CHICAGO - Oscar Gonzalez raised the 12-pound bowling ball to his nose and inhaled deeply. "Mmmmm, black cherry," he said, before handing it to his wife, Maria, for a sniff.
The couple next sniffed a ball perfumed in strawberry as they appraised the inventory at the Action Pro Shop on Chicago's north side. Ms. Gonzalez liked that one, too, but after sampling other balls smelling of amaretto and banana, she wound up buying a $139 ball that had a cinnamon-apple fragrance.
Bowling has long been associated with certain less-than-splendid aromas: beer, hot dogs, vinyl, lane oil, and nacho cheese. But there's change in the air.
For years, skilled bowlers checked out torque, gyration radius, back-end hook, and other technical measures of performance before spending as much as $250 for a ball. Now, thanks to Storm Products, Inc., of Brigham City, Utah, they're also considering whether their bowling balls should smell of peppermint, spearmint, orange, or blueberry.
In the battle to win over the sport's biggest consumers, most companies rely on claims of technical superiority. Brunswick Corp., for example, the industry leader, says that its Activator brand cover stock - made from a new urethane blend - provides greater hook and versatility in various lane conditions than any other ball on the market.
But to nearly everyone's surprise - including plenty of bowlers who laughed when they got their first whiffs - Storm's scented balls are quite popular, according to pro-shop owners and others in the business, and they have turned the little company into one of the hottest players in an otherwise down-at-the-heels industry.
"I sell more of those than anything," said Tim Metzger, owner of Carone & Metzger's Trophies and Bowling Supplies in West Toledo. "Not because of the scent.
It's just a very popular bowling ball company for technical reasons."
He uses them himself.
"I think I've got a black cherry," he said, unzipping his bag. Then a big, deep sniff. "Yeah, it's like a black licorice."
Jim King, editor of Bowling This Month magazine, which calls itself the Consumer Reports of tenpins, said, "People will mention a ball and say, 'Oh, yeah, that's the one that's pineapple.'●" The magazine notes the fragrance of each Storm ball in its product reviews. Mr. King says his reviewers refrain from comment, however, on whether they like one scent better than another, preferring to focus on how well balls knock down pins.
Like so many inventions, scented bowling balls came about almost by accident. In the 1980s, Bill Chrisman owned and operated a small chemical company in Ogden, Utah, where he made industrial-strength cleaners for dishwashers and car washes.
An avid bowler, Mr. Chrisman constantly heard bowlers complain about urethane bowling balls that lost a lot of their ability to hook as they soaked up lane oil. Some bowlers were putting their balls in the dishwasher, others in the bathtub, to wash off excess oil. Mr. Chrisman bottled a detergent-and-alcohol formula, added a spruce scent, and began selling it in pro shops as a ball cleaner called U-Clean/U-Score. He scored a modest success. Once he had learned the bowling business, a friend persuaded him to try manufacturing balls.
In the old days, when Ralph Kramden was toppling pins on The Honeymooners, balls were made of rubber. But today's balls are the product of technological advances, with particle-infused urethane covers that add traction on oily lanes, and dense cores - of several pieces in some cases - that give balls greater-than-ever punch when they smash into pins.
His first scented ball, released in the spring of 2000, was grape. A lot of citrus followed. Chocolate, which Mr. Chrisman thought would be a big hit, got mixed reactions.
"We've probably tested about 100 flavors," he says. "The latest one we tested was a beer fragrance. That ball kind of stunk, really."
The scents are added to the chemical mix as the balls are shaped. Each model gets its own flavor. The X Factor Ace is wintergreen. Atomic Charge is cranberry. Fear Factor is plum. Eraser Banshee is pina colada. Customers can't mix and match.
Shoppers definitely notice, but it's how a ball pounds the pins that ultimately clinches the sale.
"It does the job," said Stan Kruzel, 65, a West Toledo man who plays in five bowling leagues. "If it works, that's what counts."
He's used Storm balls for years and has had good luck with them. The fact that they're scented now has nothing to do with it.
The same goes for Joe Doran, 68, another hard-core West Toledo bowler who owns a grape-scented ball.
"It hits the pocket harder. The smell is nothing," he said.
That's not to say that he didn't notice, though.
"I thought it was weird, just like everybody else," he said. "Maybe it clears the air in the bowling alley."
U.S. manufacturers produce more than two million bowling balls a year, according to manufacturers and wholesale distributors. By any count, it's a fairly small business that has been getting smaller as the number of league bowlers has slipped. League bowling peaked at about 4.5 million bowlers in the mid-1970s and has fallen to less than half that number now.
Storm makes only midrange and high-end balls, which is why you probably won't find a scented ball sitting around the neighborhood bowling alley waiting for just anyone to use it. The company cedes the low end of the market to its bigger rivals: Brunswick, of Lake Forest, Ill.; Ebonite International of Hopkinsville, Ky.; and Columbia 300, Inc., of San Antonio. In the high-end market, Storm and Brunswick both claim to be the market leader.
Storm's odors might not be strong enough to knock down pins, but some bowlers say the fragrances have occasionally distracted opponents. Others say the smells relax them, and they've gotten in the habit of inhaling before each throw. Tony Pena, manager of Action Pro Shop, says he especially likes the way the balls smell in his car. "It's like an air freshener."
One Sunday recently at Waveland Bowl in Chicago, league bowlers fantasized about the aromas they would like Storm to offer next. New car was most frequently cited, followed by French fry.
Blade Staff Writer Ryan E. Smith and Wall Street Journal Senior Special Reporter Jonathan Eig contributed to this report.41.88415 -87.63241