U.S.A. - Pool remains solidly in place for the fourth year in a row as the top-earning category of equipment for most American operators nationwide, according to the latest VENDING TIMES Census of the Industry. Against this backdrop of stable earnings performance, the basic features of coin-operated pool haven't changed much in 50-odd years. After all, what else is needed beyond a slate, six pockets, and a coin mechanism?
More choices, that's what. Despite continued manufacturer consolidation with Brunswick's recent purchase of Valley-Dynamo LP, in the past 18 months, operators have begun to receive a broader spectrum of options across the board. New models, new components, and even new manufacturers are entering the coin-op pool arena.
Novelty comes in the form of Valley's new perfect-roll cue ball, new electronic table, and faster felts along with Sun Line's and Happ's new electronic pool table and conversion kit. And with Great American Recreation's plans for a whole line of electronic tables, a brand-new line of tables built by new provider Shelti Inc. and additional products built by such manufacturers as Global Billiards, ICE, and others'operators enjoy more choices in coin-operated pool today than ever before.
After years of relative consistency , or perhaps stagnation, depending on your point of view , the classic coin-op pool table itself has seen some dramatic evolution in the past year. Mick White, vice-president of sales and marketing of Great American Recreation Equipment, commented: "A pool table is one item that I never would have believed needed bells and whistles. But if that is what the market demands, we will give it to them." He could have been speaking for many elements of the manufacturing sector.
Operators and players alike are responding very positively to the new developments in coin-op pool. Dave Knupp of Amuse-O-Matic (Dodge City, IA) says new cue balls, new felts, and other changes have "revolutionized" the game, to the delight of players. Operator Jeff McKenney of City Vending (Ft. Wood, TX) confirmed Mick White's point that making any changes to a classic and successful product like pool may seem odd or unnecessary. But McKenney agreed with Knupp that intelligent evolution is welcome nevertheless. "A pool table is a pool table," McKenney said. "It has always been the same, taking coins and giving a game of pool. But whether it's the new felt, the new cue ball, or the new bill changer, the recent changes allow pool to catch up to the 21st century with some positive new concepts. My players love all of these upgrades."
THE 'PERFECT ROLL'
One of the least obvious yet most important of recent upgrades for pool is the debut of "Perfect Roll," a new breed of magnetic cue ball developed by Valley and the Belgian manufacturer, Saluc. This regulation-sized ball offers improved balance and separation, while weighing the same as other pool balls on the table. Equally important, the weight of the metallic element that magnetizes the "Perfect Roll" cue ball is evenly distributed throughout the sphere, making for a flawless roll and significantly improved shot physics.
"Players say the difference is night and day, especially when the new cue ball is combined with the faster felt , it can double the velocity of the shot," reports Amuse-O-Matic's Knupp. "The old cue balls were sometimes called a 'mud ball' because they were heavy and didn't roll as well over that fast felt," he added. "We are just starting to replace our older cue balls; we have about 20 of the new balls out on test and they seem great. They are especially good for league locations." Knupp added that Valley's new magnetic cue ball costs twice as much as earlier magnetic cue balls, "but we've wanted a better cue ball and we have had really good results" so his company plans to convert all of its tavern locations to the Saluc "Perfect Roll."
Improved felts to cover pool table slates are also a feature that Knupp says has helped revolutionize coin-op pool for Valley operators this year.
"Valley has begun offering faster-rolling felt for tournament play," he noted. "Slower-roll felt may wear better, but players prefer the faster felt. It comes at no extra charge. You have to replace it maybe twice a year as opposed to once a year, but we are willing to spend a little more money to make the game better and make the players happier."
Valley's new "Ultimate" brand, stain-resistant Teflon-enhanced felt is "another big plus," Knupp stated. "Valley just came out with it last year, and it's remarkable. If somebody can wipe up the spill, it's no problem." (Without being prompted, Knupp volunteered this endorsement of Valley-Dynamo as a whole: "This series of new pool choices shows the company is more accommodating to what operators and players want.")
Amuse-O-Matic's 50 billiards locations are chiefly taverns and bowling alleys, and the company is a strong supporter of the Valley National Eight-Ball League. The company achieves a very steady income average with weekly pool earnings around $150 week, although top locations can generate up to $400 per week. "For investment value and longevity, pool is the best thing you can buy," Knupp declared. "Even after you sell them to the home market after 10 years, they're still good for another 20 or 30 years! Pool has got to be the best piece of equipment going."
Electronic tables are another major new option in the coin-op pool market. Dedicated models are available from Sun Line and Valley, and a full suite of additional dedicated electronic models is planned for late fall by Great American. In addition, Sun Line and Happ Controls offer retrofit kits to convert standard pool tables into electronic units with bill acceptance.
Sun Line USA (Farmingdale, NY) debuted its "Horizon 700 Electronic Pool Table" approximately one year ago. The unit allows operators to offer "happy hour" pricing on pool, along with a wide variety of other programmable features. DBA and quarter coin acceptor enables operators to program price levels in 25¢ increments. A 24-hour, seven-day-a-week clock permits operators to program different features on different days of the week and at certain times on those days, depending on location needs and promotional requirements.
Operators may program the "Horizon" table with a three-tiered Standard Pricing structure, such as one game for $1.25; two games for $2.00 and three games for $3.00. Time Pricing, which permits discounted play pricing during slow periods, may be used in conjunction with Standard Pricing or not at all. Happy Hour Pricing allows the operators to set different cost per play during two daily sessions of any length; the table returns automatically to Standard Pricing when the promotion is over. A built-in Speed Pool clock monitors elapsed time to facilitate play of this popular variation, of which the object is to see which player can rack the table in the shortest time. Game audits and accounting data are stored by the "Horizon 700" computer for easy retrieval. Operators can see how many games were played in each price category. This data provides a useful overview of play patterns that can help operators adjust promotion times and price structures as needed to maximize earnings.
