Paintball Field Owner The Buzz


Terry Kerr and her husband have had a good weekend. They've just put about 250 weekend warriors through Kamo Koulee, the paintball field they co-own.

"If you saw the size of our operation, it's just incredible that we put through that many people!" laughs Kerr. "It's our busy time of year."

Part of Kerr's job is to do the books for Kamo Koulee. "Our numbers have increased steadily since we started," she says. Thousands of people show up to splatter each other with spheres of high-velocity gelatin paint.

"Paintball is just exploding," says Joe Stayback. He owns a paintball field in Indiana. He is also the co-head of the North American Amateur Paintball Sports Association. "It's phenomenal what's been happening in paintball in the last couple of years. It's doing really well."

In the Beginning

It all started in 1981 with 12 competitors playing Capture the Flag. That's still the most popular format in games today.

A basic paintball game has two teams, each with its own flag station and matching armbands. During the game, each team tries to reach the other team's station, grab the flag and get back to their own base. It's the field owner's job to create a safe and fun environment for all this mayhem.

Everyone is armed with carbon dioxide-powered paint guns that fire gelatin capsules -- containing a colorful mixture of vegetable oil, food dye and detergent -- at between 250 and 300 feet per second. They sting when they hit, and you're out of the game.

A start-up field will need a selection of guns (they run between $60 and $1,200 each) to rent to players, carbon dioxide tanks to power guns and a larger tank to fill the gun-mounted tanks. Paintballs can run up to $75 a case -- and you want your players to shoot a lot and spend money buying more.

Safety equipment is a must: goggles for players, a telephone service to the field, a first aid kit and a machine that tests the speed at which guns are firing. The American Paintball League offers insurance for small fields at premiums around $500 a year.

Kerr-nel of an Idea

The Kerrs embarked on their paintball adventure a few years ago. They bought the field from a friend and fellow paintballer.

"It was a miracle the way it happened," says Kerr. "[My husband] and our partner were looking around for property and realized how much of an investment it was going to be. They just backed off and decided that we'd never be able to do it.

"And just out of the blue, one of the people that we played with contacted us. He owned a field. He had his fingers in a lot of different things, and the paintball was just complicating his life. So he offered it to us to take over."

Running a paintball field isn't for the faint of heart. The Kerrs had never run a business before. She is a full-time community nurse. Her husband works at a retail furniture outlet.

"We had no experience whatsoever," admits Kerr. "You learn a lot as you go along. It's kind of exciting and we're discovering that we're actually pretty good at what we're doing!"

But Kerr's husband had one advantage -- he'd been playing paintball for about 15 years. Kerr says that's critical. "You can't go into this unless you have a knowledge of paintball," she says.

"I don't even know if having a background in recreation or business would be an asset. You can really spend a lot of money foolishly in this business. You have to know what you're buying and what its value is. The equipment looks wonderful, but a lot of it's not worth the money that you're paying."

There's no substitute for player knowledge, agrees Stayback. He's been playing for 17 years.

"I opened my own field because I'd played at all the other fields around the Midwest," says Stayback.

"Most of the owners didn't care about the players. I run my field the way I'd want it run as a player. I've made it the best field I can. I've put a lot of work into it. Got top-quality equipment. And I treat the customers the way I'd want to be treated."

Paintball has a niche clientele -- a very small group of people who live it 24 hours a day. The rest are thrill-seekers who come out once or twice a year, and the occasional newbie.

"It's a very small, close-knit group of people that are involved in paintball -- that eats, sleeps and talks paintball all the time," says Kerr.

"Most guys that really get excited about paintball spend thousands of dollars on stuff and then they lose interest after a year. They move on to other things. It's a transient type of business [clientele]."

Paintball Pioneers: The Land

Staking a claim to a good piece of land is the first -- and most expensive -- step for the paintball pioneer. The Kerrs were lucky. It's not an easy obstacle to overcome, especially for young entrepreneurs. Land costs vary incredibly, depending on the location and size.

You can buy, but many owners lease. Some even negotiate a "per head" lease with the landowner, offering $5 per player that they put through the site.

Keep in mind that paintball seems to be moving toward faster games on smaller plots of land. This version of the game is called speedball. Speedball lots should be at least 400 square yards.

"I can't imagine a young person coming out of university wanting to start a paintball field," says Kerr. "It costs thousands and thousands of dollars because you have to buy land and you have to buy equipment. It's really a big investment starting up."

Stayback solved the problem by bringing his father in as a business partner when he bought his field over 10 years ago. It's 88 acres of land in paintball heaven.

"We're only 60 miles from downtown Chicago," says Stayback. "We're 30 miles west of South Bend, which has the Notre Dame campus. We're in a perfect location for it."

And the golden rule is location, location, location. The closer you are to a metropolitan site, the better off you are. And the more the land costs. It's a tricky balance.

"We're not the farthest away from town, but we're still a half hour's drive from [the city]," admits Terry. "That's a concern for a lot of people -- the distance they have to drive."

What's in Store Indoors

The Kerrs have also just started a business a little closer to home: a paintball supply store. They hire help to run it during the week, and close it down over the weekend.

And the store hasn't been their only extracurricular paintball enterprise. Last year, they tried out an indoor paintball site. It wasn't as successful as the field and store are proving to be.

"We didn't like that too much," says Kerr. "It really complicated our lives. The overhead was too high. We had to be open seven days a week. During the summer, you can sit there for eight hours a day and three people might come in."

And while Kerr considers the field a sideline, things are going well. They've invested in road signs and have started advertising with the hottest radio station in town.

"It runs really smoothly now, but it took us some time to get it," says Kerr. "We've been streamlining the operation. Our weekends are literally taken up by paintball. But it's only six or seven months out of the year."

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