“People just don’t have a sense of commitment anymore,” he said. “That’s when things started going downhill. It takes commitment to be a part of a bowling league, because of the league structure.”
Without the leagues, Mady said, “it becomes a hit-and-miss proposition. You can’t make a go of it that way.”
Besides owning the Midway Pro Bowl near Snelling and University Avenues in St. Paul, which opened in 1960, Loth manages the St. Paul Retail League. At more than 100 years old, it is one of the oldest continuous bowling leagues in the nation. This year, the league comprises eight teams of four players each, and he is hoping to get it back to 10 teams of five players each next season.
“My league business certainly is not what it was in the ’80s,” Loth said. “And the days of the double-shift leagues are long gone.”
Loth and Mady cite ever-tougher and costlier regulations as another obstacle to staying in business.
Loth said the state’s ban on indoor smoking that passed in 2007 drove away “30 percent of my business that I will never get back.” He’s also had to cope with the Central Corridor light-rail construction that tore up and disrupted much of University Avenue.
And then there’s a seasonal element to the business. The winter months are extremely busy, but business drops off considerably in the summer.
“How soon do you want to get outside after this winter?” Loth asked with a laugh. “We go from hundreds a night to absolutely nothing. I’ve long given up on trying to get people inside during a Minnesota summer. It just isn’t going to happen.”
Loth recently cut the number of employees — and the payroll — but that means he works more hours. At 62, he’s not sure how long he’ll keep at it.
Mady’s advice for anybody thinking about the bowling business is short and simple: “Stay out,” he said.
Bucking that advice, and the trend toward mega-entertainment centers, is the throwback Town Hall Lanes in the Nokomis neighborhood of south Minneapolis. Once the old Skylane Bowl, it reopened last summer after an extensive restoration.
Owner Pete Rifakes said he knew going in that the investment might be a risk. But the blend of the Town Hall Brewery’s noted microbrews, unique menu and the aesthetics of the retro 10-lane alley has struck a chord with customers.
Rifakes also credits a bit of good fortune in finding a neighborhood that was receptive to the entertainment Town Hall Lanes offers. Even the leagues are popular.
“We were hoping that the bowlers would find us, and that has been true — our leagues are all filled out,” Rifakes said. “We didn’t want to just have a kitschy bowling place.”
Back in Maplewood, city officials are getting ready for big changes at the corner of Frost Avenue and English Street, where Maplewood Bowl sat for five decades.
While the bulldozers likely won’t be lining up until some time next year, Chuck Ahl, Maplewood’s city manager, said the planned $25 million housing and retail project will be a good use for the property, even if it means parting with a piece of the city’s familiar past.
“I’ve bowled there a number of times — in fact, I bowled in a league there for one year,” Ahl said of Maplewood Bowl. “Back in the ’80s, it was the place to go.”