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.