— Dart operators nationwide are discovering how flexible scheduling formats and in-house (non-traveling) programs are effective strategies to boost player participation in local leagues, according to leaders of the National Dart Association.
The NDA is an organization of the Amusements and Music Operator Association. This year’s NDA president is Larry McEntire of Bullhead Billiard and Darts (Bullhead City, AZ). NDA’s longtime executive director is Leslie Murphy.
The NDA program boasts nearly 60,000 players, and is steadily growing by 2% to 3% each year. For several years, NDA has noted that although national player participation in its dart championships was increasing, local player support of leagues was flat or declining. According to NDA leaders, some progressive operators are beginning to find creative ways to solve this problem on the local level.
Inhouse dart leagues are an emerging trend, said McEntire and Murphy. These programs appeal to several categories of players, such as members of fraternal organizations and older players. Individuals who prefer smoking bars or non-smoking bars have embraced in-house leagues, as have those who wish to avoid possible exposure to stricter DUI enforcement during a long drive home from a remote location.
In-house leagues are especially popular at fraternal organizations such as the Moose Lodge and Elks Lodge, where “people are comfortable in their own venues and don’t enjoy bar-hopping, for whatever reason,” said McEntire.
In some states, said Murphy, league players who patronize smokers’ bars in the suburbs may not want to visit non-smoking bars in the city proper, and vice versa. Murphy said some dart operators, such as Mary Lavine of Bullseye Inc. (Madison, WI), alternate league action between smoking and non-smoking bars each week to ensure fairness.
Another emerging trend that boosts local dart league play, said McEntire, is the formation of flex leagues. These are leagues where scheduling of matches is left up to the individual players, rather than requiring play on a particular day or evening of the week.
“We set up a league, set the pairings, and tell them where to play – but not when,” McEntire explained. “It is the players’ responsibility to get together with their competitors and play sometime that week. It doesn’t matter if it is morning, afternoon or night.”
McEntire said the popularity of flex league scheduling on his own route grew from the unpredictable hours of many of players near the Arizona-Nevada border who work in Las Vegas casinos. Some of these players work late hours, and others frequently experience work schedule shifts with little or no notice. These potential darters hesitate to sign up for a fixed time of play each week, many weeks into the future.
Offering a flex league, said McEntire, gives dart operators an opportunity to appeal to a broader segment of the potential player population – “people who can’t commit themselves to lock-in a fixed schedule.”
The popularity of the flex league concept is not confined to Arizona and greater Las Vegas. In today’s 24/7, rush-rush society, a growing number of players find it more and more difficult to make the commitment to “22 weeks of showing up on the same night,” said McEntire.
A related strategy is to shorten league schedules from a full summer season or full winter season to three or four-week segments. “Here in Arizona, many retirees would like to get into dart leagues, but are only here for a season of 12 or 14 weeks,” he said. “Our new short schedule structure enables players to feel comfortable making that commitment.”
Reduced travel and flexible match scheduling also appeals to the older player, said McEntire. “For many retirees, the only way to get them to play is to offer in-house leagues or leagues that are restricted to three or four locations where they feel comfortable,” he said. Most of Bullhead’s “Baby Boomer Leagues” offer afternoon play, because players 50 and up are less inclined to stay out until or , said McEntire.
The older demographic represents 15% to 20% of Bullhead’s current player base, said McEntire, but the percentage is growing steadily while more structured leagues for younger players are stagnant or declining. As the U.S. population – and specifically the Baby Boomer generation – enters its retirement phase, McEntire expects that retirees will comprise an even greater number of the dart playing market.
According to the NDA president, in-house leagues and flex league scheduling are simply common-sense marketing strategies to provide greater convenience for players.
“It’s all just a question of trying to structure something that people will commit to,” said McEntire. “If you think about it, you realize that’s all league play is: getting somebody to commit to be there. Most people are responsible, and if they make a commitment they want to live up to it. If they are not comfortable making that commitment, you can’t get them to sign up.”
Innovative league structures like in-house programs, shorter league seasons and flexible scheduling are increasingly catching on throughout the country, McEntire reported. At the recent NDA Dart Summit, held July 20 through 22 in Denver, CO, some of the breakout sessions focused on non-traditional leagues, he said. (See separate story on the Summit elsewhere in this issue.)
The number of NDA operator members dropped to some 270 companies in 2002, but has rebounded to nearly 300 companies despite ongoing route consolidation nationwide, said McEntire. For more information, contact the AMOA National Dart Association, 5613 West 74th St., Indianapolis, IN 46278; (800) 808-9884; online at ndadarts.com.