VNEA Anniversary Celebration

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Early VNEA tournament committee

A who’s who of the people who poured their hearts and souls into developing the VNEA in this photo of an early tournament committee. League play began in 1980, but the first finals were held the next year at the Kahler Hotel in Rochester, Minn.

 

The 42-Year Dream Goes On!

The VNEA measures its age from 1980 when their very first leagues rolled out at the nation’s locations. The concept itself was born a year earlier in a conversation among Valley Mfg. Co. president Chuck Milhem and an assortment of route operators including Minnesota’s Dick and David Hawkins. If it wasn’t for the Covid lockdown, RePlay would have celebrated VNEA’s 40th anniversary two years ago.

This “Valley League,” which it’s commonly called, would blossom into an international organization of pool players and coin machine operators that would burnish the competitive sport of coin-operated 8-ball pool into a high gloss.

The idea was, and remains, a “step ladder” of competition beginning with elimination bouts in local bars through a run of playoffs all leading to one huge annual big-prize tournament…the World Pool Championships.

The members (operators and players) would answer to a governing board composed largely of route owners (called “charter holders”) who establish and refine rules and maintain a central office (in Bay City, Mich.) to keep track of thousands of matches played here and abroad.

A “Star” Is Born!

They called it the Valley National 8-Ball Assn. and declared it a non-profit to promote the game of pool on tables owned by coin machine operators. Using the 8-ball tournament system developed and used by the Hawkins Brothers at Minnesota’s D&R/Star route, Valley’s Chuck Milhem threw the company’s shoulders (and money) behind the concept.

Born these 42 years ago, this VNEA held its very first national playoff bout in the Kahler Hotel in May 1981, climaxing a season of local play and boasting around 2,500 members at the time. Fast forward to today, they have around 100,000 players who visit their local establishments two or three times a week and play a combined ten million games in competition and practice in organized VNEA league play.

The goal is to win in the field so they can earn the right to win in the annual Vegas international tournament. Approximately 4,000 local league winners are expected to descend on the Westgate for the finals this May 24, with the best of them making it to the top by winning the prizes and bragging rights they covet. They’ll come from 33 states, five Canadian provinces and eight other foreign countries. All told, they’ll hale from 1,400 local leagues and a remarkable 10,000 locations!

VNEA old photo slight crop at top

Industry long-timers have probably seen this photo before. Eddie Adlum took it at the very first VNEA finals in the Kahler Hotel ballroom, back in May 1981. From left: Valley (and VNEA’s) president Chuck Milhem, Valley marketing guy Ralph Sitter, VNEA’s co-founder Dick Hawkins, tournament manager Gary Benson, pool shark Red Jones, Valley sales topper Emile Marcet and VNEA roadman Billy Nemgar.

Coin-Op Rules the Roost

At the heart of the VNEA is the coin-op pool table. Back in VNEA’s very beginnings, the industry was prospering thanks to the advent of electronic pinball and video…especially games like Space Invaders. Sales of anything else, like jukeboxes and pool tables, suffered. Valley’s Milhem, a veteran of the Brunswick league night concept at the bowling center, saw a way to promote 6-pocket table sales while helping operators surmount the problem of direct to location sales.

Nemgar & RV - VNEA history

In the beginning, Bill Nemgar traveled around the U.S. & Canada in a 21-ft. Valley RV “selling” operators on the VNEA league concept.

The simplicity of operating pool tables, and the ready availability of such products, has often appealed to bar owners. The VNEA concept could knock that off at the knees because you must be a recognized coin machine operator to belong to the association to participate. Brilliant! Easy peasey! It worked!

Those operator-members, the charter holders, count around 200 today and run routes in about three dozen states and eight other countries, especially in Canada which boasts 25 all by itself.

There’s a board of directors that meets periodically. Presidents serve two-year terms (this year, the new chief will be Canadian operator Scott Morgan of Aactive Coin in Winnipeg, Manitoba, who takes over from Marshall Kohtz). Over the years, a total of 18 operators have held that position, three of which were also presidents of the national AMOA association (Dick Hawkins, Gene Urso and Jerry Derrick).

VNEA maintains a permanent staff working at their headquarters office in the old Valley town of Bay City, Mich. Here, executive director Gregg Elliott, marketing and promotions top Brian Elliott, and assistants James Powell Jr. and Rhonda Wortley keep everything running, so when it comes time to stage the annual spring world pool championships, it runs like a Swiss watch.

One of their duties is to process new route operations wishing to enroll in the VNEA league. Despite its longevity and success, Gregg Elliott reports there are still operators joining up each year. For information on joining, visit www.vnea.com or give them a call at 800-544-1346.

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