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Bowling alleys rolling out options

RICHMOND, Va. — When you think of bowling today, forget Ralph Kramden or Fred Flintstone. Think Micah Granai.

Micah celebrated her fifth birthday with a party at a BowlAmerica center in suburban Chesterfield County.

"We bowl as a family a lot," said Micah's mother, Mandy. "She really loves bowling."

But there were other inducements. "She got a T-shirt, two free games, some (video) game tokens, two pieces of pizza and a drink," Granai said.

For years, bowling purists have bewailed bowling centers' catering to customers more interested in pizza than the finesse required to make a 7-10 split. But with revenues from the game continuing a decadeslong decline, most operators are looking for business like Micah's to keep the balls rolling.

Bowling's slump was a factor in the 2001 Chapter 11 filing by AMF Bowling Worldwide Inc., which bills itself as the world's largest bowling center operator. Following the company's emergence from bankruptcy a year ago, some observers speculated AMF might be considering selling some or all of its assets, including 258 bowling alleys in the United States.

Spokesman Mike Anderson would not comment on speculation but did say Richmond-based AMF has hired Greenhill & Co., a New York-based merger and acquisition firm.

If a sale is planned, the timing isn't bad, according to several bowling property brokers.

"The bowling industry has generally been doing well the past three or four years, and very well the past couple of years," said Sandy Hansell, founder and president of Hansell & Associates, based in Southfield, Mich., and the nation's largest broker of bowling centers.

Kenneth R. Mischel, founder and president of Mischel & Co., a San Diego-based brokerage, agreed.

"Business has generally been good the last few years," he said. "And any time the business is doing well, it's a good time to look for buyers."

Mischel acknowledged the decline in bowling's popularity among the traditional core of league members. However, he contended, "non-league business has increased tremendously and has pretty much replaced the league business that's been lost."

Some statistics refute the industry's upbeat view.

According to figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce, revenue at bowling centers nationally fell 25 percent to $2.5 billion in 2001 from $3.4 billion in 1987, in inflation-adjusted terms.

Between 1992 and 2000, Commerce Department figures show, the number of bowling centers around the country fell to 5,234 from 5,892.

The fortunes of the biggest operators have followed a similar path. AMF saw its revenue decline to $695 million in 2001 from $736 million in 1997. Revenue for its biggest competitor, Brunswick Corp.'s Bowling and Billiards division, fell to $368 million in 2001 from $429 million in 1998.

Industry observers blame the fall-off on a number of factors, including innovations that lured casual bowlers while alienating core clientele, such as pins that fall more easily and high-tech balls that allow for a gyroscopically precise spin.

"With all the new balls and everything being produced now, you don't have to be all that good a bowler," said Jerry Robertson, editor and publisher of Bowling News, a trade publication. "The ball does it for you."

Robertson noted that some bowling center operators oil their lanes in a pattern that helps guide the ball into position to score a strike.

Also contributing to the decline in league bowling is a drop in leisure time. Robertson said fewer people seem interested "in dedicating 33 weeks a year to bowling."

Statistics bear him out. According to the the American Bowling Congress, the nation's largest organizer of bowling leagues, membership in organized bowling peaked in the mid-1970s at about 4.5 million bowlers in about 130,000 leagues. By the 1997-98 season — the most recent for which the organization has published statistics — membership had fallen to 2 million in 80,000 leagues, a 55 percent drop.

League bowling is just part of the picture, however, said John Berglund, spokesman for the Bowling Proprietors Association of America. To a great extent, he said, "it has been replaced by open play," or bowling by non-league players.

That end of the business, also known as retail play, showed good growth in 2001 but "was down slightly or flat last year because of the economy," Berglund said.

Bowling center owners have gone to great lengths to draw more non-league bowlers, introducing bumpers to spare casual bowlers the humiliation of gutter balls, improving the quality and variety of concession items, and offering late-night disco-style bowling featuring fluorescent balls and dance music.

Berglund said open play offers enough growth potential to keep operators in business. For someone who might be thinking of selling bowling centers, he said, "it's a good time, because the bowling industry is a hot commodity, at least at the retail end."

And for the long term, Berglund said, "I'm very bullish, at least from a retail perspective."