As applications for the 2011 Inc. 500 | 5000 pour into our offices, we thought it would be worthwhile to shine a spotlight on some of the companies that are vying to appear on our ranking of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. (For more information and to apply, go to http://www.inc.com/inc5000apply/2011/index.html.) One that caught our eye was the Lake St. Louis, Missouri-based American Poolplayers Association.
Originally popularized in the mid-1800s by the French and subsequently enjoyed by all European nobility, billiards has made its way into the mainstream here in the states. Last year, nearly 40 million Americans played pool at least once, and over the last three years, wholesale revenue of billiard equipment reached $521 million in the U.S., according to a report by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA).
Prior to 1979, however, pool had difficulty gaining traction as a money-maker in the U.S. There was no standardized system of play, no standard set of rules, no handicap system, no stars of the sport, and no existing league system to compete against other players. Without any structures in place, there was simply no money in the game.
Professional pool players Terry Bell and Larry Hubbart changed all that. Bell and Huppart had traveled around the country on the professional circuit noting how each city would have a slightly different interpretation of the game.
"[Terry and Larry] believed that to have fans, you have to standardize things," says Reneé Lyle, president of the APA and Bell's stepdaughter. "That way, everybody's familiar with the game the same way."
To bring the disparate pool communities together under one umbrella, Bell and Hubbart founded the National Pool League in 1979—later renamed to the American Poolplayers Association in 1981—with the goal of making billiards more accessible.
The APA provides its franchisees with all the necessary materials to promote APA activities in the local market. With more than 300 franchises in the U.S. and Canada, the APA is one of the fastest growing recreational franchise opportunities in North America.
"Any place that has a pool table in the franchise territory is eligible to be a host for APA league play," Lyle says. "If it's your local moose lodge, or corner bar, or sports bar, or billiard room—we've actually had play in church recreation centers, YMCAs, people's homes, fire stations—we're able to offer them the use of our services. It's a pretty easy sell. Locations love us because it doesn't cost them any money, and we truly help them build their business and make it more stable."
To involve the greater masses, the playing field needed some leveling. After all, it's hard to learn—not to mention become passionate about—a game when you constantly get pummeled by your opponents. Bell and Huppart developed "The Equalizer," a handicap system that allows players of differing abilities to compete on an equal basis; without the system, inexperienced players would be easily beaten and discouraged from playing more in the future.
"Right after I graduated from college, my mom actually signed me up to play in a ladies' pool league that they had in their local market," Lyle says. "My response was, 'I don't play pool.' She said, 'That's okay, none of us do.' We ended up paying together for four years—we enjoyed the game even though we were horrible, but because of the handicap system, we actually felt success and it allowed us to feel better about our game."
The handicap system has proven successful in broadening the appeal of the game for beginners and novice players, but the tournaments are what keep the experienced players and experts interested. The APA holds three major tournaments each year: the National Singles Championships held each April, the National Team Championships in August, and the US. Amateur Championships in November. Last year's National Team Championships set a Guinness World Record for the largest pool tournament, enrolling about 12,000 participants.
"Most play for the fun and the competition, but they also play for an opportunity to win a trip to Vegas to play in the Nationals," Lyle says.
The APA made about $11 million in revenue in 2010. Currently, the APA has franchised a little more than half of North America, but its the lone Japan franchise which represents a ray of hope for the APA to succeed in the international marketplace.
"We're actually talking with some potential master franchisees for China and Korea right now," Lyle says. "We have a goal of achieving one person for every 200 people in the market playing in our leagues. For us, the future is very bright."