Bowling lanes hope redo helps sport strike it rich

Facilities cope with falling business by adding upscale, jazzier ambience

8/10/2014
BY RICHARD WEBNER
CHICAGO TRIBUNE
Jacqueline Martinez and her daughter Isabel, 4, watch the progress of a ball down the lane at Lucky Strike in Chicago. While 69 million Americans still bowl at least once a year, league play has made a dramatic decline.
Jacqueline Martinez and her daughter Isabel, 4, watch the progress of a ball down the lane at Lucky Strike in Chicago. While 69 million Americans still bowl at least once a year, league play has made a dramatic decline.

CHICAGO — 10pin Bowling Lounge in downtown Chicago offers luxuries that evoke a nightclub rather than a bowling alley: sumptuous sofas, swaths of neon lights, the latest cocktails, and a wall of towering video screens connected to a library of 15,000 music videos.

The bowling shoes are upscale and have 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 declined — 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, Mr. Martino said.

“People want a little more in their lives,” Mr. Martino 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 left its mark on bowling products too, said Brent Perrier, who has worked in Brunswick Corp.’s bowling products division Lake Forest, Ill., for 34 years.

The industry’s shift to recreational bowlers has led to an emphasis on visual appeal, Mr. Perrier said.

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 are 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.

Brunswick 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,” Mr. Fox said when the sale was announced.

Jacqueline Martinez takes a picture of her son Ryan, 6, and daughter Isabel, 4, at Lucky Strike in Chicago. The number of U.S. bowling alleys has fallen fron 10,000 in the early 1980s to about 4,500.
Jacqueline Martinez takes a picture of her son Ryan, 6, and daughter Isabel, 4, at Lucky Strike in Chicago. The number of U.S. bowling alleys has fallen fron 10,000 in the early 1980s to about 4,500.

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 better fit modern lifestyles.

The industry is promoting what Mr. 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, Mr. 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 1960s.

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, Mr. Kuhn said.

“Our industry is going through a washout,” Mr. Kuhn acknowledged. “The competition has been squashed, leaving us with the cream of the crop.”

Several miles away, Erika Chain and her children visited 10pin on Tuesday night as part of a month-long vacation to Chicago from their hometown of Mexico City.

Ms. Chain sat in the business’ 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 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,” Ms. Chain said.