BATL-Matt Wilson
Case Studies

Can Toronto’s axe-throwing league keep up with the booming trend?

Vital Stats
Name:
B.A.T.L. Alternative Sports
Owner:
Matt Wilson
Addresses:
213 Sterling Road, Unit 105, Toronto, M6R 2B2; 33 Villiers Street, Toronto, M5A 1A9
Contact:
events@BATL.ca, league@batl.ca
Field:
Sports and recreation
Active:
6 years
Offering:
Axe throwing league and private events

There’s a craze hitting the Toronto, and like the punctured wooden boards that it leaves behind, few in the city likely saw it coming.

Over the last couple of years, the sport of axe throwing has exploded in popularity. Today, the force behind the craze, the Backyard Axe Throwing League, or BATL, has two locations hosting a combined 278 people in registered tournaments each week, as well as another 135 private groups of 12 to 40 people each month.

After discovering the sheer joy of sticking an axe through the bull’s-eye of a wooden target at a friend’s cottage three years ago, Matt Wilson set up his own target in the backyard of his home in Little Italy, and invited a few close friends over for an axe throwing tournament. At the time he was working as a bartender in Toronto, and had never imagined owning his own business.

Wilson spent the next few years perfecting his technique while establishing standards and rules for the game. He launched the first location in 2011.

After a wave of positive press, Increased demand led the opening of their second location in December of 2013. BATL served more customers in the first two months of 2014 than it did in all of 2013.

As the company expands, however, Wilson is concerned the backyard atmosphere, which helped the quirky sport reach new heights, may be at risk.

He and his staff still work tirelessly to uphold the backyard atmosphere, even allowing participants to bring their own alcohol, as long as there’s no hard liquor or glass bottles.

“We want it to feel like a house party,” he says.

Though things behind the scenes have gotten a bit more formal since the expansion, the customer’s experience remains relatively laid back.

At a cost of $40 per person, guests are offered tips on the finer points of axe throwing by staff who also help organize a tournament. Fridges filled with complimentary water line a standing area separated from the throwing lanes by a cubby unit. Two throwing lanes with two targets each allows participants to compete head-to-head, with staff stationed behind them, like a closely supervised bowling alley for lumberjacks.

While the idea of getting people together to drink alcohol and throw sharp objects might seem less than safe, Wilson isn’t concerned.

“A lot of people feel like they shouldn’t be allowed to do it, which is a really interesting draw for us,” he says, adding that he’s spoken with local police and the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario to ensure his operation is completely safe and above board. Though they may be rare in densely populated areas like downtown Toronto, logging sport competitions are common in rural communities across the country.

Wilson attributes his flawless safety record in part to 16 staff members. The staff is comprised of seasoned axe throwing veterans from the backyard days that also have experience in the nightlife industry, and are thus well practiced at controlling less than sober crowds — though he’s rarely had to ask patrons to leave.

Though the event itself has a relaxed atmosphere, the booking process has become more of a headache. The exploding demand means that guests now need to book two to three months in advance, leagues remain at capacity and Wilson and his employees struggle to respond to email bookings in a timely manner.

In its first three years BATL dedicated one staff member to respond to booking requests and building an events schedule. With that staff member now working 60 hours a week on scheduling alone, Wilson is planning on abandoning the personal emails and moving to an automated system, though he fears it may diminish the company’s welcoming personality.

“We still want to connect with everyone who comes in here,” he says. “The main issue with our growth is trying to control it and stay organized, both in-house and with bookings, without offending people.”

Paul Jackson, founder and CEO of Method Integration — a Toronto-based customer relations management solutions provider — believes that providing a personal touch is still possible through an automated system.

Jackson, who has visited BATL for a corporate event, advises Wilson to “make sure you define what makes it ‘backyard,’ and put that into all your text and images and everything you do so that is has that same feel.”

“It doesn’t have to be a human being delivering the same message every time,” he says. “It’s possible to have a personality in an online order form.”

In the mean time, Wilson is working hard to ensure that some of his favorite backyard traditions remain intact, even if they are a little rough around the edges.

For example, Wilson and his staff encourage participants to raise a middle finger at the camera during the ceremonial post-tournament portrait, a tradition started in the early days of the sport.

“Those moments are key and absolutely remind us that we’re still just in the backyard having a good time,” he says. “As long as we hang onto that, we’ll be alright.”

EXPERT VIEWS

As Interviewed by: Rosemary Westwood

There appears to be a franchise opportunity here. What you have is a small venture that has successfully managed its growth, providing a fun and safe environment while building in quality processes, particularly important given the risks of combining axes and liquor. Once you get to a point where it does work smoothly, that all processes have been standardized, documented, tested, managed and controlled, you can begin to think about franchising. With their recently demonstrated success, the founders could start building the franchise operation, similar to other sports franchising models. Starting slowly, perhaps in the GTA, before expanding across Ontario — where they already have experience with the liquor laws. They could then remove themselves from the day-to-day management in which they currently find themselves. Or, if they wanted to, they could still run one of the operations. Franchising represents the next level for this startup. The founders need to stop thinking about running a small venture, and recognize that they may have something bigger: They could be the McDonald’s of axe throwing.

by Steve Tissenbaum Ryerson

Wilson has an interesting, niche event business, and continued growth won’t likely prove a challenge in the short-term, given advocates are rapidly growing in numbers. Wilson needs to keep an eye on a couple of things, namely accommodating the influx of interested patrons given that under-serviced consumers will find other things to do with their time and dollars; as well as potential new-entrant competitors to this market. Maintaining the BATL market share foothold will be about streamlining enrolments and capacity, as well as ensuring scalable internal processes so that further expansion, including new locations, can be consistently put in place. An automated component—e.g. website or app—will help customers with ease of enrolment, though it should be done with strategic planning. None of this formalization has to compromise the “backyard feel” that Wilson fears losing if it is done properly. Brand communications (including any automated systems) can easily be made to look and feel authentic to the intended brand experience, which today's tech-friendly consumers will likely appreciate.

by Brynn Winegard - SEEC

Nice problem to have. In the short term, Matt needs to scale up quickly to handle the volume. The wait lists are too long. No one’s going to tolerate two or three-month waits for long. He needs to expand his league, get on top of scheduling and make hay while the sun shines. He’s got to find new locations and focus on hiring and training to gear up in a big way, especially now that summer is coming. In the long term, he needs to leverage BATL’s current popularity to expand into a more sustainable direction. Axe throwing is a one hit wonder, it’s a trend, and people will try it once or twice and move on. So leverage the current popularity to start adding other activities or events that are related. Maybe that’s wood chopping or log rolling. Maybe that means launching weekend events on the woodsmen/outdoorsy theme. Maybe a festival, some kind of “back to the old days” type competition. I don’t know exactly what that will look like, but that’s where this could go. There might be a core group of enthusiasts, but axe throwing is a trend for most, and it will fizzle.

by Deirdre Fitzpatrick - GBC

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