Guide #2 - Last updated February 2021

Bowling Leagues

1. Am I good enough to bowl in a league?

If you are asking this question, you probably are! There are all types of leagues. Ask the person at the bowling center counter to help you choose a good one to start in, and to show you the "standing sheet" for the league he or she recommends. You can usually also find the standing sheet online at, a national website where the results are posted for many leagues of all types across the United States.

Use the standing sheet to check out the averages of each bowler in a particular league. Any league where most of the bowlers have averages of 180 or more are likely too competitive for you at this point. Conversely, a league with averages of 120 and below is likely a social league where you will be more serious about bowling than most everyone else.

To help you when you are just getting started, most leagues have a "handicap" system where extra pins are added to each game you bowl to boost your score. The league rules specify the formula used to calculate the handicap. A common formula is 90% of 200, meaning that if your average is 150, your handicap is 90% of the difference between 150 and 200, adding 45 pins to your score each game.

2. How do I choose which league to bowl in?

There are many types of leagues and a center may not offer all of them. There will usually be at least one men's league, which will likely not be open to women, and at least one women's league, which will defintely not be open to men. A mixed league will be open to both men and women and may have a requirement as to the number of each gender on a team.

There may also be leagues exclusively for youth, and/or for seniors (which can mean above age 50, 55, or 60 depending on the league). There may be a beginners league where you will receive your very own bowling ball on the last day of the league's season. There may even be a fun "9-pin no-tap" league where you earn a strike whenever you knock down just 9 pins, as well as when all 10 go down.

If you are looking to bowl with a more diverse group of folks, see if the center (or another one in your area) offers a league that belongs to The National Bowling Association. Roughly 80% of TNBA's bowlers are Black but membership is open to all.

You will want to be sure to choose a handicap league, as one without a handicap (called a "scratch" league) will likely be too competitive for you at this point. 

Most leagues will bowl on a weekday evening although a few, including youth leagues, will bowl on the weekends. Senior leagues generally bowl during the day on weekdays.

Full season (fall through spring) leagues can run for 30 weeks or more. That is too big a commitment for some bowlers, so increasingly bowling centers are offering "short season" leagues of 10 weeks or so.

3. Are leagues open to new members? The ones I've seen have seemed like closed groups.

Many league members have been bowling for a long time and will seem to know what they are doing. Don't let that intimidate you! Almost all league members will be happy to have another serious bowler join their league because having more bowlers makes league play more interesting. It also increases the size of the end-of-season league prizes.

The best time to join a league is at the start of its season, which will be around the start of September for traditional leagues, September or January for short-season leagues, and May for summer leagues. The league will usually have an organizational meeting before the season starts, or before bowling on the first night of bowling, at which all are welcome. Teams will be finalized at the meeting. But, it is also possible that a team or teams may have openings after the season starts.

To get more information about a specific league, ask at the control desk. If the counter person does not have the information, he or she will give you the contact information for someone who does, usually a league officer.

If you'd like to an idea of what bowling in a league is like before joining it, some leagues will allow you to "sub" for an absent bowler on one of the league nights. It's not unusual for one or more league members to be absent on any given night. Some leagues even provide that the absent bowler has to pay most or all of the cost for that night even though they are not there, which means you might find yourself bowling for free! Arrive about 30 minutes early and ask to speak to a league officer to see if you can sub.

4. How to leagues work?

Leagues typically have teams of three or five members and usually bowl three or four games each league night. There are singles leagues but they will be more competitive than you want at this point.

Each team vs. team competition takes place on a pair of lanes, with "pair" meaning two lanes with a ball return in the middle. Teams alternate from one lane to the other each frame. Your team's starting lane assignment will change from week to week.

Each league will have practice time before bowling, usually ten minutes. For some leagues, practice starts before the scheduled league start time. You alternate from one lane to the other in practice, too. Some leagues may limit you to throwing the ball only once (instead of twice) before another league member can. You can repeat once all of the others have had a turn on that lane.

5. What are the rules of the league?

Each league will have a set of rules that it voted on at the end of the prior season or the beginning of the new one. You should be sure to ask for a copy of the rules at the start of the season. The league will have officers, and the President is responsible for making sure the rules are followed. The league's Secretary handles signing up new members and maintains the league's bowling records. The Treasurer collects all fees; sometimes the Secretary and Treasurer is the same person.

Leagues that are "sanctioned" by (with the word being used in a positive sense to mean "a member of") the United States Bowling Congress are also governed by the USBC's much broader set of nationwide rules it updates each year.

One rule that may not be written anywhere is the commonly understood rule of "one-lane courtesy" that other league bowlers will expect you to follow. It works this way. When it is your turn, you must allow any bowlers who are already on the approach (the area alongside the ball return up to the foul line) on either lane next to yours to have their turn before you have yours. Then, if you don't get a strike on your first shot, you must go back off the approach while the pinsetter cycles before you can throw your second shot, again waiting if there is a bowler on the approach on either lane next to yours.

