LAS VEGAS - The Amusement and Music Operators Association this spring is toasting one of its biggest successes: the AMOA National Dart Association, which celebrates its 20th year this season. And beyond simply turning a page on the calendar, AMOA and the electronic dart industry as a whole have much to be happy about.
NDA's annual Team Dart national tournament was expected to bring in a record-breaking 16,600 sanctioned entrants. The event was staged here from April 29 through May 7 at the Riviera Hotel and Casino, its now-traditional venue. The 291 NDA operator members, known as charter holders, set new records by putting up an unprecedented $450,000 purse for the eight-day event. Players competed in various categories of individual and team play, utilizing the latest electronic dart machines from Arachnid Inc., Medalist Corp. and Löwen/Shelti Inc.
NDA's 20th anniversary event took place against the backdrop of a seemingly stagnant dart market, albeit one that has also seen pockets of vibrant growth. The number of dart machines on location across the United States has, for the most part, remained stable since the late 1990s. So have the numbers of dart players and dart operators (although NDA leaders advise that the number of nights per week that players participate is dropping in many markets).
On the technology front, some seasoned participants in the sport believe that a broader implementation of online connectivity and promotion would help add new excitement. But this does not appear likely because of potential patent infringement issues. As a result, most dart games have seen only incremental technical innovations and improvements for some time.
On the brighter side, darts remain on an upward curve in certain local markets. These include both states that already have well-established state tournaments, and certain new states that aggressively promote the sport. In the past year, NDA has launched a proactive program to create and nurture new statewide tournaments that can become the seedbed for thriving local dart communities. The first such effort took place in Florida, and has roundly been judged a success. More states are expected to receive this form of assistance from NDA in the coming years.
And, existing dart players remain fiercely loyal to their sport. For example, at least 80% of players who attend Team Dart participate for the full eight days of the competition, report NDA officials. Youth league programs, while still not as widespread as NDA would like, have proved successful where they have been installed.
There is even good news in terms of dart technology. One of those incremental changes is a "go-back" feature that allows players to cancel the results of a shot taken out of turn or for some other mistake. All three major manufacturers incorporated this convenient option into their machines and, in fact, it was used on all machines played in NDA's 2004 Team Dart event, association officials said.
According to NDA's 2005-2006 president, operator Reggie Horak of Automatic Amusements (Waterloo, IA), the association continues to prove its worth as an indispensable focus for the electronic darts market. "Uniformity of rules and standardization is a major value of the National Dart Association," he said. "As the governing body for electronic darts, NDA establishes the importance of the game and creates a valuable league structure. Our players are all NDA-sanctioned and they look forward to getting their sanctioned player cards. In Iowa, you must be an NDA-certified player to compete in the Iowa state dart tournament."
Horak became president of NDA in February. His company serves 350 dart players with 18 leagues, offering competition six nights a week. Darts is a growth market for Iowa, Horak commented. "We have seen growth every year since we started our state tournament 15 or so years ago, and this year was our biggest state tournament turnout ever." Slightly fewer than 2,000 players competed in Iowa's 2005 state dart tournament, sponsored by the Iowa Operators of Music and Amusements.
If darts are not performing well in other local markets, the reason is lack of promotion, Horak believes. "It is very helpful to have an association that promotes the tournament," he explained.
That fact is confirmed by NDA executive director Leslie Murphy, who told VENDING TIMES: "We consistently see that places where there are state tournaments have six times more sanctioned players, and their leagues are usually twice the size of those in states without a state tournament." Even she was surprised by that fact. "When we did our analysis, I was shocked at first to see the numbers in black and white, but it makes sense."
Recognizing the importance of state tournaments to the health of a local darts market, NDA has started a new program called STAR , State Tournament Attract and Retain. Supporting local operators with infusions of cash and labor from NDA's national resources, STAR's goal is to help operators in a particular state launch a state dart event that will be strong enough continue to grow, year after year, just as Iowa's state tournament has done. NDA leaders say the investment is good for NDA charter holders nationwide, because STAR is also a membership recruitment tool for new NDA operators and a way to boost player appeal for existing NDA operator members. All of this creates a stronger NDA and a more relevant Team Dart event, and that in turn helps sustain stronger local leagues , and fatter cashboxes for local dart games , nationwide.
"Our first state for the STAR program was Florida, where we held a state dart tournament [in November] at the Ramada Parkway in Kissimmee," Murphy reported. "In a sense, we're starting a new state dart association, but the Florida board is making all the key decisions. The Florida operators offered a $10,000-plus cash giveaway that was not our subsidy." Florida's first NDA-sanctioned state dart tournament drew 140 players.
The date and venue both had to be changed more than once, because of the series of hurricanes that hit the coastline last fall, Murphy noted. But NDA kicked in $5,000 to $6,000 in financial support that covered certain hotel expenses, for example. The association also provided considerable staff time and support in booking a hotel, dealing with player skill classifications, etc. Games were provided free of charge by Arachnid and Shelti; both manufacturers sent representatives to the event at company expense.
"We will continue to help the second year and we hope, by year three, they'll be independent and well on their way," said Murphy. "Although," she continued, "through our TIP program we give rebate money to states with ongoing annual sanctioned tournaments. Not everyone can get to the national tournament; a state tournament creates local value for sanctioning players."
