Bowling alleys spare no expense

  • Article by: RICHARD WEBNER , Chicago Tribune
  • Updated: August 3, 2014 - 2:00 PM

Alley owners fight their decline by going upscale with nightclub flair.

The 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, 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.

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.

In July, 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.

League bowling appears to be a victim of the modern lifestyle. Americans are too busy to spend 37 weeks a year in a league.

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.

“I’m having a number of successes, and I’ve had a number of failures, as everyone has,” Martino said. “But you keep trying new things.”

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