It's an activity humans have engaged in for millennia, first as a way to defend themselves and hunt for food, later as a sport. It hasn't always been a popular hobby, but archery is experiencing a resurgence these days.
Stimulated by massive Hollywood marketing budgets for films like The Hunger Games that feature archers—the movie's protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, puts her archery skills to good use—archery businesses are experiencing the kind of business growth more commonly seen by founders of hot new social media startups.
Individual memberships in USA Archery, the sport’s national governing body, have soared 48 percent since the first Hunger Games movie came out last year, with youth participation in the national championships up by more than a third. The increase in participation has been especially robust among young girls. Many of USA Archery’s Junior Olympic Archery Development clubs are reporting record participation by girls, according to Teresa Johnson, a spokesperson for the Colorado Springs-based organization.
How much influence did the movie have? Some business owners would say quite a bit. Last year, for instance, when Lisa Folajtar, co-founder of Archery Addictions, a range and retail shop in Walnutport, Pennsylvania, was writing name tags for girls attending their first kids’ archery class, she says, “I asked one little girl what her name was, and she said, ‘My name is Katniss.’”
John Jackson, who created the new sport of Archery Tag, says girls often represent half or more of all participants at his company's events, where players try to hit each other with foam-tipped arrows in a blend of archery, dodgeball and paintball. Jackson has even held Archery Tag events in lobbies of theaters screening The Hunger Games, and says the novelty of the new sport, coupled with the surge in interest in archery, has caused his Waterloo, Indiana-based startup to double in size in just two years. Archery Tag licensees now operate in 15 countries, and guests can shoot their foam-tipped arrows at what he will only describe as “a big theme park in Orlando.“
“Have you ever seen a kid trying to walk a big dog and the dog is pulling the kid along?” asks Jackson, a seasoned entrepreneur who has also started software and real estate companies. “That’s how I feel about this business. It’s growing so fast, it has been hard to keep up.”
Hitting The Mark
As it grows, archery is changing to keep up with demand. In addition to younger and more female archers, archery may be moving away from the bow hunting focus that dominates in many regions. That has meant more target shooting classes, especially for youth. Steady demand caused Folajtar to increase the number of kids' classes she offered from one to four per week over the past year. “The influx of kids is amazing,” she says.
Many archery businesses incorporate direct movie references to help cash in on The Hunger Games' popularity. At some of Jackson’s events, for instance, contestants stack bows in the center of a field, just like fictional Hunger Games' contestants. At a signal, players dash from the sidelines to snatch up bows and start launching foam-tipped arrows at the others.
Products have also changed to keep up with demand. About three-quarters of the nearly 19 million American archers use modern compound bows that incorporate cables and pulleys to make bows easier to draw and aim, according to the Archery Trade Association. However, Katniss and other characters in The Hunger Games use traditional recursive models whose basic design hasn't changed much in centuries.
Archers aiming to emulate Katniss naturally want recursive bows, and the sudden demand for what was a niche product caught the industry off guard, leading to a shortage of recursive models. “They were very scarce last year,” Folajtar says. “Kids were waiting months for a recursive bow.” This year she ordered extra for when the second movie in the trilogy, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, is released on November 22.
While The Hunger Games has given a huge lift to the industry, there’s a limit to how tightly archery businesses can latch onto its coattails. When Jackson inquired about licensing a Hunger Games line of Archery Tag products, for instance, he was told producers planned no archery-related merchandise tie-ins.
“It’s good for us because they’re not going to be licensing any competitive products,” Johnson says, hopefully.
The long-term question is whether The Hunger Games bounce will help archery permanently or whether its appeal will fade as the three movies in the series go from theaters to rentals and, ultimately, late-night cable. “The sport has never seen this kind of long-term, sustained interest,” Johnson says. “Eighteen months later, we're still seeing substantial gains not only in membership but also in social media interaction with sport fans and young competitors.”
Archery was the most-watched sport during the first week of Olympic Games coverage on NBC last year, Johnson says. And, she adds, other movies, such as Disney Pixar's animated Brave and superhero epic The Avengers as well as TV shows like the post-apocalyptic Revolution and Arrow, about a comic book vigilante, are helping to keep bows and archers in front of pop culture. This popularity growth seems to have legs: The most recent boom began in early 2012, when the first Hunger Games movie came out, and it's still burning hot today.
In another hint of a lasting high profile, American archers are winning more competitions. U.S. youth competitors brought home seven World Championship medals from the recent world championships in China, their best performance ever, Johnson says. Some of those medalists are hopefuls for the 2016 Olympics.
Archery’s expansion beyond bow hunters may be the most encouraging development. Fueled by big-time Hollywood promotion and safety-oriented twists like Archery Tag, the sport is becoming more mainstream than ever. “Now you have the archery mom,” Jackson says. “It’s a whole culture shift.”
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