6. How much do leagues cost?

Each week you will be required to pay a fee that includes at least the cost of bowling (called "lineage"), and may also include an amounts for the league prize fund, a fund for an end-of-season league dinner or activity, and perhaps a modest payment for the efforts of the league's secretary and/or treasurer. The weekly total fee due can range from $10 to $30 depending on the league.

At the start of the season, members of leagues that are sanctioned by the USBC must also pay a sanction (membership) fee. The fee will include an amount for the local and state chapters of the USBC plus the USBC national organization. If you join a second league, you will only need to pay only the amounts you did not already pay to the first league (for example, a local fee if the second league is at a bowling center in a different geographic area and therefore belongs to another USBC local chapter).

7. What does the sanction fee get me?

In addition to providing the national rules that sanctioned bowling leagues follow, the national USBC organization provides insurance coverage against theft for the fees league officers collect, maintains the official league final averages (needed by those who bowl in tournaments), runs national tournaments, provides live-streaming coverage of key tournaments, maintains the scholarship funds won by young bowlers until they are older, sponsors and trains bowling's Team USA, offers coaching and analysis services for others, and conducts research on and certification of bowling products and technologies. Providing these services requires a paid staff led by an Executive Director who reports to the national USBC Board of Directors.

There are also state USBC chapters that run state-wide tournaments, and local USBC chapters that run tournaments, assist in certifying that bowling center lanes meet USBC standards, and may sponsor a local youth and/or high school bowling program. 

The Boards of Directors of the national, state, and local USBC organizations are all comprised of unpaid volunteers who have been elected by other sanctioned league bowlers.

National USBC provides its member bowlers (sometimes called "sanctioned bowlers") with awards for their first 300 game, 800 series, and 900 series. State and local chapters may provide other recognitions. 

National USBC also provides its members with various discounts on non-bowling products and services.

8. Will the league members help me learn how to bowl better?

Most likely not. You are usually expected to do your learning either by yourself, or with the help of someone else outside of league hours. Ask if your bowling center offers bowling lessons. If it does not, ask at the pro shop what help may be available.

9. Can I use the same bowling ball in a league?

Sure! But if you move up to a "reactive resin" bowling ball, you will have a ball that has the potential of coming at the "pocket" from a greater angle. That's because the ball is designed to "hook" or turn as it rolls down the lane. A greater angle coming into the pocket generally results in greater pin fall. (The pocket is that sweet spot between the head pin and the one on its right, for right-handers, or left for left-handers.)

When you get your reactive resin bowling ball, you may also want to change to having a "fingertip grip." With a conventional grip your two fingers go all of the way into the ball, but with fingertip your fingers only go in up to the first knuckle. This layout has the advantage of increasing the span between your finger and thumb holes, which in turn gives you greater control over the motion of the ball as it goes down the lanes.

If you already have a reactive resin ball and are ready to get more sophisticated, assess whether the ball works better when the lanes have just been oiled or when it has been a long time since the last oiling (often referred to as the lanes "being dry"), then get a second reactive resin ball to handle the opposite condition.

The bowling center's pro shop can help you with your choices.

10. So, what exactly is the reason for that coating of oil on the lanes?

In the earlier days of bowling, oil was applied to lane surfaces to protect them. Oil is still applied even though today's surfaces are more durable, because the presence of the oil makes bowling much, much more interesting.

What is the impact of the oil? Watch your ball after you throw it down the lane. Notice how, about 2/3 of the way down, the ball changes the way it is spinning. That change happens when the ball leaves the oil, where it had been skidding, and gets traction. It is at this point that the ball can be made to change direction, or hook. Bowlers learn to take advantage of that hook to have their bowling ball come at the pocket at the optimum angle to knock down the most pins, something less likely when a ball is thrown directly to the pocket. To learn more, see our guide to Oil Pattern Basics.

Note that bowling centers devoted to parties often do not put oil on their lanes, which is one of the reasons you cannot bowl seriously at a party bowling center.

11. Is there anything I can do to get a higher score?

Work on picking up all of your spares. Do the math - If you get a 9 on your first ball and don't knock down the remaining pin on the second throw, you have scored a 9 in that frame. But if you get it down, your score is 10 plus whatever you get on the next frame, which could total 20 if you get a strike. Sure, strikes are cool and they boost your score the most quickly, but sometimes lane conditions make it hard to get strikes all the time. Spare shooting may be boring, but it can save your game!

12. When will I be ready to move to the next level?

You are ready when one of your fellow league members asks you to bowl on his/her team in an upcoming tournament. Our guide to Team Tournaments can help. Good luck!

Guides you may also want to read:

Youth and College Bowling

Oil Pattern Basics

Bowling Today

Resources for Serious Bowling