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.
“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.”
Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @StribJAnderson