The business of the shooting sports: International Defensive Pistol Association

idpa logo 2

Today in part two of our series on the business of the shooting sports, we’ll take a look at the International Defensive Pistol Association. Click here for part one, The business of the shooting sports, general trends.

To understand where IDPA is right now, you have to understand the beginnings of the sport. It was originally founded almost 20 years ago in response to the trend in IPSC/USPSA away from the “practical” guns and towards raceguns and gamesmanship. The name of the organization speaks volumes about the goals, “Defensive” is right there in the title, after all. In the past four years, IDPA has experienced tremendous membership growth, as well as increase in sponsorship dollars, media attention, and international recognition.

At the national level, IDPA is organized as a for profit company, with Joyce Wilson as the Executive Director. There is also a board of directors, which is responsible for selecting the various Area Coordinators, volunteers who oversee IDPA at the state and regional level. Area Coordinators, or AC for short, are extremely influential figures in driving the local culture of IDPA clubs in their area. A good AC can make or break club culture. While ACs don’t directly select individual Match Directors (MD) at clubs, they do have influence on the process, and as the AC is to an area, so is the MD to a club. Clubs with good MDs and good volunteers prosper and grow.

First, let’s talk about the success IDPA has had, especially in the last four to five years. There are three major areas where IDPA has played smart, and seen dramatic gains as a result. The first that we’ll talk about is probably the most important, and that’s membership growth. IDPA currently sits at approximately 25,000 members, making it the largest of the practical handgun sports in terms of membership. It has achieved this growth in a considerable degree by marketing itself as the handgun sport for defensive/CCW minded shooters. Additionally, IDPA’s trophy/award policy is extremely friendly to the weekend warrior type of shooter – the guy who owns an M&P Pro and enjoys shooting it, but doesn’t take shooting competitions as seriously as a Master class shooter. The casual Marksman and Sharpshooter, for example. In fact, if you look at results from IDPA matches, the bulk of the shooters are in those two classes, and that’s something IDPA understands and encourages.

The second area where IDPA has seen tremendous success has been in their sponsorship growth for major matches. Their longstanding partnership with Smith & Wesson has grown even closer, as S&W has shown some very smart marketing sense in using IDPA matches as a vehicle to help market their defensive and competition products. IDPA also treats the sponsors of their major national matches very well, which is an important factor in bringing more sponsors to the table. Everyone knows everyone else in this industry, and good treatment gets around. The increase in sponsorships is connected to the growth in members – companies want to get their brand in front of the people who will actually buy and use it, and in many cases those people are shooting IDPA. (disclosure – GunUp Publishing and Gun Nuts Media are both sponsors of major IDPA matches)

3rd, and inextricably intertwined with the other two major successes has been the spike in media coverage focused on IDPA. At the recent Indoor Nationals, there were representatives from Shooting USA, Shooting Gallery, Impossible Shots, bloggers, print magazine writers, youtube personalities, and even the mainstream media in the form of Katie Pavlich from Townhall. You can follow Katie on twitter here. Many of the media outlets at Indoor Nationals were creating integrated content around the match – not just filming and writing, but shooting it as well. IDPA has made media access very easy, and also makes it easy for shooting sports journalists to create stories around their matches and participation.

As we can see, IDPA has been very successful of late. Their marketing has been on point to attract the sort of shooters necessary to grow as an organization, and their corporate decisions have worked very well for the organization. However, like all the shooting sports they face unique challenges that will require careful leadership decisions in the future. They do have the advantage that none of their challenges are of the immediate crisis nature, but rather gradual shifts that can be addressed thoughtfully over time.

The first major challenge that IDPA faces is membership churn. Churn is the act of replacing departing members with new members; a neutral churn would be if a member leaves IDPA, a new member joins so the net loss is zero. Negative churn is 2 members leave and one joins, positive churn is 1 member leaves and 2 join. In any case, having a significant amount of churn is hard on an organization’s growth plans, because attracting new members is theoretically harder than keeping existing members. In other business, a good churn model should aim for 80% retention of existing customers. It is worth noting that this is a problem both IDPA and USPSA face because they are member oriented organizations.

