During a 2011 interview on the television program Bloomberg Enterprise, Tom Shannon, CEO of the largest company operating bowling centers in the US, said this at 2:45 into the interview:
"I don't think anyone takes bowling seriously - why would you?"
You will face an uphill battle if you want to bowl seriously. Serious bowling has declined in popularity to the point where Mr. Shannon would say something like he did. You will find this decline to be a popular topic among those who have been bowling seriously for many years, with lots of grousing and finger-pointing going on, as well as fond talk about other serious bowlers who left the sport because of the way it has changed over time.
It will be your challenge to listen respectfully to the long-time bowlers (after all, they do know a lot about bowling and its history) while not letting their negativity get to you. A good mental state and attitude is one of the keys to good bowling. Besides, there is a bright spot - there has been a dramatic increase in high school and college bowling in the last few years that could lead to a bit of a of revival. Plus, if you are successful as a bowler, what you learned along the way may give you good ideas that will help spur that revival.
So, what exactly has happened?
1. The game has changed
Advances in technology have had a big impact on the game of bowling. In the early days, pins were set in place by pin boys, bowling centers applied oil to their wooden lanes using spray cans and other makeshift devices, bowlers calculated scores by hand, and one bowling ball was all you needed (along as you had a lot of skill).
Technology's first big contribution was the introduction of the automatic pinsetter in the 1950's, which fueled a big expansion of bowling's popularity. It was just the beginning of technology's impact. Scoring is now done automatically as you bowl. The wooden lane surfaces have increasingly been replaced by synthetic surfaces, a more durable surface providing a more consistent bowling experience. Oil is now applied to the lanes using sophisticated machines that are considerably more accurate in applying oil, also providing a more consistent bowling experience. And finally, bowling ball technology has evolved such that each bowling ball is designed to meet a specific bowler style and lane condition, making it to your advantage to own and use more than one bowling ball.
For some serious bowlers who have been in the game a long time, the changes have either been welcome or have made the game too easy or too expensive to continue bowling, or both.
2. League bowling has declined considerably
At league bowling's peak in the late 1970's there were over 9 million league members in the United States. Back then just about every bowling center customer bowled in a league. The "golden years" of league bowling lasted through the 1970's until the decline began in 1980.
As of 2017 there are only 2 million league bowlers in the US, of which 1.5 million bowl in sanctioned leagues and another 0.5 million bowl in non-sanctioned leagues. The number continues to decrease, having gone down 5% in each of the last two years.
And yet, you may see a lot of people in a bowling center. Bowling is the number one recreational activity in the US! A recent study showed that 68 million people bowled at least once in the prior year. But that means only 1 out of every 34 bowling center customers today is a serious bowler.
A small factor in the big decline is the way bowling has changed, as mentioned in #1. But a much more significant one, as pointed out in the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, is that Americans have become increasingly socially disconnected from each other over the past 50 years. We used to have to get together to be entertained, and league bowling was a popular way for families to do that. But with the increasing prevalence of television, then of cable television, video games, the Internet, and most recently personal smartphones, the entertainment has increasingly come to the individual wherever he or she is, and in a form customized to the individual, eliminating the need to gather.
Other reasons cited for the decline include more competition for consumer leisure time and recreational dollars, a heightened concern for health and physical fitness (something bowling is not commonly perceived to address), and a growing unwillingness to do anything that requires a commitment of more than a few weeks.
What has that decrease meant? It is more likely than ever that your parents never bowled, which means you had to get introduced to bowling another way that did not drag you to bowling all the time. It's likely the reason you are reading this.
3. Traditional bowling centers are closing at a disturbing rate
League bowling exploded in popularity after the invention of the automatic pinsetter in the 1950's eliminated the need for "pin boys" (to set the pins after each shot) and bowling centers popped up everywhere. By the early 1960's there were over 11,000 bowling centers in the United States.
