New local business aims to revive dying industry, popular luxury sport

Keith and Crystal Duvall are slowly building a paintball empire in TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Keith DuVall shows off a custom double barrel paintball gun created at Gearheadz.

The couple knows they’re staking their claim in a declining industry; they’re aware that many indoor facilities for this “pure luxury sport” have closed throughout the metro area.

But with a strong Web presence and a storefront that opened on Northeast 25th Avenue in April, Gearheadz has already established itself as a formidable paintball supply outpost.

Keith, himself a passionate paintball player since 2000, has a nuanced understanding of paintball culture — and paintballers themselves. Specifically, that paintball can essentially be whatever you want it to be.

“It can be a very simple game, where it’s all about two minutes of eliminating everybody, getting the flag — a points-based thing,” Duvall says. “Or it can be up to hundreds and hundreds of people (competing) on the field.”

Paintball can be played indoors, in obstacle courses built to be permanently messy. Or it can be a more elaborate event in the woods, involving extensive strategy and specialized equipment where, Duvall says, “A typical game can last anywhere from a couple of minutes to 24 hours.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Keith DuVall owner of Gearheadz uses an indoor shooting range in the back of his store to measure paintball velocity.

The paintball demographic

“There’s not one kind of paintball player,” Keith said. “A lot of paintball players are very eccentric and they have a lot of custom gear. It’s common for someone to have a very unique setup versus what any other player has. We have to position ourselves so we can tap into that market (at Gearheadz).”

After what Keith describes as a year and a half of “fact finding,” or marketing research, the couple knew they had to tap into a niche line of merchandise. In addition to selling the requisite paintball supplies — bags and backpacks, tanks and air solutions, padded and camouflaged field apparel, barrels, masks — the Duvalls knew that product customization was key. They also decided to offer their own line of Gearheadz goods.

Every item in the Gearheadz line is manufactured in the United States and, when possible, even more locally: Oregon businesses get first consideration when Gearheadz is looking to work with a new vendor or service provider.

“We’re pretty firm believers at shopping at home, shopping at small business,” Keith said.

The retail aspect of Gearheadz has allowed the company to create and promote its own product line, in part by sharing some of the Gearheadz commercial space with machinist Ryan McKee, who helps Keith do research and development on Gearheadz’s own prototypes. This has allowed the store to become “one-stop shopping for paintball,” Keith says, for both the newbie clientele and the “weekend warriors” who come into Gearheadz seeking a custom setup to intimidate both teammates and opponents on the paintball course.

“My original intent was to be nothing but a one-off custom work, offer nothing but custom gear,” Keith said.

More practically, Gearheadz decided to sell other trusted brands and a full offering of modifications so that customers could upgrade their equipment. Gearheadz customers can be confident they’ll be able to bring something new and unique with them onto the field.

Meanwhile, Gearheadz aims to be a resource to help paintball enthusiasts find places to play, other members and teams to TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Paintball guns on a workbench at Gearheadz.

“We’re really trying to push that kind of community outreach aspect of the sport,” Keith says, “all the way up to professional players who play two or three times a week and are practicing for tournaments and may need paint sponsorship.”

And that’s just phase one.

Gearheadz expanded

The Duvalls plan to expand Gearheadz to include a large park facility with multiple indoor and outdoor fields for every subculture of paintball play, from children’s parties to large teams competing in guerilla-style paintball warfare.

There would be a full store on-site that would offer party rooms where parents could organize birthday gatherings without having to deal with the messier aspects of paintball play themselves. There would also be a lounge with a café, where players could take a breather and monitor outdoor play from indoor television screens.

In many ways, the facility would be modeled after a high-end gym, with locker rooms for rent.

“Say you work a 9-to-5 job,” Keith says, “you can come in on your lunch break, play paintball for a while, shower and go back to work.”

Keith ought to know: He has a day job, too, as an engineering technician at Intel.

“I live two lives, really,” Keith says. “I spend half my week at Intel, the other half of the week at the store.”

Paintball as a way of life

The storefront may be less than a year old, but Gearheadz spent about three years establishing its brand by attending trade shows and the twice-yearly “supergames” at Sniperz Den, a huge paintball locale in St. Paul, Ore., which typically attracts more than 1,000 paintball players to its larger events.

Inspired by the Sniperz Den games — and naming as their mentor Dan Bonebrake, owner of Salem-based paintball facility Warpaint International — Gearheadz quickly became a business with the tagline, “What’s your scenario?”

“Scenario” games in paintball involve a longer-term format, Keith explains. Scenarios can involve up to 700 people, and “can take on more of a military-style play with a command structure, radios — it’s for hardcore players.”

Scenario paintball games can last anywhere from 45 minutes to 24 hours. The day-long games have been known to involve the use of night vision goggles.

“But we really try to cater to everybody,” Keith said. “The spirit is: How do you as an individual want to play paintball? What will make you the happiest playing paintball, and how can we help you get there?”

As he explains, paintball is an incredibly inclusive sport — one which, he’s observed, is possibly the best form of family therapy.

The entire Duvall family plays, he says, and it has brought them closer together.

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