By Nick Simonson
The expansion of the USA Clay Target League (USA CTL) has seemingly been as fast as the spread of a shotgun load catching the bright orange dome of a hurled clay target, and the organization’s success on many fronts has been just as smashing. Now entering its twentieth spring season, the USA CTL is bringing on board more student-athletes and more schools at both its well-established high school and newly-founded college levels and helping address societal challenges surrounding the country’s gun culture, injury rates in school activities and even the declining sales of hunting licenses.
The USA High School Clay Target League began in 2001 with just 30 student athletes on three teams at schools in the Minneapolis suburbs. So popular and well-established is the league now in Minnesota that more kids are participating in clay target shooting than in the state’s former number one high school sport, hockey; as approximately 13,000 participants took part in the program in 2019. Since then, USA CTL has expanded to include 1,042 schools in 25 states with more than 28,000 participants in its most recent spring high school season. The numbers are only expected to go up from there according to USA CTL President, John Nelson, as he anticipates 1,400 teams with 32,000 participants (consisting of boys and girls in grades six through 12) and an additional four or five states coming on board in 2020.
“The growth pattern has been almost 66 percent faster than what Minnesota has had” Nelson explains of the growth in expansion states, “we have about nine states that reached 1,000 student athletes in them last year, and by comparison to Minnesota, eight of those nine states did it in three years, where in Minnesota it took five,” he concludes.
In addition to the expanding high school ranks, USA CTL has opened a new level of shooting sports available to those in college with the creation of the USA College Clay Target League. Last year’s inaugural season saw 20 colleges enter nationwide competition, providing opportunities for graduates of the USA CTL’s high school league and for others to enjoy the opportunity at the secondary-education level. However, only a twenty percent of those shooters initially came from the high school affiliate program, though Nelson expects that number to rise as well with the interest taken by other universities across the country.
“We had 20 colleges in our inaugural season last fall which is a great start for that and we had hundreds of inquiries,” Nelson relates, adding “we received so many requests that we’re actually adding a spring league this year for colleges.”
While growth of such an exponential nature on two levels may appear difficult to manage, the USA CTL still boasts a flawless safety record nearly two decades and 100,000 participants after its founding. With its three core principles of safety, fun and marksmanship, the league works hard to overcome concerns about safety and recent headlines of gun violence to provide a secure environment through its incredible school- and volunteer-based programming. This in turn is creating a strong base for the future of shooting sports and hunting participation.
“The second you say ‘kids, guns and schools’ in the same sentence it creates a negative perception of what’s happening in today’s society and with the Clay Target League we do our absolute best on how we can educate the public [on] how safe this sport is which these kids participate in,” Nelson states, “what we’re trying to do is change that negative perception into a positive and we do that through an awful lot of education between the families, the school officials, the shooting ranges and the general public;” adding that participants have pulled the trigger an estimated 55 million times since 2001 with no injuries, “imagine if you were to snap a football 55 million times, how many injuries would occur,” he concludes.
In addition to changing public perception, USA CTL is working to increase public involvement in hunting and has partnered with a number of state agencies looking to recruit new sportsmen and turn the tide of declining license sales in their respective states. With the confidence, competency and shotgunning skills created by participation in the league, Nelson suggests there is a field of participants ripe for recruiting by these agencies and non-governmental organizations involved in the recruit-retain-reactivate (R3) mission across the nation.
“Not every single kid wants to go out and hunt, but obviously if you’re in clay target league you’ve already learned how to handle a firearm responsibly,” Nelson points out, volunteering that partnerships with state agencies are paying off with involvement of young people in the outdoors, their greater awareness of hunting opportunities, and that strong base for future generations of hunters from which those agencies can recruit the next generation of license holders.
Sign-up for the spring leagues in each state affiliate of the USA CTL – including North Dakota and South Dakota – is going on now through the middle of March. For more information on how to join a team or start one, visit usaclaytarget.com.
Hot Shots. More than 28,000 student-athletes participated on over 1,000 teams in the Spring 2019 season of the USA High School Clay Target League. Simonson Photo.