REPRINTED FROM NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2015 ISSUE OF TRAPSHOOTINGUSA
EIGHT YEARS AFTER ITS INCEPTION, THE MINNESOTA STATE HIGH SCHOOL CLAY TARGET LEAGUE BOASTS A MEMBERSHIP OF 8,600 STUDENTS. ITS STATE CHAMPIONSHIP THIS YEAR DREW 5,100 KIDS – PROBABLY THE LARGEST SHOOTING SPORTS EVENT IN THE WORLD.
When Jim Sable looked around the room at his fellow Plymouth, Minnesota, gun club members back in 2001, the outlook was bleak. With aging members and very little youth participation, the writing was on the wall. Unless something miraculous happened, his gun club, like many others in this part of the country, would likely wither and die as older members faded from the scene.
Sable knew a little something about information gathering, having recently retired from a successful advertising and communications company he and his wife owned. He contacted the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and asked if they knew what the average age of gun club members was around the State. They didn’t – so Sable put together a survey that the DNR agreed to mail out and sat back, waiting for the results.
The first thing they learned from the survey was quite shocking. Approximately 10 percent of the clubs in Minnesota had already gone out of business and another 10 percent were barely hanging on by a thread. Sable knew if the long running clay shooting culture he so loved was going to survive in towns across his State, he needed to get young people involved – not just a few nieces, nephews and grandchildren of members, but lots of young people. It was a tall order, but as it turned out, Sable was the man for the job.
With ample time on his hands after retirement, Sable started and mentored a youth shooting group, loosely organized through a local school – an opportunity he discovered through his church. He worked with three teams consisting of around 30 kids for a couple of years and came to the conclusion there was potential for something bigger yet. He envisioned a web site and branding the group with hopes of turning the program into more of a mainstream, high school varsity sport – a radical idea, given the hot button public attitude regarding guns and schools. He talked to the Executive Director of Minnesota State High School Leagues, the governing body of high school sports, who was cautiously optimistic but warned him to be patient – it had taken Lacrosse seven years to become a varsity sport in the State of Minnesota.
Sable was savvy enough to know he needed to reach out to his targeted audience to see just what the market potential was. He created focus groups, asking kids, ‘What would it take for you to become interested enough to join a shooting program organized through your school?’ Two answers kept coming up time and time again. They wanted to be able to earn their varsity letter, just like any other sport, and they wanted their team picture in the school yearbook along with the other school teams. Recounting that experience, Sable said, “In marketing there’s a wonderful old saying – if somebody’s willing to tell you what they want, you ought to be smart enough to give it to them.”
He started calling schools to ask, “What would it take for you to introduce trap and skeet as an extracurricular activity?” He then sat around his kitchen table and tried to write up a presentation that included those three highly-charged words – kids, guns and schools – and wondered, how do we make this work? “You could hear the crickets at the first few school board meetings when I mentioned what I wanted to do,” said Sable. He asked the adults, Do you want kids to learn about firearms in school, or on the street?
Interest and acceptance grew – slowly at first, but increasingly more and more powerfully as time went on. Informational meetings outgrew the classrooms they were originally held in, eventually forcing them to auditoriums – the only available rooms big enough to hold all the kids, parents, school officials and local media who showed up to hear his pitch. One hundred or more interested kids and their parents would show up for those meetings, and finally the proverbial light bulb went off for athletic directors and school officials when they saw the overwhelming interest in the program. In a mission to save gun clubs, Sable realized his effort would also address a myriad of problems athletic directors were facing, such as budget and staffing cuts, Title IX compliance, facilities maintenance issues and adaptive activities (providing similar activities to kids in wheelchairs and other disabilities).
A LEAGUE IS BORN
As participation and interest grew, Sable and wife Sharon enlisted the help of John Nelson, the former Creative Director of their communications firm, making him Vice President and the only paid employee of the newly formed Minnesota State High School Clay Target League.
Nelson, one of seven members of the Board of Directors, touts the inclusionary benefits of the group, noting that female participation in the League has grown from 4 percent to 19 percent in the last three years alone – and says the girls pride themselves in beating the boys on the trap range. He also points out that many of the kids are target shooters but don’t want to hunt. He adds that the leadership skills and confidence the League fosters is particularly valuable and is available to those who might not fit the mold for more mainstream sports.
“Imagine – if we’re getting 6th graders on a team, those kids are going to be on the team for six years. Not only are they going to become masters at their skilled craft, but the discipline the sport teaches them will help them become the future leaders of community gun clubs. Our goal has always been to help save gun clubs, and we’ve just created a succession plan that, for example, has helped drop the average age at some gun clubs by 20 years.”
INCLUSION AND SAFETY
Minnesota had over 3,000 concussions in high school sports last year – but zero injuries in the youth shooting league. To put it in perspective, the trigger was pulled more than 6 million times last year alone, without a single injury. It’s a safety record that speaks for itself.