Valley this year launched its "Great Eight" pool table, incorporating rechargeable battery-operated, state-of-the-art electronics. The low-current system is powerful enough to run approximately 2,800 vends before recharging is required. "Great Eight" features a bill validator and sophisticated controller, a digital timer for Speed Pool game play, and optional time-of-day programmable discounting. An LCD panel displays credit information and doubles as the Speed Pool countdown timer, providing a two-line, 16-column display on the alphanumeric screen (the screen is built into the mahogany rail above the vend mechanism). The JCM validator can accept $1, $5, $10 and $20 bills and the game itself also includes the traditional 25¢ coin mechanism. It permits players to select rack play or Speed Pool.
"Operating the 'Great Eight' means we don't have to have changers in the location," pointed out City Vending's McKenney. "It really alleviated some of the problems with locations running out of coins, having to go to the bank. The bill units allow you to be more diverse in the type of acceptance. We go with $1 play. We are hearing nothing but good things from players. They like the high-quality felt and enjoy the greater range of adding Speed Pool to eight-ball and nine-ball rack play. We have six 'Great Eight' units now, soon to be eight. I think it's a great asset for the average bar. The price is higher but I think it's worth it."
City Vending operates approximately 300 pool tables, replacing perhaps 5% of its pool table inventory annually. "All my new tables from here forward will be 'Great Eight,'" McKenney vowed. This is a significant decision, since "I would say pool is probably our top earner," he said. "On our amusement route probably 25% to 30% of our income is generated by pool tables."
Like Knupp, McKenney also volunteered a strong personal endorsement of the Texas-based manufacturer. "Valley is trying to be more operator-conscious," he said. "I have some 25 - and 30-year-old Valley tables still in the field. They build a quality product. I can't say enough about Valley. I get more support from them than I do from any manufacturer in amusements or vending."
The next announced entry into the electronic table market will be Great American. In October, the company plans to launch dedicated, electronic versions of all six of its pool table models, including the 26-in. high "Kiddie" table. Great American's White said the battery-operated units would require recharging only once per month.
"I think the industry is headed toward electronic tables because they accept dollar bills and operators want that one-dollar play," White stated. "They may still charge 50¢ a play in some cases, but even so they will get that dollar from the customer , and then give him two plays. A big advantage of electronic pool and bill acceptance is, it means you don't have to keep a change machine near the pool table. Our electronic models will not have a lot of bells and whistles, but they will accept bills. Operators will also like the fact that our electronic versions have a 'free play' key on the outside of the table that enables free play for league nights, without giving anyone else access to the cashbox."
For some operators, having more choices means not just new models or new components to choose from, but the option of buying tables from an entirely new manufacturer. That option is embodied, most recently, in Michigan-based Shelti Inc., which this year launched its "Shelti Pool Table" in three sizes (88, 93, and 101 ins. long) and in a choice of brushed-metal or black trim. Unitized construction ensures a precision fit between components, such as side and end aprons, top rails and zinc die cast corners.
Shelti does all its own design and engineering, the majority of its woodwork, and all of the cabinetry assembly, packaging, and shipping. Plastic and metal parts are made by specialty contract suppliers, per Shelti's design requirements, using Shelti's proprietary tooling and dies, and under Shelti's supervision. ISO-certified suppliers are used by Shelti for precision parts. Behind the company stands a team of industry veterans with decades of experience building high-quality coin-op pool tables, including founder and president Dick Shelton.
One of the earliest adopters of Shelti tables is Tim Steiner of Hydrant Games (Green Bay, WI). The 23-year industry veteran states, "I've got a couple of Shelti tables out on my route right now and next month I'm buying more of them. My plan is to switch my over my whole route to Shelti tables over the next couple of years. That's more than 45 locations, including some with multiple tables. When I get new locations I'll buy Shelties for them, and when it's time to replace older units we'll be buying Shelties too." Like Knupp and McKenney, Steiner rates pool as "very important" to his route. "It's probably our biggest earner after music," he said.
Steiner purchased his first Shelti table in June and says he got positive feedback from players. "They like how the balls run on it and they like to play it," he noted. "A few said the table is too fast, but some players always question any change you make. What I liked about the Shelti table is solid construction. It is extremely well built. You can just see the craftsmanship; the pieces fit together beautifully and they stay together. The drop mechanism is theft-proof. The price is good. The table looks better because of the way the sides are; it's more like a home table. So I am very satisfied with the table and also with the service. If I have a problem, the guys from Shelti are right here to fix it."
The evolution of coin-operated pool table design remains open to speculation. As with earlier "black light" pool models, the new generation of electronic pool games may well be emulated across the board by many manufacturers. And, once electronic components are introduced into any type of product (from pinball to redemption), manufacturers tend to find creative ways to enhance the game and the experience of playing it through computerized support and functions. Pool could follow this evolutionary curve.
Meanwhile, Valley executives have stated in general terms that future models could be influenced by design input from the company's new owner, Brunswick Billiards. The latter is the leading home pool table manufacturer and has a large stable of engineers and industrial artists who have long experience in pool aesthetics and construction. However, Valley-Dynamo personnel tell VT that operators are not likely to see any noticeable changes or Brunswick-inspired design changes in VDLP pool tables for a couple of years, at least. Meanwhile, Brunswick plans to leave in place the current VDLP personnel (150 managers and employees), along with the current VDLP distributor network and tournament programs.