Given Up On the Upland Bird Market?

Oct 1, 2010
Editor's Note: Today, Jay Kumar asks the question: why has the hunting industry given up on the upland bird market? It's a provocative question, and Jay offers some ideas as to why this highly enjoyable sport seems to be in decline.

Why Has Everyone Given Up on the Upland Bird Market?

Why has the hunting industry given up on the upland bird market? Yes, given up. Not entirely, but largely, emotionally, passionately. Whether you recognize it or not -- or want to recognize it or not -- it's the truth. And before you get to feeling bad about it, it's largely deserved. Because the upland market has not been remade, reinvented or reinvigorated. Ever.

This jumped out at me in stark relief while researching a book my company recently published called Serious Grouse Hunting, Book 1. As I was reading bird-hunting books published in the 1940s on up to the 1970s, I realized I was reading material that was the same or better than upland bird hunting information I had recently read in magazines or seen on TV. Incredible!

Here we are in the age of media -- really a media explosion -- which the outdoors (though a bit belatedly) has benefited from: deer hunting and bass fishing in particular, but also saltwater fishing, duck hunting and other verticals. But not the upland market.

So we are now again at the initial question: Why? The answer is in the previous paragraph: Media.

Media in the upland space have not evolved. They have not been remade, reinvented or reinvigorated. And without that critical component -- very critical in the current era -- this market atrophies. Magazine subscribers decline, and so do ad dollars and page counts. The median age of upland bird hunters increases along with the median age of members of bird conservation organizations. TV shows have to cater to this shrinking, less-media-savvy audience and thus have less chance of success.

If you don't believe me, here's a comment left on a Field & Stream blog: "Now everyone is antler and gobbler crazy. It's what's on TV. It's what's hyped up in the ads. There is no record book or super slam for grouse. A fine morning of wingshooting isn't cool or awesome or fist-pumpy. You can't use the latest tech or signature gear. You have to like, walk around in the brush. That's no fun anymore."

Yet it definitely can be made cool and fun, and in fact has to be.

Another piece of evidence, some crunched federal stats, looking at 2006 vs. 1991:
• Small game hunters down 37% vs. 23% for big game
• Flat spending for small game (real dollars) vs. a $4B increase in big game

Even though I call out the whole hunting industry in the first line, no one is to blame here. I call everyone out because everyone needs to listen: Media in the upland space needs to be reinvented. It has to evolve beyond its traditional roots while not forgetting them -- just as modern upland gear has -- or the upland market will continue to wither (loss of revenue, loss of political clout, etc.).

Your questions now are: a) how does it happen; and b) will it work?

A few quick examples. One, an extreme one, is the movie A River Runs Through It. It's not every day that an outdoor vertical gets a shot in the arm from a Hollywood movie starring Brad Pitt, but you know what happened: Fly fishing took off.

Example number two is the Duck Commander TV show. That's a great show, and in my opinion is doing more for exciting duck hunters (and thus the market) than any 10 magazines.

A third example is partly a personal one. The launch of -- which I founded, ran and then sold in 2007 to Intermedia Outdoors, along with several other properties -- reinvented bass fishing media. That website, along with amazing bass fishing TV aired on ESPN and produced by ESPN, JM Outdoors and Winnercomm, created energy in that market in a way that had not been seen since Ray Scott created modern bass fishing. And because media begets more media (one of my favorite sayings), bass fishing media is still going strong, still evolving, and still exciting that market.

So new, exciting media is how it happens, and yes it does work. The asterisks here are that it can't be done by just anyone (a random website doesn't qualify, for example), and the industry has to support it. You have to want it to happen, you must see the necessity for it, and you must be willing to shift money around in ad budgets to make it happen. (Supporting legacy media is important to a point, but does not lead to stimulus or growth.)

Since everyone's a cynic, including me, you might be thinking that even with the above solid logic and real-world examples, this is all self-serving. Not entirely. My company does have a great vision for what the upland market needs (brand, print, web, TV), and we're pursuing it. But media consumption is not zero-sum -- if it was, you would not be reading this because I'd be keeping it to myself. Rather, as we did with BassFan, we're okay with leading the way, helping to create the rising tide that will float everyone -- manufacturers, retailers, guides and even traditional media.

I hope you jump on board because there are MANY upland and wanna-be upland hunters to reach, and a lot of products to sell to them (whether they own a dog or not). In fact, I believe everyone is leaving dollars -- perhaps billions -- on the table right now.

You might feel more is at play here than just media. I would agree but only to a certain extent: That doesn't change the above facts, and if you never move off that opinion you have given up. Don't. Exciting media = excited enthusiasts + new enthusiasts = more gear sales = more gear innovations = more gear sales = more and better media = more enthusiasts, and so on. It works.

Jay Kumar is a successful entrepreneur in outdoor enthusiast media. He founded and ran OutdoorsFan Media, a group of websites, events, a magazine and a membership program, sold to Intermedia Outdoors in 2007. He co-founded Portland, Ore.-based Threat Dynamics, which opened the first-ever enthusiast-oriented shooting facility using military-level video technology, sold in 2010. He also was co-host of an in-studio ESPN show he co-developed, and is a published fiction and non-fiction author. His company, Sasquatch Media( develops its own properties and assists a select few clients with their media, customer and brand efforts.