Guide #14 - Last updated December 2021

Bowling Today

Bowling is the number one recreational activity in the US! A recent study showed that 67 million people bowled at least once in the prior year, with over 95% of those people there just to party and/or enjoy the food and drink. While that's great for bowling centers, it means only 1 out of every 34 bowling center customers today is a serious bowler.

You will face an uphill battle if you want to bowl seriously. The decline in serious bowling is 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 hope - there has been a dramatic increase in high school and college bowling in the last few years that is leading to a bit of a of revival. It is too soon to tell, however, how many of these new serious bowlers will continue to bowl after college.

So, what exactly has happened? To answer that we have summarized some of the key points from the resources listed at the bottom of this guide.

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, and that 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 The wooden lane surfaces have increasingly been replaced by more durable synthetic surfaces that provide a more consistent bowling experience.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.

Those sophisticated lane oiling machines introduced a new aspect to serious bowling - oil patterns. The more challenging tournaments now have oil applied by the machines to the lanes in pre-defined patterns that are more difficult to score on. This means that, in addition to training and skill, your ability to understand a tournament's oil pattern sheet and adjust your bowling technique and the bowling balls you use accordingly, is critical to tournament success.

Some US bowling centers have recently replaced their pinsetters with a model that places pins on the deck using strings attached from the top of the pin to the overhead machinery. The "string pinsetter" was actually developed in the 1960's but had mostly been used in mini-bowling and other amusement settings. For this reason, serious bowlers tend to believe that one cannot bowl seriously with string pinsetters. But bowling center owners, looking to reduce costs to stay in business, have been attracted by the fact that string pinsetters have many fewer moving parts and therefore can be maintained (usually just untangling a string) by the existing food and beverage servers, resulting in less down time and little need to employ a more costly mechanic.

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 hard or too expensive to continue bowling, or all of the above.

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 2019 there are only 2 million league bowlers in the US, of which less than 1.2 million bowl in leagues sanctioned by the USBC (bowling's governing body) and the rest bowl in non-sanctioned leagues. The number continues to decrease, having gone down 5% in each of the last three years.

​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 February 2019 there were only 4,100 commercial bowling centers remaining in the US, with over 300 centers having closed in the last three years alone. One reason for the decrease is that most US bowling centers have been 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 35-40% 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 expanding their offerings to include one or more of the following: expanded video game arcades, laser tag, go-karts, bumper cars, climbing walls, bocce, glow miniature golf, escape rooms, and so on. Many of these centers have had to reduce the number of bowling lanes to accommodate the new offering(s).

That 4,100 total actually includes an increasing number of newly opened "family entertainment centers" that offer several activities besides bowling. About 30-40 of such centers have been built each year over the last few years, generally in buildings vacated by big-box stores. A party atmosphere prevails 100% of the time in these places. You cannot bowl seriously in such an environment.

​(To see great photos of older traditional bowling centers, some of which are still open, check out Maple+Pine: American Bowling Comes of Age.)

4. Tournament options are decreasing.

During the golden years of bowling, there was a national bowling tournament on every local ABC network channel every Saturday afternoon. Many in the United States turned on the television each week from 1962 until 1997 to watch the legendary Chris Schenkel host these events of the Pro Bowlers Tour. Coverage typically outdrew college football and college basketball in the ratings.

But as league bowling started to decline in the 1980s, so did bowling's television ratings. This led ABC to drop bowling in 1997. The other networks were subsequently reluctant to give broadcast time, and pay the broadcast rights fee, for something that would not bring big ratings. As a result, national bowling tournaments since 1997 have appeared primarily on cable channels (initially ESPN, now FS1 and CBS Sports Network), which fewer viewers receive as compared to network television.

With the decline in viewers, sponsors increasingly viewed bowling as not reaching a large enough audience or the desired demographic. The decrease in sponsorship and television rights money led the PBA to reduce the number of tournaments it runs and to decrease the size of its tournaments' prizes. Smaller prizes have made it next to impossible for all but the best professional bowlers to make a living by bowling. Smaller prizes have made tournaments less attractive to amateurs, too.

The decline in league bowling also forced the governing body of US league bowling, USBC, to trim some of its national tournament options as its number of members (and hence its budget) decreased. Some state and local USBC tournaments, as well as some that were operated privately, have also gone away due to the lack of bowlers signing up and/or the lack of bowlers available and willing to devote the time required to operate the tournaments.

Many tournaments still exist. You will just have to work harder to find them.

The Bowlmor/Bowlero story.

In 1997, Tom Shannon purchased a dilapidated bowling center in New York City and made significant changes to it. He added video screens, glow in the dark lanes and balls, and upscale food and drink, but eliminated its bowling leagues, turning Bowlmor Lanes from a bowling alley for serious bowlers into perhaps the first party bowling center. By 1999 it was the highest grossing bowling center in the United States according to Wikipedia. Shannon then replicated the concept to a handful of other locations.

By 2011, his success had attracted the attention of the television program Bloomberg Enterprise. During the interview with Bloomberg, Shannon famously said:

"I don't think anyone takes bowling seriously - why would you?"

He seemed to imply that the success of the Bowlmor Lanes centers was due, in part, to the elimination of league bowling in order to focus on party bowling.

Shannon's business got a lot bigger and more complicated in 2013. In that year 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 the acquired chain's dire financial situation, Shannon reduced opening hours at the 262 AMF centers 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. Later in 2014, when his company acquired the bowling center business of Brunswick Bowling, the company's nearest competitor, Shannon stated clearly that league bowling would be kept at the acquired centers. Roll forward to 2019 - Bowlero debuted the nationally televised Bowler Elite Series tournaments, pitting its league bowlers against professional men and women bowlers with big cash prizes, followed by an even bigger commitment to serious bowling that year when it acquired the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA).

Bowlero Corporation is today the largest operator of bowling centers in the US. And while the company's priority remains party bowling, many of its AMF and Bowlero centers do still have leagues, except now they are sandwiched-in around the party times.

It appears that Tom Shannon now takes bowling seriously, too.

Below is the 2011 Shannon interview on Bloomberg Enterprise, starting at his quote about bowling seriously 2 minutes and 45 seconds into the intervew:

In summary:

The game of bowling and the bowling industry have been going through considerable changes which have made it not as simple to bowl seriously as it once was. You will need resourcefulness, persistence, and a positive attitude if bowling seriously is going to become a reality for you.

The information in this guide is only a small part of the information available from the following sources:

The Overview of the Bowling Industry by Sandy Hansell & Associates.

Bowling Center Feasibility and Design by White Hutchinson Leisure and Learning Group.

The Rise and Fall of the American Bowling Industry by Glenn Gurstner of St. John's University.

The Rise and Fall of Professional Bowling by Priceonomics.

The Fading Glory of Bowling (video) in The Atlantic Magazine online.

Strikes, Spares, and Gutter Balls: A History of Women’s Bowling in Twentieth-Century America by Emily Verfurth.

Why Your Local Bowling Center May Be Closing Soon in the blog Bruce on Bowling.