What USPSA Nationals Could Be

Ben BerryBlog

I think the way that Nationals has been run for a while is broken. Instead of being the premier event of the year that the rest of the season builds up to, it’s a series of multiple events throughout the year, each one of which is on par with a state level championship, with many Area matches being higher quality. The match that people should be eager to shoot because there’s nothing else like it instead has anyone with a credit card signing up to maximize participation.

Although there are facets of USPSA at the local level that make it more like a hobby, at the national level USPSA is without question a sport. And the biggest competition of the year in that sport should be the most rigorous, well-run event of the year as well. I can’t see how that idea is controversial.

So, presented here are my thoughts on some ways to make that ideal a reality. Some of the ideas presented here I see as no-brainers. Some are just an attempt to jump-start a conversation about what could be. Just because something has been done the same way for years doesn’t mean it’s the only way things can be.

With that, let’s begin.

Have A Single Nationals, At The End of the Season

You don’t play the Super Bowl in the fourth week of the season. Everyone in the US should have their season culminate at Nationals. This requires there to be just one, big Nationals each year instead of the three different Nationals throughout the year. The only goal that I can see is accomplished by having so many Nationals is to allow virtually everyone that wants to shoot the match to have a slot. In the years past, it’s been uncommon for Nationals to actually fill up, a clear sign that there is space for everyone that wants to shoot it. Now that Nationals are starting to fill up, this logic would dictate we need a fourth one to make more space.

The foremost example of this is the Nine Days of Nationals in 2018, as you can hear Mike Foley boast as the first words out of his mouth in this interview, saying there were 1200 “happy people” (double and triple counting the folks that shot two or three matches) and that it was the “second largest practical shooting event” in history, as though the size of the event is an indicator of quality.

Instead, I propose that, like the World Shoot, Nationals each year is a single event that has the entire organizational might of USPSA behind it. Everything from registration to the awards dinner should be the best of any match in the country that year. Other matches should strive to live up to the standard set by Nationals. It goes without saying that things are not that way today.

All the divisions should shoot heads up against each other, and we can really see which divisions have participation. When you have 323 competitors shoot the 2017 Single Stack Nationals and then 78 of them stay an extra day to shoot a one-day Revolver Nationals on the same stages, even that anemic turnout is hardly an accurate picture of the health of the division.

I tend to think even PCC should be included at this one Nationals, for the following reasons. First, people say you need harder stages to properly test a PCC. But I think in general, Nationals stages should be more challenging than they are presently (more on that later) which would give shooters more room to show their skill. Second, any standalone PCC Nationals would always be a shorter, less elaborate event. It would likely be difficult to recruit enough staff, would probably only end up being two days instead of three or four (more stages help separate shooters) and ultimately would carve out a niche where PCC is a “sport within a sport” that I think is unhelpful. I’m not firm on this point, but the benefit of having the top echelons of the membership gathered together in one place once a year outweighs a lot of things in my mind.

It Should Be An Honor To Qualify

Going to Nationals should be something that is meaningful and earned. To me, the idea that someone can join the sport and a few months later pay a match fee and be off to Nationals makes no sense. In the same way that it’s impressive that someone went to the Olympics in a given year, even if they didn’t make it on to the podium, just being in the top 50 or so in your division that year should be a point of pride.

Nationals also should not necessarily be fun to shoot, in the same way that competing at the highest level of any sport would be. The stages should be challenging but reward skill (i.e. not punishingly hard or full of carnival props) so that the winner of the match can actually showcase their greater ability. If a stage can be shot by the whole super squad with about the same score, it is worthless for differentiating the competitors from each other. I’m not saying 50 yard partials of course; good, well-balanced, challenging stages. But that very likely means they would be punishing for your average B-class shooter. I’m not a golfer, but I imagine the courses you want to use to challenge the best on the PGA Tour would not necessarily be fun to play for the weekend dabbler.

How exactly to do this qualification is an open topic, especially given the need for folks who are invited to be able to book travel and get time off work. But perhaps one solution is something like this: in each Division, the Top 16 from last year’s Nationals get a slot, as well as the top 3 in the division at each Area match, and the division winner at each Section match. That’s something like 60 to 80 slots per division, depending on participation. And of course, some divisions get fewer slots proportional to their activity.

Let’s say you have 24 stages shot over 3 days, 8 stages a day. Trust me, with staff reset (see below), it’s quite doable. 10 man squads, 5 minute walkthrough, 2.5 minutes per shooter, totals up to 30 minutes per stage. That’s 8 stages in 4 hours, say in a morning 8am-12pm schedule, and then a 1-5pm schedule so competitors get a chance to look at stages over lunch and the staff get a break to rest, eat, and socialize. That’s 24 squads times 10 shooters times 2 schedules, so 480 slots in the main match. Broken down, that might be something like 4 divisions with 80 slots, and 4 divisions with 40 slots.

It Should Have Staff Reset

So what do you do if you don’t qualify through this process, but you want to shoot Nationals? Sign up to work it. Of course, this also requires that the match have a staff match. It’s strange I even have to say this, because every major match on the calendar except for Nationals has historically had a staff match so the officials get to at least have a score to compare to the regular competitors. So should Nationals. And recruiting competitors who didn’t earn a slot neatly solves a few problems all at once.

First, it fixes the chronic issue at Nationals where the ROs are rarely regular, active competitors who keep up with the rules and watch shooters closely. It’s always jarring to me to go from locals and state matches where the ROs are dedicated, experienced competitors and end up at Nationals where the rules are regularly loosely enforced or applied incorrectly. Nationals should be the best of everything, including officiating.