As of January 2018 there were only 4,100 commercial bowling centers in the US, with over 300 centers having closed in the last two years alone. One reason for the decrease is that most US bowling centers are individual or family owned, and with bowling’s image being less than glamorous thanks to films such as The Big Lebowski, there is often no one in line to take over when the principal owner passes away. Even when someone is in line, if the bowling center is located in a busy area, it can be more lucrative to sell the property to that expanding car dealer rather than keep the center running.
Another reason for the closings is that league play now accounts for only 25% of an average US bowling center's business, down from 75% as recently as the 1980's. Centers that have managed to remain in business have usually done so by morphing into "family entertainment centers" where bowling is only part of the offerings. Other offerings can include laser tag, go-karts, bumper cars, expanded video game arcades, climbing walls, bocce, glow miniature golf, and so on. Many centers have had to reduce the number of bowling lanes to accommodate these new offerings.
The rate of decline of traditional centers is actually higher, because that 4,100 total includes a number of recently-opened upscale nightclub-type complexes in urban areas that are known as "bowling lounges" or "boutiques." These complexes feature bowling lanes, plush restaurants, intimate lounges, stylish furnishings, private party rooms, and high-tech video presentations. In other words, a place where the party atmosphere prevails 100% of the time. You cannot bowl seriously in that environment.
(To see great photos of older traditional bowling centers, some of which are still open, check out The Vintage Alleys Project.)
4. Tournament options are decreasing
With fewer people bowling in leagues, there are fewer people who want to bowl in tournaments. Plus, the governing body of US league bowling, USBC, has been forced to trim some of its national tournament options as its number of members (and hence its operating revenue) decreases. In addition, some state and local USBC tournaments, as well as some that were operated privately, have gone away due to lack bowlers signing up and/or the lack of bowlers available and willing to devote the time required to operate the tournaments.
Additionally, the number of tournaments offered for professional bowlers by the PBA decreased from what it once was. A major reason for this is the increasing difficulty to secure sponsors, as bowling is increasingly viewed as not reaching a large enough audience or the desired demographic. Television coverage of the tournaments has decreased for the same reason, as the networks are reluctant to give broadcast time, and pay the broadcast rights fee, for something that will not bring big ratings.
The lack of sponsorship and television rights money had made tournament prizes much smaller than they once were, which in turn has made it next to impossible for all but the best professional bowlers to make a living by bowling.
And, the lack of tournaments on traditional television has decreased bowling's visibility to the general population, which in turn leads us back up to the top of the page - the decline in individuals bowling in leagues.
The Bowlmor story
At the time Tom Shannon made the statement quoted above, he was enjoying the success of Bowlmor Lanes. He started Bowlmor with the 1997 purchase of a dilapidated bowling center in New York City and grew Bowlmor to become the highest grossing bowling facility operator in North America, according to Wikipedia. Interviews with Mr. Shannon seemed to imply that his success was due, in part, to the elimination of league bowling in order to focus on party bowling.
In 2013, Shannon was the sole bidder to take the much larger AMF Bowling Centers chain out of bankruptcy, forming Bowlmor AMF (since renamed Bowlero Corporation). In order to quickly address its dire financial situation, Shannon reduced the AMF centers' opening hours to the times of the day with the most customers. This change displaced many daytime leagues, and a few nighttime ones, too, leading league bowlers to believe he would soon be eliminating leagues altogether at all of the acquired centers.
But as his new company's financial position improved, Shannon appeared to want to figure out how to make league bowling work. In early 2014 he appointed a Director of League Bowling. In the summer of 2014, when his company announced its intention to acquire the bowling center business of Brunswick Bowling, his nearest competitor, Shannon stated clearly that league bowling would be kept at the acquired centers. And so today, while Bowlero's priority remains party bowling, many of its AMF, Brunswick, and Bowlero centers still have leagues, except now they are sandwiched-in around the party times.
The game of bowling and the bowling industry have been going through considerable changes which have made it much more difficult to bowl seriously. You will need resourcefulness, persistence, and a positive attitude if bowling seriously is going to become a reality for you.
The information on this page is only a small part of the information available from the following sources: