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Operators Find Pinball's Magic And Mystery Still Alive In 2005

Posted On: 9/23/2005

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U.S.A. ─ The mystery of pinball is alive and well. The questions are obvious: is pinball hopelessly retro or a timeless classic? Is pinball little more than a game for older, "loner" males in bars? Or 'quot; thanks to fun, licensed themes from Stern Pinball like "Elvis," "Lord of the Rings," or its latest, "NASCAR" 'quot; is pinball a perfect product for kids and families in FECs, pizzerias and the like?

And lastly, is pinball's once-blazing home market for used games still fabulous, or is it fading?

Depending on who one is asking, the answer could be "yes to all of the above." VT surveyed pinball operators in three widely dispersed regions and found that each had a unique angle of vision on today's pinball market. But all three had one thing in common: They admit to a great personal fondness for the silver ball.

Such broad-based operator affection for flipper games points to one of the essential facts about pinball: its magical appeal is largely unchanged from 200 years ago. And while today's games have been greatly updated and enhanced and offer more creativity, more electronics and more intriguing playfield "toys," the heart of pinball remains exactly the same as when Mozart played a primitive version. There is a primal appeal to the unpredictable physics of a ball zinging around the playfield and bouncing off various obstacles in wild, wonderful ways.

According to Gary Stern, president of Stern Pinball Inc., (and a second-generation flipper game manufacturer), this fundamental strength must never be forgotten. It remains the most important single fact about the game of pinball, year in and year out 'quot; no matter what temporary ups and downs pinball's market performance may register at any given spot on the map, on any given day.

"The ball is wild," Stern likes to say, quoting 1940s pinball maker Harry Williams. "No electronic or computer simulation can ever replace the addictive pleasure of interacting with a pinball under glass. The magic of pinball is alive and well, and it always will be."

One of the top pinball operators in the United States, it is generally conceded, is David Cadieux of Arcade Amusements (Oak Lawn, IL). Those who want to know about pins from a professional operator's perspective have his name at or near the top of their "pinball Rolodex." As a man whose earlier assessment of this category has been viewed as a benchmark, his current views carry extra resonance when seeking to "take the temperature" of pinball today.

Cadieux has a simple message for most operators: "Today's pinball board systems seem more reliable than games of the past. The main issues are software glitches, but these quickly get updated and straightened out. Hardware-wise, it's pretty darned good."

Is pinball more trouble to operate than, say, a countertop video game? Cadieux's answer is straightforward and uncompromising: "Maybe so, but it's worth it."

With just one pinball manufacturer left in the world today, pinball has become the sole province of Melrose Park, IL-based Stern Pinball. The company has reported for years that sales have held steady at between 8,000 and 10,000 units annually, with the majority now shipping to the U.S. and a healthy minority going to Europe and other overseas destinations. These facts have remained the same.


Also unchanged is the ability of pinball to profit from promotions, Cadieux pointed out. When we last checked in with him a few years ago, Stern's Tournament Pinball System 'quot; ToPS, for short 'quot; was just getting launched. (See sidebar for details on ToPS). At the time (2002), Cadieux was a strong supporter of the program, but as the industry hasn't heard much about ToPS lately, is it accurate to say that this pinball maven is still enthusiastic about ToPS?

"Every game we get has it," Cadieux declared. "[ToPS] has definitely and significantly helped the cashbox. Like golf tournaments on a networked video game, it is not for every location, but it's money that would not have been there otherwise. People like to play for prizes."

Some industry rumor mills have claimed that ToPS ran up against negative attitudes from police or state liquor license officials who viewed it as a gambling or quasi-gambling scheme. But Cadieux says his route has enjoyed nothing but smooth sailing from the beginning. "We have not had any instances of law enforcement officers complaining about ToPS," he said. "There are a lot of skill-based, cash prize tournaments out there; this is just one more." Based on his own successful track record of the past few years, this operator's opinion is that ToPS deserved much stronger support from operators and distributors alike.

On the topic of investment returns, the home game after-market for pinball remains solid and contributes a healthy portion to the game's ROI over its total life cycle, Cadieux affirmed. "We don't really advertise pinball, but we sure do sell pins," he said. "I can tell you they're not piling up; in fact, I only have one in the showroom now. People buy them. Realistically this is the only machine in the industry that you can get your money back on. Everything depreciates to zero. It is one of the few machines where you can buy it, operate it, and sell it a couple of years later for a very decent percentage of the original cost. Pinball simply offers excellent resale value."

While noting that the average pinball player is "probably a male in his mid-20s and older, [and can be found] mostly in bars," Cadieux also stoutly maintains that licensed themes help attract a wider range of players and also promote home sales, where families are often the intended end user. And, he says, pinballs can and do succeed in a range of family-oriented locations including pizzerias, some restaurants, C-stores, Laundromats and more.


