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With Image Brush-Up, Paintball Moving From Military to Mainstream

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leaders of the youth ministry at Harbor Church in Lomita were pondering a new activity for the kids three years ago when ministry staffer Joel Swan chimed in with a fresh suggestion: How about paintball?

At one time, the idea might have elicited a few chuckles and been quickly dismissed because of paintball’s reputation as a war game played in the woods by military buffs.

But the game quickly became a smash hit for the church group. At least twice a year, it sponsors a day of shooting colorful, water-soluble paint pellets with gas-powered guns.

“Some people in the church say, ‘Why would you take kids out there to shoot each other?’ [But] I don’t consider it a violent sport,” said Swan, 28. “It’s a time . . . to talk to them about God.”

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The paradox of children discussing the Bible while carrying paintball guns reflects just how far the pastime has come since it was invented 19 years ago in the New Hampshire woods by thrill-seeking adults.

Today, the paintball business--estimated at $3 billion annually--is quickly moving up the ranks of lucrative “extreme” sports activities, as the game’s boosters work to tone down its militaristic image and repackage it as the hot new adrenaline rush for Generation Y--the vaunted demographic of about 70 million preteens, teens and young adults.

The paintball industry “is targeting people who are looking for something new and different to do,” said Lisa Delpy, a professor of sports management and tourism studies at George Washington University in Washington. “It’s a fast-paced, exciting game. Also, these kids are into video games, and with paintball, they get to live the video game.”

Since the 1980s, corporations have sponsored paintball outings to instill values of teamwork in their employees. More recently, paintball has begun attracting youths such as those from Swan’s church group and children introduced to the game at birthday parties. About 25% of participants are female.

Not surprisingly, California is one of a handful of paintball hotbeds across the country. The state is home to at least 80 paintball parks and about 30 manufacturers of paintball gear.

Sales of paintball equipment have grown 10% to 30% annually since 1995, said Bud Orr, owner of Worr Games Products, a Santa Fe Springs maker of paintball guns and accessories. Several Southern California firms make paintball guns or produce paint pellets.

The 100-acre SC Village Paintball Park in Corona is believed to be the world’s most visited paintball venue, with more than 60,000 visitors each year. The park’s paintball terrains are designed to look like deserts, jungles, swampland or woods, and are sprinkled with props such as downed aircraft.

Players also can compete in so-called speedball arenas--enclosed fields that were designed to give paintball the legitimacy of a sport and to attract coverage on sports television channels such as ESPN.

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“The adrenaline is like nothing else,” said actor Taran Smith, 16, an SC Village regular who played one of Tim Allen’s sons on the TV show “Home Improvement.” “It’s not like other games, because it’s competitive but people don’t take it too far.”

Dennis Bukowski, owner of SC Village and the person responsible for setting the bulk of the game’s rules, is plotting paintball’s next major foray into the mainstream.

His SJS Enterprises Inc., based in San Juan Capistrano, is expected to break ground this summer on a first-of-its-kind $9-million complex in Bellflower called Hollywood Sports Park. Paintball fields featuring movie sets and props will be among the key features of a 22-acre activities park replete with skateboarding ramps, rock-climbing walls, a BMX bike raceway, beach volleyball pits, a themed restaurant and a video arcade.

“The mentality of people has changed,” said Bukowski, 42, a former Los Angeles police officer. “Now they want more hands-on entertainment.”

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But the stigma that paintball is a hobby for a fringe faction of war game enthusiasts still plagues the sport, experts say.

Such views, along with some recent statistics, lead Harvey Lauer, head of Hartsdale, N.Y.-based market research firm American Sports Data, to suspect that paintball is expanding largely from within and may be having difficulty attracting newcomers.

Last year, the frequency at which Americans played surged to an average of 12.2 days per year from 7.7, but the number of participants climbed by just 7% to 6.4 million, Lauer said.

“One issue [that may be holding the game back] is the image of youth violence, and safety is another issue,” Lauer said. “These may be nonissues, but they are real issues as long as they’re in people’s minds.”

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Bukowski and others established rigorous safety standards for the industry. Commercial fields require players to wear protective face masks or goggles. The pellets are not paint, but nontoxic, biodegradable colored oil encased in gelatin.

As a result of the sport’s good safety record, insurance companies have allowed field operators to lower the minimum age for players to 10--a factor that has contributed mightily to the game’s surge in popularity, experts say.

The sport can be pricey, which George Washington University’s Delpy says might impede its growth. Players who want their own gear can suit up for less than $300, with markers costing a minimum of $150, helmets $70 and the carbon-dioxide tanks $30. High-end guns sell for about $2,000. Players who want to rent equipment can typically play for $50 to $70 a day, including a $20 park entry fee.

Niche publications such as Action Pursuit Games and Paintball News magazines and Web sites such as https://www.paintballnewsletter.com are helping to promote the sport.

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Meanwhile, paintball could get a boost from Hollywood.

“Speedball The Movie,” the first full-length feature film about paintball, is slated to hit theaters next year.

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Making a Splash

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Paintball is a fast-growing alternative sport that is proving lucrative for California companies.

How Paintball Ranks With Similar Sports

U.S. participants in each sport in 1999, in millions:

In-line skating: 27.9

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Mountain biking: 7.8

Skateboarding: 7.8

Paaintball: 6.4

Trail running: 6.2

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Artificial-wall climbing: 4.8

Snowboarding: 4.7

BMX bicycling: 3.7

Wakeboarding: 2.7

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Mountain/rock climbing: 2.1

Snowshoeing: 1.7

Source: American Sports Data Inc.


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