Secondly, this system would provide more than enough young, mobile, energetic folks to keep stages reset. When your options are to work or shoot the match, by definition the only people who work it are the ones who don’t shoot much anymore. We should be setting up the system so that the up-and-coming competitors who didn’t earn a slot to Nationals jump at the chance to work it. They may be motivated by wanting to shoot it, but they will along the way get to work alongside more seasoned ROs, and take what they learned back to their home club.

I’ve written at length about the benefits of staff reset at the match, but there are two main advantages that concern us here. First is the fairness: having competitors paste and reset each others targets just opens the door for early pasting, scoring mixups, movers reset improperly, and poorly maintained steel, all of which lead to reshoots. Also, competitor reset rewards the shooter who slacks off the most and pastes the least, by leaving him less worn out by the end of the day.

Second is the undeniable fact that a crew of two or three who have understood assignments can reset even a 32 round stage faster than competitors milling about. With staff reset, you can get more shooters through in a single day, allowing you to have more squads scheduled in the same day without having to charge any more per shooter.

Nationals Shouldn’t Be A Club Match Over And Over

I mentioned the 2018 Nine Days of Nationals, the largest event in USPSA’s history according to that Foley interview above. I shot one of the three matches, and I can say that the feel was distinctly average. It was like showing up to three mediocre club matches in a row. The staff were so busy and stretched thin that registration was a joke. The “awards dinner” was phoned in, and the staff weren’t able to attend because they were setting the range up for the next 3-day match that started in the morning. The stages were purely average.

There was no sense in which it was worth a 12-hour drive and two to three times the cost of a typical state championship.

The stages at Nationals, like everything else, should be representative of the best the country can offer. Whether that’s a system where teams of highly-regarded stage designers take turns designing stages each year, or there’s a submission process from which the best designs of the year are taken as the basis for the stages, the options are endless. But having someone with no experience at the local or state level designing stages to test the best competitors in the country is self-evidently unhelpful.

Of course, stages at Nationals should be inspiration for stage designers around the country to take in whole or in part to build at their home club. Even local match stage designers who are good at it can use good ideas now and then, and it should be expected and encouraged to see challenges from Nationals popping up locally.

It Should Be The Biggest Event On The Calendar for USPSA In A Single Year (Duh)

You have all the best shooters in the country in one place for four days. Sponsors should be excited to do promotional events for them, film content for social media, have booths at the range, the works. In effect, Nationals would be a national convention for the entire sport. Maybe sponsors have events/parties in the evenings like you see at big conferences like SHOT Show. Use your imagination. The sky’s the limit.

Meanwhile, Shooting USA should be over the moon to get to video so many good shooters without having to fly to multiple events throughout the calendar. Of course, they don’t even usually do that. They just pick one Nationals and that’s the one that gets the attention for the year.

USPSA should have a proper live stream that is more than just a camera on a tripod watching an entire squad paste their targets. Have two commentators commenting on the shooter’s run, then discussing it with replays and slowmo while the stage is reset (quickly, by staff). Cut between shooters on multiple stages the way golf cuts between multiple holes to keep the action interesting. The technology and tools to do this has never been cheaper or more accessible, and yet we’re getting a live feed of mostly pasting with brief interludes of shooting.

There should be a DVD or digital download or whatever edited together to produce the definitive story of the Nationals that year, the way Hot Shots once was, and Saul Kirsch and Lenny Magill before them.

It Should Cost What It Needs To

First off, let me say I’m totally fine if HQ has to cover the balance between what it takes to put on a world-class competition and what is brought in by the match fees. If it’s taken for granted that Nationals loses money, the focus is taken away from trying to cut costs and corners and put back where it should be: on putting on the best competition, anywhere in the country and ideally the world, in that year.

That said, to some degree, raise the price to make the numbers balance out. Sure, staff reset allows more shooters to come through, but there are plenty of ways that more money could contribute to a better match, and I don’t mean bullshit swag like hats and range bags that everyone already has at home. I mean things like enough toilets, waterproof targets instead of bags in case of rain, high quality props and targets, even permanent improvements to the range so that it’s a privilege and not a burden to host Nationals. Let your imagination run wild.

But the core idea is that for the people who have worked their way into earning a slot to Nationals will not blink at paying what it takes. You’re already spending hundreds on a hotel, flight, food, and ammo. The idea that Nationals needs to keep prices low to avoid scaring away people who aren’t that interested is absurd. It should cost what it takes to make it the quality experience it should be.

(All of that said, the really nutty idea is that maybe one day the invited competitors to Nationals don’t pay a dime. If Nationals was structured as an invitational like major golf or CrossFit events, would the match fees really be needed? I know this idea is out there, but I just want to challenge you to think bigger about what the event could be than the lame stuff we’ve gotten for years.)

Isn’t This Asking For A Lot?

I don’t expect half of the ideas I mentioned here to happen ever. I just want to move the conversation in a direction of how much more a Nationals could be if it were run by the right people for the right reason. Nationals isn’t Disneyworld where it’s a fun experience and you want to get as many people involved as it can be. It should be a pressure cooker that’s a big deal to earn your way into, and be something that the rest of the sport can spectate either in person or over the internet, to be impressed and inspired.

All that’s needed is leadership to put the sport ahead of participation and make the biggest competition of the year also the best.