Taking axe-throwing from a backyard sport to an international business.
“The biggest trick to throwing an axe is just to follow through. Grip is important, your stance is important, but I’d equate it to a tennis serve.” As the owner of BATL Alternative Sports, Matt Wilson would know. He’s taken axe-throwing from a backyard hobby and a local phenomenon to a rapidly expanding company that aims to have 35 locations across North America by 2017.
BATL currently sees about 2,000 to 3,000 people through private events each month in its two Toronto locations, and will be adding a third in February, in North York. It also operates from a location in Pickering—and Wilson now has his eye on Kitchener-Waterloo, Ottawa, and Calgary. It’s come a long way since the league’s beginnings in 2006, when Wilson and a handful of friends got together in his backyard for a little cottage-inspired mayhem.
Our interview with Wilson—about BATL’s underground beginnings, the challenges of insurance, and playing nice with police officers—is below.
Torontoist: How did the Backyard Axe-Throwing League get started? How did you take it from a hobby to a business?
Matt Wilson: BATL started at a drunk trip at a cottage in October of 2006, with two good buddies, Charles Ketchebaw and Neshon Abadjian. They’re both pretty unique dudes, and Neshon taught me how to throw an axe that weekend. I came back to my apartment in Little Italy, and I was going on about it to my roommate. When I tried to relay how satisfying it was to him, he kind of shrugged it off. I was like, “You don’t understand! I’m going to make you understand!” There was a bunch of scrap wood outside from a neighbour’s renovations, so we just grabbed that and duct-taped it together and made this very scrappy target. We bought whatever axe we could find, and started throwing it. By the end of the weekend, we were kind of getting the hang of it, and started thinking of friends we thought would like doing it. Eventually, we had a list of about 20 people, and I was like, “Why don’t I just call them and see about starting a league?” So we cleaned up the backyard and called some buddies and launched our first 12-person league.
When it became a business, it became one out of necessity. We only had two targets in the backyard, and it slowly grew to the maximum of 16 people, but we started getting a following of people who were coming out to watch. We put up two more targets, and as soon as we said we would be able to double our roster, it was full within hours. We did two seasons like that, and we still had 20 or 30 different people showing up every week. After we put up a Facebook post and asked anyone who was interested to check it out, we had 60 people show up, and signed up 30 on the spot. That became our Monday night league. When we started getting regular checks from the police, we knew we had to move it indoors. The cops were super cool about it, and they’d stick around and watch. By that point, we had floodlights shining down on the house, and everything was very obviously organized, but we still took it as a sign to move it indoors.
Why axes? Why not bocce ball, or lawn darts?
It’s just a situation of circumstance. My friend had an axe with him at the cottage when it was raining and there was nothing to do, so away we went. I’ve always been a bar gamesman: I love pool, ping-pong, darts, and all that stuff. Axes were just the next level of satisfaction, just having something spin in the air. It looks and feels like it should be really hard to do, and then you do it. We get that reaction from tons of new people and they’re like, “I’m really clumsy and I don’t think I can do this,” and within minutes, they’re hitting a couple and they freak out. This business is based on that positive attitude. All of our staff are super encouraging, and each person finds it in their own stride.
What’s your insurance like?
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s pretty extreme. Insurance was a huge challenge. We tried to get it in the backyard, and when I started shopping around, the quotes were insane. Like $25,000 a month, and I needed to have six EMS staff on-site all the time. They just didn’t understand what we were doing at all. My friend Charles Ketchebaw’s brother-in-law was an insurance broker, and Charles has been supportive throughout. When I put it out there that I was struggling, they helped us package it properly for the insurance companies. That changed the game. The nice thing about the investors jumping on board is that they had better contacts that could protect it properly. It’s a huge cost for us, but it’s a part of the business model.
I’ve always said that people need to come down and take a look. I think everyone’s first reaction is “What? Are you crazy?” And then we say that they can bring their own beers, and they just think we’re nuts, but it’s organized. There are designated areas for throwing and for hanging out. There is one staff for every two people throwing, and that’s not an accident, it’s to be sure we’re always safe. Our injury record is phenomenal. We have had 60,000 people through this place, and we haven’t had a serious injury. Nothing from our events, who are the people who have never thrown before. We’re adamant about intoxication, and if you’ve had too much, you’re not allowed to throw. We treat it like a gentlemen’s club.
You’ve mentioned a gentlemen’s club, and the league’s oath talks about “primal man.” Do you think axe-throwing is a particularly masculine thing to do?
No, I don’t. The only reason I said gentlemen’s club is that I don’t know of another phrase to explain that feeling. It’s like a speakeasy, in a way. You know where it is, you come in, and you’re allowed to do something that you’re not allowed to do in very many places. There’s a certain unspoken code of conduct. You need to behave in a certain way in order to be allowed to stay. When we first started, we were a lot of dudes, and breaking females into the league took a while. But our very first league had a woman, and she stuck around for the next one. As we expanded, the female response has been huge. Our events are about half women, and our leagues are about a third female. We’re big on equality that way. There are no handicaps, we don’t separate the genders in competition, and everyone does well.
What drives people to try throwing axes? And why do they keep coming back?
The underground nature of it is what helped us get started, for sure. It was like Fight Club in the backyard days. We kept that going in the west end location, because we had no signage and no way to find us unless you knew where it was. That became part of the charm, I think. We haven’t ever spent any money on advertising, and it’s all just been word of mouth. People leave here raving about what they’ve experienced, and they talk about it for days or weeks. People get curious about that. Then the experience here is super inclusive and positive. Every time I’m here, there’s an eruption of screams and it’s always someone’s, like, tiny mother who just hit a bulls-eye and the place is losing their minds. People are literally jumping up and down and smacking the wall at that point, and that stuff happens every day. At the end of each event, we take two photos. One is just a regular photo, but in the other one, we get everyone to flip us the bird and tell us to go fuck ourselves. We’re a super-friendly group that can still be a little crass. People totally embrace that. If I can put a little bit of profanity in people’s lives, I’m good with that.
This post originally spelled the names of Charles Ketchebaw and Neshon Abadjian incorrectly. We regret the error.