The fake shooting industry designed for corporate team building is fading away
This summer, Sal Corallo, a high school student in suburban Long Island, got some bad news via Facebook. His favourite place to play paintball, the Island Paintball Arena, a rectangular brick building across from a graveyard in New York, was shutting down. Corallo, 16, had spent countless hours running around the course, firing colourful paintball rounds at goggle-clad opponents, and ducking for cover. He’d grown into a respected competitor, starring on a team of young sharpshooters and travelling to tournaments throughout the region. In the announcement on Facebook, the owners, John and Anthony Pennino, thanked their customers for 12 amazing years. “I think my heart shattered into pieces,” Corallo posted.
“I’m not supposed to be hunted for prey”
All across the country, paintball participation is plummeting. According to a recent study by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, the number of Americans who play paintball fell from 5.1 million in 2008 to 3.5 million in 2013. During the same five years, US sales of paintball equipment dropped from an estimated $240 million to $139 million. Early in 2014 executives at Atomic Paintball in Southlake, Texas, abandoned plans to build a national paintball empire in favour of a more promising pursuit: mobile and outdoor advertising. In February, Kee Action Sports announced it was shutting down its paintball manufacturing facility in Clearwater, Florida, and laying off more than 100 workers. Yelp is strewn with reviews of local paintball venues that have recently gone out of business. In March, Los Gatos Pursuit Paintball, a family-owned facility in the woods of Northern California, closed after 18 years. “I don’t think paintball is dying,” says Joe Pommier, the field’s owner. “But I do think that anywhere you look, you can see a decline.”
The origins of paintball are often traced to 1981, when a group of friends repurposed some agricultural paintball shooters (used by farmers to mark things such as trees and livestock) for a capture-the-flag-like game in the woods of New Hampshire. America reached peak paintball in 2004: SpikeTV introduced a weekly show called Paintball 2Xtremes based on a popular magazine of the same name. The first episode, featuring highlights from an international tournament held outside Pittsburgh, included coverage of a Blues Brothers-themed paintball event. A few months later, Disney World hosted a series of competitions at its Wide World of Sports complex in Florida. In December the championship finals of the National XBall League aired across the country on ESPN2.
A decade later, paintball chat rooms are filled with dispirited ruminations about what’s ailing the sport. Potential -culprits include the bad economy and competition from extreme weekend activities such as Tough Mudder obstacle courses. Allen Adamson, North America chairman of brand consultant Landor Associates, says paintball has lost a lot of its raffish, -renegade luster. “It’s become less cool to do paintball than it used to be and maybe less socially acceptable because of the larger cultural issue surrounding guns,” he says. “Paintball, as a category, has fallen out of fashion.”
John Pennino of the Island Paintball Arena says he feels this loss deeply. “If you go on Google trends, type in ‘paintball,’ and look at the history of how it’s been searched over the past six or seven years, it’s scary,” he says.
Pennino traces his love of the sport to the mid-1980s, when his father, a high school teacher, heard about the activity, then known locally as the “survival game”, from one of his students. Anthony Pennino Sr. got his sons John and Anthony Jr. hooked on the sport and began selling supplies out of the family’s basement. The game evolved from a competition largely played in the woods by middle-aged men seeking a thrill to one played indoors by teenagers for acknowledgment and prizes. The Pennino brothers opened a paintball supplies store, staged myriad corporate events, hosted an annual camp, and, in 2002, unveiled the Island Paintball Arena.
Times were good, Pennino says, until about 2008. As the economy soured, attendance dwindled. When the lease came up this summer, he and his brother decided it was time to retrench and focus on retail and special events. According to Pennino, the fanatical players remain as obsessed as ever. It’s the casual participant who’s gone missing. “It’s weird, because paintball is still paintball,” he says. “It’s still so much fun.”
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