and we get everything else. We lose revenue, but it’s better than nothing. Pool just doesn’t seem to be taking in the money it used to. Our route income and tavern income generally is down, so pool has to go with it.”
Most Utah operators, like those in Ohio, tend to cling to the 75¢ price per-play. “About a year ago,” Hoonakker explained, “we increased prices to $1 on about 10% of the tables on our route. It’s tough to convince customers to go along with it. If it were easy, we would have done it across the board. The locations where we made the change are those that attract a transient clientele. Local customers dictate prices in most bars.”
VNEA, despite holding its glitzy international championships just across the state line in Nevada, never quite caught on in Utah, says Hoonakker. “The number of bars in Utah is not as great as in other parts of the country, so we were not able to form an affiliation with VNEA.”
At present, the state has one operator that is affiliated with VNEA in Salt Lake, and one in Ogden who is a member of VNEA, Hoonakker added. “At one time,” he recounted, “we asked VNEA leaders if half a dozen relatively small, scattered companies could join together and become one collective league charter-holder, but that request was turned down.”
NEW YORK: BIG MONEYMAKER
If Ohio and Utah represent two extremes on the scale of pool promotions and success, New York state may exemplify the middle ground. Although operator-run pool tournaments, leagues and promotions are fairly weak in many regions of the state, the dense population and strong economy have enabled many operators to charge top prices for playing a game of pool – and get it, too.
“Pool tables are great as far as I’m concerned,” declared Frank Calland of E&S Music Corp. (Holbrook, NY). As president of AMOA – New York, Calland has his finger on the pulse of operations in the Empire State.
“I would say that $1.50 is the average play price for a game of pool here in New York,” he reported. “I know one operator who changed to $2 a game, and I will change to that price, too, eventually. With the price of gas, what choice do we have? We are still making it on quarters. The only ones that take bills are the new electronic tables. It’s starting to catch on. I don’t have any electronic tables myself, but I know a couple of operators have them and have commented that they are doing very well. It is the coming thing.”
Location acceptance of coin-operated pool has greatly improved in the past generation, Calland said. “I can remember a time when getting a pool table in the bar was very difficult because it required more space than the owner would give up, and bar owners would say, ‘We don’t want to attract a bad crowd; pool players are bikers.’ Things certainly have changed in the last few years,” he mused with obvious satisfaction. “Some locations on my own route have two or three tables. Pool is one of the biggest moneymakers we have right now. Everybody wants a pool table. Here in New York City – the five boroughs – including Long Island, we do very, very well with pool.”
Two factors have helped pool achieve this level of market strength, Calland said. First, a new generation of tables offers a choice of sizes, including smaller editions for cozy locations. Second, pool in New York state has received a boost from tournaments – “whether they are sponsored by the bar itself or by different tournament organizations.”
Location ownership of pool tables is always a possibility, but not an overwhelming problem by any means in Calland’s view. “The only problem with the pool table is you have got to make sure you have a contract, of course,” he stated. “Bar owners now and then will go out and buy their own, feeling ‘it’s not electronic; all I have to worry about is re-covering it with new felt now and then.’” But operators can hold their own by offering superior service, he insisted.
AMOA – NY was wooed by representatives of the Valley National Eight Ball League a few years ago, Calland recalled, “but it didn’t go anywhere because a lot of bars form their own leagues. Five or six neighborhood bars get together and promote a moving league program. This makes it very tough to get an operator-run league launched.”
The traditional pool location – a mom-and-pop bar – has been hurt by smoking bans, Calland reported. “When the state banned smoking in public establishments, if an operator had a customer base of 200 people at an upstate location, you felt the loss. Places have closed.” In a big city, he added, a bar or restaurant can still survive with a loss of 10% to 20% of the customers. “But even if they go outside to smoke, that’s time they are not playing a jukebox or pool table,” he pointed out. “It means lost income for the operator.”
Dollar coins have apparently played no role in the increased revenues achieved on pool tables, Calland said. The very mention of this currency made him scoff, “Are you kidding? Dollar coins will never be a factor unless and until the dollar bill is taken off the market.”
ILLINOIS: BACKBONE OF THE ROUTE
“Pool is one of the backbones of the route,” according to Craig Beard of Lowry Music Co. (Pittsfield), who also serves as president of the Illinois Coin Machine Operators Association and chairman of its pool tournament committee. The organization’s strong state pool tournament has been running nearly 30 years. “It’s a fall and winter sport,” but even in the warmer weather, ICMOA’s local leagues would be the envy of many other states. “In fall and winter we usually have about 16 teams in my league; in the summertime it falls off to only about 10. So it is clearly a seasonal activity,” Beard commented.
As in Ohio, the Illinois operators view leagues as a means of gaining control of locations – not a luxury that can only be realized after control of the location real estate is established. “We started our pool tournament years ago to keep pool tables run by operators in the locations,” explained Beard. “If you don’t have an ICMOA member operator-owned pool table, you cannot participate in the ICMOA program.”
This year, declared Beard, ICMOA league activity and state tournament participation were both down a bit, due to a combination of factors that included DUI enforcement, inflation and gas prices. Nevertheless, he said, “My own league is still pretty strong.” And ICMOA’s April 2005 state tournament was nothing to sneeze at, either. The event drew 250 men and about 100 women to compete on 24 tables at a convention center in Springfield. A double-elimination format with a single-player division system was employed. “We changed our rules a bit so that the more games players compete in, the better chance they have of staying in longer,” said the pool tournament chairman.
Are mom-and-pop bars in trouble in Illinois? They may not be sinking, but clearly they are under fire, said Beard. “It’s tough on them,” he noted. “Smoking bans, law enforcement for DUI and so on have hurt the small bars, restaurants and everything else. Hopefully if a statewide smoking ban is passed in Illinois, it will be on a local-option basis.”
Hi-tech tables, cue balls and felt are promising signs in Beard’s eyes. “I think the technology is a lot better and it has helped in bigger cities to get pool table play pricing up to $1 or $1.50,” he said. “For me in a rural area, it’s tough to change over from 75¢ to a buck. If you only have 3,000 people in town, they resist the idea. The electronic pool has been a real plus in larger markets. We hope it will trickle down to our rural areas down the road.”
Recruiting youth support for pool is a worthy goal, Beard said, but not an easy one to achieve. “It’s tough to get the younger generation to play,” he said. “I have a bowling alley where I have pool tables, and in wintertime there are many kids who play. That’s what we want to see, of course, and we hope they’ll continue after they turn 21. But for the most part, the younger generation is not picking up pool as much as 15 years ago.”