A more interesting conundrum faced by IDPA is related to the cultural shift that’s happening in the mainstream gun culture away from “traditional” guns and towards more black rifles and cool-guy gear. The culture of concealed carry in the nation is changing, driven both by video games, the latest tactical fads, and the ability of shooters to connect to one another on the internet. When IDPA was founded as the concealed carry sport in the 90s, the internet as we have it today simply didn’t exist. The founding fathers of IDPA were absolutely the thought leaders of the day in the self-defense community; as we near the midpoint of the second decade of the 21st century, there are new thoughts and new technologies appearing on the concealed carry scene. Red dot pistols, laser, weapon mounted lights, and many other technological improvements are becoming increasingly common on self-defense guns. IDPA has begun to address this at the local level by adding the “not for score” or outlaw category at club matches, where shooters can compete with their non-legal carry gear, such as RDS equipped guns.

Over the past couple of years, IDPA has been going through the process of refining their rulebook; which became the official rules in November of 2013. IDPA has instituted several new policies, some of which were controversial, but with the primary goal of eliminating some of the subjectivity of rulings inherent in the sport. While some of the decisions, such as the elimination of reloads on the move, were met with resistance, others were quite popular. Popular decisions that spring immediately to mind was the elimination of the terrible round-dumping rule, which could penalize shooters for thought-crime and required safety officers to be mind readers. However, the final challenge facing IDPA that we’ll look at today is something that the new rulebook hasn’t fully addressed, which is the fractured nature of the club level IDPA experience. Because IDPA is an international organization, shooters should be able to fly to any match in the country and expect the rules to be enforced exactly the same regardless of whether you’re shooting a match in Washington or Florida. The reality is that has not been the case in the past, and while the new rulebook takes steps to address that, the subjective nature of IDPA’s most common penalty (the cover call) will still allow for differing levels of enforcement/adherence depending on the club and its culture.

When you look at where IDPA is right now, it’s hard to not be impressed. Huge membership, selling out major matches in minutes, and loads of media attention show that IDPA is travelling a good trajectory. While the sport does have challenges on the radar, they are neither grave nor insurmountable. By positioning itself as the sport for novice CCW holders and newer shooters, they’ve been able to tap into the huge pool of new CCW permit holders. In short, IDPA is a smartly run business with a vision on what it wants to accomplish and a plan on how to get there.

Tomorrow’s installment will discuss the United States Practical Shooting Association and Steel Challenge; Thursday will feature the world of 3Gun and on Friday we’ll cover NRA Action Pistol and ICORE in a double feature.

16 thoughts on “The business of the shooting sports: International Defensive Pistol Association”

  1. Membership churn is also bad for volunteer driven organizations like the local clubs. The people I’ve seen quitting IDPA are the younger more dedicated shooters, they aren’t so long term that their identity is tied to IDPA like the guys who started early on. But they are more likely to be the experienced SO, the guys helping with setup/tear down, and the stage designers. Sure they aren’t irreplaceable, but you are still losing experience.

    1. Definitely – that goes back to the question of the aging volunteer population in the first post. Because the shooting sports are competing for the time and attention of the younger generation of shooters against increasingly immersive forms of entertainment, the younger shooters aren’t volunteering to be part of the club.

  2. “IDPA currently sits at approximately 25,000 members, making it the largest of the practical handgun sports in terms of membership.”

    A couple of things that bother me about this metric.

    1. USPSA also claims 25k members. Whether that is current or not I can’t say, but they claim it.

    2. In IDPA I believe member ship is MANDATORY to play the game after your first match. At least where I live it is, and the MD’s claim it’s part of IDPA’s bylaws. (http://www.twincitiesidpa.com/membership/index.asp).

    3. In USPSA you don’t need to a member to play, at least at the local level. If you go to a major or sectional, you need to be a member sure.. but not at the local level. At our club a good portion (25%) of our weekly shooters aren’t USPSA members. These people don’t care about classifications, or plan on going to majors, they just want to get some pistol time in. Maybe this is bad business sense on USPSA’s part, but it may also make things a little more accessible to all the “filthy casual’s” ;-P. This is of course not indicative of every club, but cheap-wads are everywhere, and I’d imagine the number of folks shooting USPSA is probably a decent bit higher than their actual membership.

