From the Publisher
By Mike Panozzo
Mike became editor of Billiards Digest in 1980 and liked it so much that he bought the company. He has served on the Billiard Congress of America board of directors and as president of the Billiard & Bowling Institute of America.
June: 25 or 6 to 4
There isn’t a single moment that has had a greater impact on the billiard industry over the past 25 years than that moment on May 23, 1984, when the Billiard Congress of America board of directors cut the ribbon at the Tarrant County Convention Center in Fort Worth, Texas, to signify the opening of the industry’s first dedicated trade show.
Sure, the night in 1986 when “The Color of Money” opened in theaters around the country set in motion an incredible stretch of good fortune for manufacturers, retailers and poolroom owners. But would the movie’s impact have reached the levels it did without the annual BCA Trade Show to maximize the business potential? And while the movie’s impact was immense, it’s long since run its course. The expo is still as relevant and important to the industry today as it was 25 years ago.
Surprisingly, the annual billiard trade show wasn’t the result of years of analysis at the board level. It evolved quickly from a simple discussion among several industry leaders over cocktails during the 1982 Billiard & Bowling Institute of America annual convention. Billiard manufacturers and distributors had grown tired of playing second (or third, or fourth) fiddle at the National Sporting Goods Association’s annual trade show in Chicago. For years the arrogant and unresponsive NSGA showed little regard for billiard industry exhibitors, sprinkling them around the massive McCormick Place exhibit hall with little rhyme or reason. Other facets of the sporting goods industry (tennis and golf, to name two) were breaking off to launch their own trade shows, and billiard leaders like then-BCA president Dave Maidment of World of Leisure and Chuck Milhem of coin-op table giant Valley Mfg., wondered whether the billiard industry could sustain its own show as well.
The BCA, which at the time barely had enough of a budget to operate its own office, didn’t have the funds to foot the initial cost of staging a show. Enter Frank Zdy, a trade publications and expo communications veteran, who offered to produce the show himself. In exchange for the rights to run the show, Zdy agreed to handle all costs (and risks) and give the BCA a small percentage of the show revenue.
At the time, the billiard industry was mired in a horrific economic slump. Astronomical interest rates and double-digit unemployment combined to cripple the industry in the early ’80s. But the idea of its very own trade show seemed to breath life into the business, and the first-ever BCA expo in Fort Worth was a roaring success. Over those first four days in 1984, the billiard industry came together as a business, as an industry, and as a family. The trade show would grow virtually every year through the new millennium, and its success helped fortify the BCA.
But for me, the first decade of trade shows was the best of times. As us “old timers” say, it was a simpler time. In those days, the billiard industry was the billiard industry. Retailers who attended the show didn’t sell spas or “home recreation.” They sold billiards. And the manufacturers made billiard tables, cues, cases and chairs — not theater seating, video games and outdoor furniture. Not that I have anything against today’s exhibitors and buyers. Business has changed, the distribution chain has changed … the world has changed. And our industry has had to change with the times.
But along the way the billiard industry seems to have lost its soul. There used to be a connection that bound together the manufacturers, retailers, room owners and players. And oftentimes that connection was rooted in the game itself, which would explain why the annual Hall of Fame banquet — long the social highlight of the trade show — used to routinely draw 400-500 decked-out attendees. It was a chance to honor not only the game’s stars, but to honor the game itself. Attendees sat on the edge of their collective seats to hear acceptance speeches by Minnesota Fats (and if it weren’t for banquet emcee Mike Geiger’s diplomatic handling of Fats, we might still be sitting there!), Jean Balukas, Mike Sigel, Lou Butera. Precious few exhibitors or attendees today actually grew up with the game and its heroes, and as a result the Hall of Fame banquet became a poorly attended afterthought. And that’s a shame.
And while the show’s inevitable move to Las Vegas proved to be a boon for the BCA, it came at what I always felt was a huge expense: schmoozing sessions. Gone are the late nights in the lounge of the host hotels in Fort Worth, Louisville, Kansas City and Nashville, where hundreds of trade show goers would mingle until the wee hours … talking shop, striking deals, forging friendships and, on occasion, plotting a 4 a.m. attack on the hotel pool.
In June, the BCA will celebrate the 25th anniversary of what is now the International Billiard & Home Recreation Expo at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, N.C. Hopefully the industry, once again mired in a slump, will once again pull itself together and lift itself back to prosperity. We did it 25 years ago. We can do it again.
In the meantime, I think I’ll spend my time in Charlotte reminiscing about the show’s humble beginnings. It will offer another chance to honor the Hall of Famers, and I’m sure I’ll find a friend or two in the lobby lounge.
I might even pack my swim trunks.