All kids, before participating, are required to obtain firearms safety certification, making this the only Minnesota high school sport that requires a safety certification of any kind. Nelson said, “When you look at the stats regarding high school sports injuries, I don’t think there’s a school board in this country that would approve football in its current state if it came out as a new sport tomorrow.”
What has become the hottest sport in Minnesota high school is drawing from a pool of kids roughly 35 percent of whom don’t routinely participate in any other sport. A legitimate question might be: If it wasn’t for this sport what would these kids be doing? Nelson says, “These are kids who are not jocks, not the tallest, not the strongest or fastest, but they’ve become rock stars at their own schools.”
Roxanne and Jay Johnson have two daughters in the League – 18 year old Kalley and 16 year old Alaina, and say the sport draws a wide variety of kids. Jay says, “It’s been fabulous. Half the shooting team is made up of kids who maybe don’t fit into other sports while the other half also do other sports.” They say their older daughter has been kind of shy and has benefited from the social contact the League has provided.
Boy’s Hockey has been a recognized sport in Minnesota since the 1920s, but the Youth Shooting League passed them in participation this past year. “This has changed families,” says Nelson. “We see kids that are responsible for keeping their grades up because if they don’t meet the school’s academic standards to participate in an activity, they can’t participate. So we see kids that have struggled in the past that are all of a sudden succeeding. We’ve seen gun clubs helping communities develop community leaders. It goes so far beyond just trying to hit a target.”
“I think what sets the League apart is that it really emphasizes inclusion rather than exclusion,” says Paul Dietz, a father of three League members, a coach and director on the League Board. “Every kid has an opportunity to contribute to the success of the team in the structure of the clay target League. The emphasis on team rather than individuals really resonates with the individuals and with their parents.”
A safety standard written into League rules is a 1 to 10 coach/shooter requirement. Remarkably, their actual ratio is more on the order of 1 to 4. At a time when many coaches and schools are telling parents to stay up in the bleachers and provide support from there, the youth target league is telling them to get involved and become mentors – because they feel strongly that kids whose parents are involved in their education-based activities are more successful in school – and in life in general.
Last year the League introduced skeet to the program, drawing a comparatively modest 24 teams and 200 plus kids the first year. The challenge they face – especially in skeet – is meeting demand. There are only about 22 skeet fields in the State and so they’ve had to turn away more than 2,000 kids each year because of gun club capacity.
However, the same clubs that were on the brink of closing down a few years ago are now trying to expand to host these teams and meet new demand. There are clubs that host more than 600 kids per week for 9 weeks during their spring season. It translates into real dollars and cents for these struggling gun clubs – just possibly making the difference between shuttering the windows or remaining open for business.
Public support is increasing. The League was recently recognized by the Minnesota State Legislature, who over the past two years has provided small facility grants to gun clubs in an effort to increase capacity and help host more kids to meet the demand of the League. The Legislature provides a 50/50 cost share program and $2.1 million recently went to gun clubs across the State to expand capacity to host more kids. Having turned away 2,000 kids each year, they’re actively trying to figure out how to get them back!
A survey was circulated during the League registration process last year, garnering a response rate of 78 percent. Those survey results show that 35% of families responding planned to purchase a new shotgun, translating into a tremendous opportunity for the firearms industry. Extending those numbers across the League means over 3,000 new shotguns would be purchased as a result of this program.
With the exception of Cabela’s, there really isn’t a lot of industry support for the League from big name companies. Thousands of new young shooters entering the fold is a marketing opportunity – one for the most part that is not being taken advantage of. “We’re opening these trap houses in communities that have been closed down for years and starting to have schools inquire about building trap fields on school property. We’re getting so close to getting firearms safety training reestablished in schools. One of the amazing things about this is that the people and organizations that benefit the most from this League, the suppliers, are the ones that support us the least,” added Nelson.
Amazed at Minnesota’s success, organizers in other Midwestern States are hoping to follow suit. Similar Leagues have popped up in Wisconsin (which in two years went from 90 kids to more than 500) and North Dakota. Programs have been launched in South Dakota, Kansas and Illinois, with inquiries received from more than 30 States – from a wide range of people including athletic directors, teachers and ATA delegates.
An overarching organization was formed a couple of years ago to help duplicate Minnesota’s success in other States, called the USA High School Clay Target League. Their long-term goal is to have a program in each State, so a true national high school tournament can be hosted – one in which individuals and teams representing their high schools can compete on a national basis.
A grass roots movement that started with three teams and 30 kids now has 8,600 students in the program, 450 involved schools and 268 teams. Their State Championship drew 5,100 students this year and clay shooting has become a top 10 sport in Minnesota, out of approximately 45 activities that are sponsored by the State high school League. About 75 percent of teams have their photos in yearbooks (with most of them actually posing with their firearms) and 80 percent of the participating schools have adopted the League as a varsity letter sport.
If ever there was cause for celebrating a shooting sport victory, that time is now. And the winner is – The Minnesota State High School Clay Target League. See them on the web at www.mnclaytarget.com
REPRINTED FROM NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2015 ISSUE OF TRAPSHOOTINGUSA