Another state is expected to get STAR support in 2006. "There are some fairly popular dart states that still don't have state tournaments," Murphy said. She cited several western and southern states as examples. She added that STAR might be applied to the launch of some regional tournaments that would have multi-state appeal.
"Our STAR state initiative in Florida is something I really believe can be repeated successfully in other states," said NDA president Horak. "We have had a lot of positive feedback from the event in Kissimmee, and I am confident Florida will see growth for its state tournament year after year. As we know, this promotes the growth of local leagues. I am also quite confident that if other states will take the initiative, they can do the same thing."
All of this gave NDA leaders plenty to smile about during the organization's 20th anniversary Team Dart event. To help commemorate two decades of successful dart promotion, the group held a special ceremony on Monday, May 2, to recognize NDA's founders and past presidents. NDA also shared the fun with players in the form of a $20,000 cash giveaway program, whereby 160 players won differing amounts in random drawings during a series of Team Dart cocktail parties.
Two new competitive events were added to the schedule, but the most radical change in several years was NDA's move was to group singles, doubles and triples events together during the first half of Team Dart XX, and to group team events together during the second half. The event's closing party also sported a grander style with a band instead of the traditional DJ, and that Las Vegas staple, a live Elvis impersonator.
The annual finals event is the culmination of a year's hard work by operators who serve as NDA charter holders. These operators run local league and tournament programs enabling their sanctioned players to compete and become eligible for the annual Team Dart tournament.
Team Dart entry qualifications include being an NDA-sanctioned player and playing at least 96 league games for the operating company that enters the player in the tournament. "The NDA prides itself on providing a tournament for players of all skill levels with fair and equal competition," said NDA's Murphy.
DUCKS IN A ROW
The executive director reflected that the association has come a long way since its original 1985 event, which offered a relatively small $25,000 purse. Although Murphy only assumed the mantle of executive director eight years ago, she has carefully studied NDA's history, talking to its founders at length and even going back to read the minutes from the earliest board meetings.
"The toughest part of getting the National Dart Association up and running," she opined, "appears to have been getting operators and manufacturers , who viewed themselves as competitors , to sit down and agree on such key issues as standardizing target sizes, standardizing player distance from foul lines and so on. It's hard to believe now, because we have those standards in place and we take them for granted as the natural order of things, but before NDA was founded, there was a wide variance in many, many aspects of the sport of electronic darts. Standardization was rated as one of the most valuable benefits of NDA when we surveyed our charter holders a couple of years ago. Most operators still remember what it was like in the days before we had standards."
Since joining NDA's ranks, Murphy said the greatest challenge has been to help operators deal with such problems as competition from home dartboards and the impact of DUI and smoking laws on dart locations. "No question about it, the biggest challenge we face today is figuring out how NDA can help operators deal with a sometimes difficult business environment," she stated.
Murphy and her staff handle the day-to-day administration of NDA from her hometown of Indianapolis. She points to local business conditions in the city as an example of what many NDA member operators have had to face, nationwide. "Our city council has drafted what some call the most restrictive smoking ban in America," she reported. "It's now in the committee on children's health and the environment. If children's health is the issue, naturally we want to know: could bars and taverns be exempted?"
One reason NDA's board picked Florida for its first STAR program launch, she added, was that operators in the Sunshine State were hurt badly by the statewide no-smoking ban. "We felt it was not only a state where a state tournament might be successful, but one where help was desperately needed to help shore up leagues," she said.
NDA today boasts some 57,600 sanctioned players, up about 3% from last year. The all-time high was 59,000 sanctioned players in 2003; enrollment dipped to 56,000-plus in 2004. The number of operator charter holders, 291, represents 3% growth over 2004.
Looking ahead to NDA's next 20 years, the board of directors is mulling over some big ideas, including possible TV exposure and stronger international cooperation. "We are looking for those opportunities for cable-TV publicity and there is a lot of talk about this possibility," Murphy said. "We at NDA won't be in a position to fund such a program ourselves, which is the fastest way to get such a broadcast in place, but we are trying to work toward being ready for the day when that can possibly happen, perhaps with some outside sponsor's funding. For example, we are instituting a slightly more formal dress code for finals events so that when we do show video recordings of our contests, we'll have a product we're proud of."
Expanding NDA's reach across the Atlantic is also an option the board is exploring. Several foreign countries send teams of players to the NDA Team Dart Championships each year. NDA president Horak hopes someday to see a reciprocal opportunity for NDA players to travel overseas and compete in a single, continent-wide European dart tournament (as opposed to national championships held by individual countries). This idea is under discussion with the sponsors of the Spanish and German teams that now participate in Team Dart, Horak said.
Summing up the significance of NDA's 20th anniversary, Murphy said that the secret of the group's success comes down to operator teamwork. "I marvel that any operators can make it on their own these days, without league and association support," she said. "If the product isn't changing, what do you have? Promotion. That is what NDA provides, above all. Our annual Team Dart national championship event is the jewel in our crown and our most visible service for operators.
"But remember, NDA doesn't run Team Dart to benefit NDA," Murphy added. "The whole reason for Team Dart today is still what it was back in 1985: to give players on the local level an incentive to commit to playing that minimum of 96 seasonal games in their local leagues. At the end of the day, the dart operator's cashbox back home is what the AMOA National Dart Association is all about."
Additional information on NDA and its programs is available from the association by calling tel. (800) 808-9884, or visiting the award-winning NDA website at ndadarts.com.