ATA 2008: Bowhunting Industry State of the Union

INDIANAPOLIS — Walking the crowded aisles of the 2008 ATA Trade Show in Indianapolis, one wonders when the innovation will cease.

Every year, bow companies push the technological envelope even further, achieving IBO speeds, accuracy, smoothness, and forgiveness only dreamed of a few years ago.

Arrows are most often made from Space Age materials today, broadheads come out of the package wickedly sharp, and an endless stream of high-tech clothing exists, all designed to keep a hunter warm, dry, and undetected while in the woods or on the mountain.

Even so, as a regular attendee of the ATA Trade Show, I've noticed subtle changes as companies come and go, along with the ebb and flow of yearly attendance.

Such thoughts typically lead me to wonder each year around this time exactly what is the state of the bowhunting industry: For answers, I turned to Jay McAninch, CEO and president of the Archery Trade Association, poised to answer that question, as he spends his year working to promote and grow the industry. And from that vantage point, he has an expert feel for the pulse of bowhunting and archery, which can be reflected by the success — or lack thereof — of the yearly ATA Show.

What does the ATA president think of this year's show in Indy?

"I'm absolutely thrilled with this year's show," McAninch said. "This is the biggest show that we've ever had by far. With this economy and with gas prices the way that they are, we were not only surprised, but really, really thrilled."

Such talk isn't mere rhetoric, mind you — McAninch has the numbers to back up his claim.

"It's the biggest amount of floor space that we've ever had dedicated to archery and bowhunting," he said. "This is the most attendees we've ever had — it's the most excitement we've ever had."

According to ATA information, some 494 exhibitors rented a record-setting 159,250 square feet of booth space this year, exceeding the previous record of 155,000 square feet rented for the 2006 ATA Show in Atlanta. First day walk-up traffic of previously unregistered attendees at this year's show included 468 dealers, buyers, and distributors.

"These numbers prove once again that in this industry, all roads lead to Indy," said ATA Trade Show manager Cindy Brophy, in a news release.

Why is that? As in real estate, trade show success is often related to the old axiom of location, location, location.

When I posed the question of whether or not the ATA Show's location in Indy this year versus Atlanta the previous two years has had any measurable effect on attendance, McAninch's answer was "Absolutely."

"If you drew a line down the western borders of Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri, and if you looked at the Mason-Dixon line and looked north of that, about 65 to 70 percent of our market sits there," McAninch said.

"When you look at the states that have big numbers of bowhunters in them, that's our wheelhouse," he added.

"We're in Indy and I think that quite frankly, having been down south where we needed to go to service out southeast customers coming back north, I think that we've almost got a lot guys that said 'Welcome home' — and they're coming down here and running through the doors."

That seemed to be apparent on Friday when show aisles were crowded with retailers making deals and buying the wares bowhunting consumers will see in catalogs and on product shelves later this year.

So what exactly does the future hold for the ATA Show?

"The future of the show not only looks great, but we've got show locations both in Indianapolis and Columbus for the next few years," McAninch said.

"We look for the show to grow. I've been in conversations with a number of apparel manufacturers and in conversations with others looking at the bowhunting market, and it's a growing market.

"[That] has not necessarily been the case across the rest of hunting."

While not only true about bowhunting, it's also true about the sport of archery in general.

"We also look at archery as growing," McAninch said. "The National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP) is in 47 states."

That should mean more participants, as kids introduced to the sport continue to shoot competitively, just for fun, or by moving into the pastime of bowhunting.

And that could certainly mean more healthy ATA Shows in the future.

One question I posed to McAninch was whether or not he was concerned about a couple of big companies in the industry bowing out of year's show.

He indicated he wasn't concerned, noting that one of the companies was investing what they would have spent on show attendance into the NASP program.

To gain another perspective on the future, I asked Hall of Fame archer Jim Dougherty whether or not he had concerns about what is yet to come in the sports of archery and bowhunting.

"I've got some concerns," he said.

But as one of the industry's biggest icons, whose outdoor writing and bowhunting career began by hunting with men such as the late great Fred Bear, Dougherty's concerns aren't really related to industry strength, the state of the economy, weather concerns, or the location of the ATA Show.

"When you boil it down, I think the loss of habitat is probably number one," he said. "The west is a mess and it's happening in the Midwest and back east.

"The habitat goes away and people are leasing big leases — and the average guy loses a place. Guys have a place to hunt for years and they don't have it anymore, because some big outfitter leased it."

Such trends lead to hunters dropping out of bowhunting from a simple lack of opportunity.

"Those kind of things concern me, that's not good," Dougherty said.

The living legend is also concerned with the growth of anti-hunting forces who want to curb hunting and bowhunting seasons, if not eliminate them altogether.

"The anti-hunters, they are a pain — and they are getting worse — but I think we can beat them," Dougherty said.

So what's the bottom line, the state of the bowhunting union so to speak, in 2008?

Well, as the rain and snow fall here in Indy, it appears the state of the bowhunting industry is indeed good, perhaps even as good as in years gone by.

And if answers to such vexing questions as wildlife habitat destruction, loss of opportunity, and those who want to end this treasured way of life can be found, perhaps the future state of bowhunting will be as strong as it appears to be today.