    1. In their last communication to members, USPSA indicated their number was around 21-22k. Membership in IDPA is mandatory after the first match, however to use that against IDPA’s membership numbers is sort of a red herring. I’ve shot USPSA club level matches in four different states, and I’ve never encountered a regular attendee of those matches that wasn’t a member. Some have let their membership lapse, but that’s the churn issue. The truth is that if people enjoy the sport and the club’s culture, they’ll join.

      1. I shot for my first couple of years without joining. I was poor, and could barely scrape the nickels together to shoot the match. But USPSA still gets their money out of shooters that don’t join via the club activity fees. It isn’t much but those dollars do add up across all those that didn’t join throughout the year.

      2. ” I’ve shot USPSA club level matches in four different states, and I’ve never encountered a regular attendee of those matches that wasn’t a member.”

        1. Never use absolutes, it always portrays a lack of objectivity. ;-p (That’s a joke)

        2. I can objectively say around 25% of our regular weekly shooters are not uspsa members. I know oakdale can attest to similar numbers. Maybe Minnesotans are just disloyal and not to be trusted.
        I wasn’t attempting to USE anything against IDPA, I like IDPA. I just like my metrics to be fair. Also someone needs to update Wikipedia, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Practical_Shooting_Association)

        1. PPGMD makes a good point about the club activity fees. It’s also worth noting that a lot of MDs in IDPA let people skate on the whole thou shalt be a member rule. I would say that in general when perusing USPSA scores, there’s a member number next to their name. I do think that IDPA’s mandatory membership policy helps drive membership, but I don’t think that it artificially inflates membership numbers to an extreme degree. Maybe a couple of hundred.

      3. Keep in mind there is a key funding difference. IDPA collects only membership fees from shooters while USPSA collects both membership fees and a per-match fee. So USPSA has a revenue stream from shooters whether they are members or not.

        1. OTOH USPSA provides a clear service for the membership dollars, the classifications system. Unlike the IDPA classifier you can’t just run it on your own. And it is a self adjusting system that ranks shooters based on the overall skill level of the sport. It also provides performance tracking not just against you own performance, but against others.

          That is why you almost never see a limited or open shooter without a USPSA membership. The non-members are almost always in the divisions people common start in like production.

          So though I think it is six of one and half dozen of another, USPSA gains membership even at the club level by providing a service while IDPA is through rule mandate. So for some it feels like a choice to join USPSA. To me it didn’t matter, after I joined USPSA and IDPA (until I quit of course) I never let it lapse except when I had cancer.

  3. “Because IDPA is an international organization, shooters should be able to fly to any match in the country and expect the rules to be enforced exactly the same regardless of whether you’re shooting a match in Washington or Florida”

    You can’t even count on that with sanctioned matches in IDPA, and I don’t see much effort to fix that. I know at a match in Virginia last year, before the new rules, SOs at a sanctioned match were calling procedurals on things that were well within the rules because “that’s not how we do it here”. Since the new rule book, I’ve seen SOs come up with some really convoluted things you have to do to satisfy the cover requirements that are WAY beyond what the rules state.

  4. Excellent analysis, Caleb! Sometimes I think in mainstream gun culture we wildly underestimate video games as a primary driver to the shooting sports. Video games combine firearms AND competition, which is hugely important. Back in the early days of USPSA, the late Dave Arnold and I used to argue that our meager (HA! That’s a euphemism!) marketing efforts should be aimed not at the general gun market, but at people who might have a tangental interest in guns but were active competitors in an outdoor sport. The drive to compete is not spread as widely throughout the population as we competitors often think.

    Michael B

  5. IDPA = taxation without representation. When was the last time you voted for you section coordinator or IDPA President?

    IDPA was created because of “gamesmanship”, I respectfully disagree, Bill Wilson was not selling any guns when everyone switched to high capacity guns, and needed to “invent” another game where his guns would be competitive again. Why is Joyce Wilson the President?

    As the new culture embraces IDPA they will figure two things:

    a) Is not tactical, just another game.
    b) USPSA has a higher roundcount and less stupid rules and you can be competitive with you M&P…

  6. The comment about IDPA only collecting membership dues but USPSA having a steady income stream strikes a chord. Caleb said IDPA was a “for profit”, but USPSA is a “nonprofit”. Interesting, that web they spin…

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