FOR ITS FIRST 15 years, Paintball was almost exclusively a form of adult entertainment, and it had many parallels to the porn industry--the only way to purchase equipment was through the mail or at small specialty stores. You also had to be 18 to play, because commercial Paintball fields could not get liability insurance unless they enforced a minimum-age requirement. In 1995, however, Daisy Manufacturing acquired Paintball equipment manufacturer Brass Eagle and began marketing its products at large retail outlets--including Wal-Mart--where Daisy's BB Guns had sold for years. Around the same time, Paintball's largest insurance provider lowered its minimum age requirement to 10 because of the sport's excellent safety record. "Those two things catapulted our sport," says Debra Dion Krischke, one of the organizers of the world's largest Paintball festival, the international amateur open. "Paintball exploded." Participation has risen from just under six million players in 1998 to almost 10 million in '03, and almost 90% of the players today are between the ages of 12 and 24. Sales of equipment have also risen sharply, from $170 million in 1999 to $390 million last year. Today, almost anywhere in America, fathers and sons (79% of the players in this country are male) can walk into their local Wal-Mart and buy a starter kit for as little as $120. They can then drive to the local Paintball field and, for about $50, play until the sun goes down. "The numbers for sales and participation have gone up each year," says Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association spokesman Mike May. "Every sport reaches a point where it begins to plateau, but [so far] Paintball just keeps getting bigger and bigger."
Paintball has also become popular as organized competition. A recent event in San Diego attracted 175 seven-member teams and around 20,000 spectators, and Krischke's open annually hosts 1,500 competitors. Those numbers are even more impressive since Paintball competitions have yet to receive significant television exposure, the holy grail the industry is seeking in order to make the sport even bigger. But while it seems unlikely that Paintball will ever bounce the NFL from Fox, the quirky sport, with its high-tech updating of some of the classic games of children, has become part of our culture. "Tag and capture the flag and hide and seek are the oldest games in history," says Krischke. "Everyone thought this would be a fad, but because of its enduring qualities, we knew Paintball was here to stay." --Mark Beech