As league membership falls, bowling alleys struggle to stay open.
Plywood boards over the Maplewood Bowl’s windows shield them from vandalism’s mindless indignity, but also seem to seal in, like a tomb, more than 50 years of memories — of romances kindled, of friendships nurtured, of 7-10 splits picked up in countless small moments of personal triumph.
Closed for nearly a year and soon destined for demolition and redevelopment as an affordable housing and senior living complex, Maplewood Bowl is one of the latest casualties in the demise of old-school bowling alleys across the Twin Cities and state.
The same social changes — structured youth activities, a plethora of new at-home entertainment options, economic shifts — that have led to declines in golf, movie theater attendance and clubs like the Masons and Elks, are now undermining once-popular league play, formerly the financial and social underpinning of alleys across the land.
In recent years, that wave of attrition has claimed places such as the Burnsville Bowl, Golden Valley Lanes, West Side Lanes in West
St. Paul, City Limits Lanes in Rosemount, and Maple Lanes in Fridley.
“Twenty-five years ago, you had league bowlers who sign up for 32 weeks of bowling,” said Randy White, CEO of White Hutchinson Leisure and Learning Group, a Kansas City-based consulting and design firm that helps create the new breed of bowling centers. “That represented 75 percent of the business for those centers — they were designed primarily for league bowlers.”
Since 2008, the number of commercial bowling centers nationwide has dropped 14 percent, he said. The number of certified league bowlers in about that same time frame has fallen 30 percent, and they now represent 5 percent of all bowlers, forcing many bowling centers to shift their focus to attracting the casual walk-in bowler.
While the trend has spelled doom for many alleys, bowling remains the nation’s most popular participation sport, with 69 million Americans heading to the lanes at least once a year, according to the U.S. Bowling Congress. But the way the game is played is being reinvented.
Many local lanes, in fact, are thriving after being recast as “family entertainment centers” aimed at more upscale clientele not so focused on league competition.
At the new centers, bowling is just one piece of the entertainment offerings, said Josh Hodney, executive director of the Bowling Proprietors Association of Minnesota.
“Anyone building a bowling center from the ground up, for sure, you have to have things like laser tag, large arcades, maybe sand volleyball or batting cages,” Hodney said.
Boom goes bust
The popularity of league play began to climb after World War II, and by the 1960s, bowling had ascended to the top of the American sports world.
Millions joined leagues, thousands of bowling centers such as the Maplewood Bowl were built and bowlers like Don Carter were celebrities, featured on several weekly television shows such as “Make That Spare.”
Leagues were the lifeblood of bowling centers, providing steady clientele and income. It wasn’t unusual for league players to jam the local lanes for two shifts on weeknights.
Gene Mady and Al Loth, both top bowlers who turned their passion into careers as bowling alley owners, have been part of both the boom and the struggle.
Mady, who started Mady’s Bowl and Lounge in Columbia Heights with his father in 1964, made the difficult decision to close three years ago.