The bowling shoes are upscale, with vivid designs that put the smudged, floppy shoes of yesteryear to shame.
Posh alleys like 10pin are becoming the new norm as bowling alley owners cope with the decline of league bowling, once the backbone of the business, and with customers who apparently want more glitz and entertainment.
Since 1980, the number of Americans in bowling leagues has plummeted to 1.7 million from about 9.7 million, said Tom Martino, president of the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America.
To keep consumers coming, owners are primping their decor, spicing up their menus and installing colossal arcade games.
Though the number of bowling alleys has fallen – to 4,500 from about 10,000 in the early 1980s – beefed-up alleys are popping up at a rate of about 40 to 50 a year, Martino said.
“People want a little more in their lives,” he said. “They want more variety, the party atmosphere. I just think they want the whole ball of wax.”
The shift from leagues to liqueurs has also left its mark on bowling products, said Brent Perrier, who has worked in Lake Forest, Ill.-based Brunswick Corp.’s bowling products division for 34 years. The industry’s shift to recreational bowlers has led to an emphasis on visual appeal, he said.
LEAGUE BOWLING CONSOLIDATES
The archetypal black bowling ball is veering toward the gutter, replaced by models that glow in the dark or are printed with a picture of someone’s grandchildren. They might get spit back on to the ball return through a plastic shark or alligator head. Lanes can be made into murals, and the guts of the pinsetters hidden behind wall-to-wall video screens.
This month, Brunswick announced its intent to exit the bowling business, more than 120 years after it began making wooden lanes, pins and bowling balls. It decided to sell its bowling alley business to Bowlmor AMF rather than upgrade its locations, and it’s looking for someone to buy its bowling products division, said Jim Fox, president of Brunswick’s bowling retail division.
“It’s a very emotional day at Brunswick today, to be perfectly honest with you,” Fox said when the sale was announced.
League bowling appears to be a victim of the modern lifestyle. Americans are too busy to spend 37 weeks a year in a league. Their attention is tugged this way and that by a slew of entertainment options, from Netflix and Xbox to sports with rising popularity such as soccer. When they’re in the mood for a quick bowl, they have dozens of iPhone apps to choose from.
Still, 69 million Americans bowl at least once a year, and the bowling industry has devised some strategies to lure people back to the alleys.
For example, it’s sponsoring a NASCAR race, the Gobowling.com 400. It’s offering shorter league seasons of 10 or 15 weeks to fit modern lifestyles. It’s promoting what Martino calls “fad leagues,” such as a fitness-oriented league for women.
Another tactic is to offer four weeks of free bowling classes, with students getting free bowling balls at the end. The hope is that owning a bowling ball will turn them into lifetime bowlers, Martino said.
“I’m having a number of successes, and I’ve had a number of failures, as everyone has,” he said. “But you keep trying new things.”
Yet a handful of old-fashioned bowling alleys still exist in Chicago, and some are even thriving.
One is Timber Lanes, which hasn’t changed much since Bob Kuhn bought it 29 years ago.
Apart from some flat-screens behind the bar and a “Big Lebowski” poster, most of Timber Lanes’ decor could have been plucked from any decade: nondescript score cards, gray plastic seats, a giant American flag, photos of sports heroes from seasons past. Instead of a wall of video screens, its eight lanes are beneath a slightly faded logo, painted to look like logs, that dates to the ’60s.
Timber Lanes also is an increasingly rare example of an alley that still supports itself from bowling leagues. It’s doing well because league players have consolidated there after other alleys have shut down, Kuhn said.
“Our industry is going through a washout,” he acknowledged. “The competition has been squashed, leaving us with the cream of the crop.”
On Tuesday night, the alley teemed with league members hurling their bowling balls toward the pins with idiosyncratic curves, fist-bumping each other after strikes and yelling “no biggie” when a center pin remained standing.
FAMILY ATMOSPHERE SUFFERS
Between frames, they sipped Miller Lite and Corona, and, from the jukebox, picked classics from Otis Redding and The Who. Between games, they stopped by the bar for a round of Jameson shots.
“The big bowling alleys, they don’t get a chance to know people,” said Kuhn, whose wife and daughter work at the alley. “I know how many kids you have, I know what you do for a living. We have that connection.”
Kuhn doesn’t begrudge the success of ritzy alleys. They introduce people to bowling, he said, and when those people decide to play another game, they might look for cheaper lanes. Renting a lane at Timber Lanes costs $20 an hour, while the rate at 10pin is $55 an hour before 5 p.m., $70 after, with a two-hour minimum.
Chris Hayward, a trolley driver, likes Timber Lanes because “it’s family-run, it’s simple, it’s about the bowling, it’s about people coming together.” He’s been a league bowler for nine years; his career highlights include a victory in the 2009 fall league tournament and a high score of 210. Both events included some bar-hopping afterward.
He used to bowl in the “Hangover League,” which met Sunday mornings, but over the years, it dwindled from six teams, to four, to zero.
“It kind of stings,” he said Tuesday at Timber Lanes, playing for the Misfit Toys. “You don’t have as many people bowling, not as many new faces.”
A FUN PLACE TO HANG OUT
Several miles away, Erika Chain and her children visited 10pin on Tuesday night as part of a monthlong vacation to Chicago from their hometown of Mexico City. Chain sat in the business’s pervasive ultraviolet lighting while her children bowled on an alley decorated with glow-in-the-dark squiggles.
“The setting is nice,” she said while baseball games and a Jane’s Addiction video played on giant screens above the alleys. “The people here are friendly and the screens are fun. The shoes are new, and they’re in good condition. Sometimes they’re not.”
At the alley’s bar, Wick Wolfe, on a business trip from Connecticut, drank a Grey Goose martini with three friends. They didn’t come to 10pin to bowl; they just thought it was a fun place to hang out. Wolfe bowls a couple of times a month with his son back home, though, and he’s dismayed at the sport’s decline in popularity.
“Bowling is a sport that defines the loss of social interaction in the United States. I mean that,” he said. “People don’t talk to each other. They text at each other.”