Pinball remains a personal favorite of Al Lindley of Amusement Unlimited (Eugene, OR). His partner, Jerry Johnston, has been known to sing the praises of pinball with rare ardor in past years. At the moment, however, Lindley reports "We're a little down on pinball; we are having trouble making money on them right now. This began at least a year or so ago, so at the moment, we're looking to reduce our inventory and sell older units back to the distributors. I like pinball and am sorry to see its earnings weaken."

Lindley offers a variety of possible explanations for why pinball games on his route are not currently earning as much as in prior years. "Some of this could be due to the fact that we are in a very small market," he said. "The Eugene-Springfield area has only 150,000 people. We have a few locations in Salem and down to Medford, but it's still a lot of little towns. There just aren't the players out there to keep the cash flow up."

Yet the biggest cause for pinball's cashbox woes in Eugene, OR, may be competition from an unsuspected source 'quot; one right under the operator's own roof. According to Lindley, Amusements Unlimited recently has begun a new level of promotions on networked, countertop video games. "Starting a couple of years ago, we have been networking all the games in the area and running tournaments, giving away real expensive prizes like TVs," he said. "Players really go for it." Possibly then, this alone could explain why 'quot; in Lindley's words 'quot; "More of the players' money is going into other products."

Meanwhile, Lindley defends pinball against the image as a game for an aging clientele. "It used to be true that pinball attracted older male players in taverns, but some of our best pinball revenue comes from colleges," he said. "'Lord of the Rings' is probably the best pinball we have today. It also does well in our town's two big movie theaters, which sure pull in a lot of kids."


Collector and rec room demand remains vibrant as well, Lindley pointed out. "It is still out there and there is still a demand for pins," he said. "We get quite a few people who call in wanting pinball for their rec rooms. We've sold quite a few in the last six months, some for a real good price; we have sold some pins for $5,000 or $6,000."

An excellent example of how local market conditions can dictate the rise of fall of any particular category of equipment can be found with Bob Wheeler of Isle Vending (Marathon, FL). One of a handful of operators who services the Florida Keys, Wheeler and his wife June operate games from Key Largo to Key West.

From Miami to Key West, southern Florida is experiencing a real-estate boom hotter than anywhere else in the United States, a fact that may be distorting the local economy, Wheeler acknowledged. "Developers are putting up condos that start at $750,000," he said. "The locals and the working families can't afford to live here anymore." In other words, the traditional working-class constituency for much of the classic, tavern-based, coin-operated equipment is being driven from the region by a skyrocketing cost of living.

Yet pinball remains popular with a desirable demographic, Wheeler reported. "The people I've seen and talked to that play the game are in their middle 20s to mid-30s," he said. "This is the bulk of the players I've seen and it's a good mix of men and women, about half and half. Players like the games. Everybody thinks the pinball industry today is better than it was because of the technology. It's also impressive to have those famous licensed subjects. The game that pulled the most money for us was 'Ripley's Believe It Or Not' located in a restaurant with a big game room. As far as service and maintenance goes, I would have to say today's pinballs are a little more reliable.

Despite encountering disappointment with some pins, Wheeler is hoping to buy a new "NASCAR Pinball" and says: "I expect it to be a big drawing card, but the proof is in the pudding. Bells and whistles draw them in; then it needs to work well with good design so players understand what they are doing."

On the whole, Wheeler takes a philosophical view of the pinball game. "It's like a lot of other things: you either like it or you don't," he reasoned. "Some people just can't walk past a 'Ms. Pac-Man' without playing it. The same is true of pinball for some players. It's true that one of the great strengths of pinball is that it's one more machine option to make you a full-service entertainment provider. If we have a request for it, we'll try to honor it."

Members of the pinball-loving clan can still be found in the Keys, Wheeler noted, you just have to look in the right places. "Most of the player base in the Keys is transient," he said. "And yet pinball is very, very popular with certain locals who love their pinball and don't want it 'quot; or anything else in the bar 'quot; to change, ever. We have some pinballs in locations that have been on location for years because that is what the people want; they don't want it to leave. They like those games and that is what they want to play, period. The clientele comes in and says: 'This is our bar. We like the jukebox, don't change the music; we like the pinball, don't change it.'"

Pinball philosophy is also pinball pragmatism for Wheeler. As with most operators, the cashbox ultimately dictates his decisions about what games to buy and place. "As long as people spend their money, we'll accommodate that desire," he said. "We try to make the location an easy place for people to enjoy themselves; that's what it's all about."