August 6, 2012

Bowling Reboot: Making a Has-Been, Blue Collar "Sport" Hip Again


As an entertainment or sport, it is seemingly as American as Baseball and Apple Pie (or Apple Computer).  However, bowling really peaked in popularity following the invention of the automatic pinsetter which led to a rapid growth in the number of bowling alleys and lanes in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The heyday was the mid-1960s, when there were approximately 12,000 bowling facilities in the U.S.  At that time, the business was predominately driven by bowling leagues.  But with the widespread decline of blue collar employment in the U.S. which arguably drove the advent of bowling leagues, the sport (if bowling can really be called a sport) began a steady decline starting in the 1970s which has continued for the past 30+ years.

There is data to support this assertion.

According data from the United States Bowling Congress, there has been a steady reduction in the number of U.S. bowling centers since the 1970s, driven by both the decline of league bowling and the sale of many bowling centers so the land could be used for more profitable ventures.  As of December 2007, there were 5,498 certified 10-pin bowling centers with 113,897 lanes, and just 137 duckpin and candlepin centers with 2,560 lanes.  That's less than half the number that were certified back in the mid-1960s.  Have a look at the following, classic video entitled "Let's Go Bowling" from the year 1955 below, or by visiting

That paints a picture of bowling as a wholesome, family-oriented activity.  Indeed, the patrons at that time were the very picture of middle-class America.  But by many accounts, bowling today can be classified as a dying piece or Americana, perhaps in the same "league" (pun intended) as drive-in movie theaters.

Again, there are statistics to back this up.  Specifically, over the past decade, the number of "frequent" bowlers who bowl 25+ days a year has fallen, while the number of "occasional" bowlers has actually increased during the same period.  Back in the 1950s-1960s, my grandfather was actually in a bowling league, but my father never followed in his bowling league footsteps, and neither did millions of others.

But if you own and operate a bowling center, leagues (and their decline) constituted about 70% of your business, while occasional bowlers were just 30%, again according to data from the United States Bowling Congress, so the financials no longer worked.  It's therefore not very hard to see why all those bowling alleys across America were converted to other things.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, I cannot even begin to recall the number of birthday parties I went to that were held at my town's local bowling alley (which, incidentally, was leveled and a multiplex cinema was built in its place about a decade ago).  But I also remember what those bowling alleys were like.  By then, my recollection is that the alley was starting to decline, as the place was kind of dark inside, and had a funky smell of sweaty bowling shoes and spilled beer, and the food options there were pretty much limited to greasy burgers, fries and pizza, and of couse, beer, but no other libations.  The place was clean enough and they maintained it reasonably well, but it was hardly a place one could envision taking a date to.

Bowlmor Reboots Bowling For A New Generation of Players

Bowlmor Lanes' Iconic Logo (click the image to visit its website)
While no one expects a widespread return to "Laverne and Shirley" styled bowling leagues anytime soon,  there has been a bit of revolution in thinking about bowling as an entertainment option in recent years.  Perhaps driven by the notion of saving a piece of Americana that can actually resonate with people today, one guy's vision has IMHO done more to "save" bowling than anyone else I can think of.

That man is a guy named Tom Shannon, an MBA who had a vision for a dying New York City bowling alley.  Indeed, Richard Nixon was filmed bowling at Bowlmor Lanes in New York's Union Square back in 1958.  In 1997, Mr. Shannon bought Bowlmor Lanes, the rapidly-dilapidating Greenwich Village bowling alley, and reinvented the place as what has been described as a marriage between hospitality and bowling. Under his leadership, the Bowlmor brand came to represent high design, excellent service, and high-priced cocktails. The combination worked and he took it from failing business to one earning more than $50 million in revenue per year.  By 1999, Bowlmor Lanes became the highest-grossing bowling alley in the U.S.  He has since expanded the concept outside of New York, and now operates bowling facilities in California (Tustin in Orange County/Southern California, and Cupertino in Silicon Valley/Northern California), Bethesda, MD in suburban Washington, DC, and in Miami, FL.  Bowlmor also as a very tongue-in-cheek ad campaign now running about how much fun it can be to hang out in a New York City alley with guys who have their names engraved on their balls!

STRIKE Long Island Represents a Strike in Mr. Shannon's Otherwise Untarnished Reputation

Bloomberg Enterprise television interviewed Mr. Shannon in the following interview about what he thinks were keys to his success with the original venue.  Have a look below, or by visiting :

To be sure, "celebrities" including Kourtney Kardashian and Paris Hilton are among those who have gone to Bowlmor Lanes in Manhattan, but there's only so much opportunity in that location or even in this particular city, and those vacuous reality TV stars wouldn't necessarily trek to a Bowlmor location in Bethesda, Maryland.  Although most of his bowling alley ventures have done very well, his track record is not completely unblemished.  His STRIKE location in suburban Long Island is now closed, and he's since rebranded his other STRIKE locations with the iconic Bowlmor brand name.

Imitators or Copycats? Lucky Strike Lanes Now Has More Locations Than Bowlmor Does 

Mr. Shannon's formula has also been successfully copied by others, notably by a rival known as Lucky Strike Lanes which operates a number of locations in Hollywood, San Francisco, near Seattle, in Phoenix, Kansas City, Boston, even New York City and elsewhere.  That company was started shortly after the Hollywood bowling alley where "The Big Lebowski" was filmed got leveled.  Lucky Strike Lanes now has more locations than Bowlmor.  Since the concept can be pretty easily replicated, there's also been the emergence of local competition such as 10 Pin Bowling Lounge in Chicago and The Mission Bowling Club in San Francisco to name just two examples.

It seems there are a few keys to success: one, the bowling alley needs to draw sufficient numbers of patrons in a location on a consistent basis (the number of patrons, not necessarily the SAME patrons), and the combination of updated design combined with gourmet dining and a genuine, full bar (not just beer) also seem to be keys to success.  Obviously, big city locales have populations that can drive such a business model, but many suburban bowling facilities may still not survive.  And what is considered one of the most successful and profitable Indian casinos in the United States, the MGM Foxwoods Resort and Casino operates a bowling facility known as High Rollers Luxury Lanes and Lounge so the high-end bowling concept clearly works, as it already does for several Las Vegas casinos.

But the number of dying bowling alleys just isn't what it used to be (indeed, there are half as many still standing today), so picking up new locations up for a cheap price will be a challenge.  Nor will every location be golden (in particular, suburban locations lacking sufficient populations may not hold onto bowling as an entertainment option).  But the era of a bowling reboot in an upscale fashion has indeed arrived, and perhaps just in time to save a piece of Americana that seemed doomed to the history books just a decade ago!

Author P.S., July 11, 2014:  This week, there was news that the iconic Bowlmor location that Mr. Tom Shannon, whose vision was behind the Bowlmor reboot described above, had lost its lease on the Union Square NYC location, which means that location will be closed to build condos.  He has several other NYC locations, so while this one will be history, there are others to enjoy.  But as Bloomberg Businessweek reported (see  "Don’t cry for Shannon. Last summer, he merged his company with the world’s largest bowling operator, AMF Bowling Worldwide, which had fallen on hard times. The combined company, which Shannon heads, runs hundreds of bowling centers. Its latest concept ”takes all the best elements of Bowlmor—upscale, nice, fun—and makes it hipper,” Shannon told Bloomberg Television. “It’s sort of the next version of bowling.” And one that may take bowling even farther from its working-class roots."

No comments: