A perfect game
Close your eyes and think of a bowling alley. What do you see?
Colie Edison has a good guess about what comes to mind for many people: “Smoky lanes, hot dogs on rollers, cold food and warm beer,” says the chief customer officer of Bowlero Corp.
The bowling industry has been fighting this perception dating to its heyday in the 1960s, when the sport was first regularly featured by ABC on Saturday afternoons and when there were more than 12,000 centers across the U.S., according to estimates by research group HighBeam Business.
While there’s no question that bowling still holds some of that popularity — multiple studies point to it as the most played indoor sport in the U.S., with more than 60 million people going at least once a year — many of its key metrics have seen precipitous declines in the decades since. In 1998, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that there were 5,400 bowling centers in the U.S. By 2012, its most recent evaluation, that number had plunged more than 25 percent, to 4,061. The United States Bowling Congress, the sport’s governing body, has seen a similar decline in membership. In its 2006-07 annual report, the USBC said it had 2.6 million members, a 36 percent drop from a decade earlier. In its most recent report, from 2015-16, membership had fallen another 42 percent, to 1.5 million.
Even facing an increasingly competitive entertainment landscape, bowling industry executives strongly believe that through upgraded centers with more and better options for consumers and even a new twist to the way the sport is played, bowling is poised to strike back.
“It’s our job to make bowling relevant again,” Edison said.
Appealing to a new generation
Perhaps the first attempt at an upscale bowling center in the United States was Bowlmor, which opened in New York City’s Union Square neighborhood in 1938 and frequently attracted A-list celebrities and professionals alike. But by the late 1990s it was in need of an upgrade, and it was bought in 1997 by businessman Tom Shannon, who introduced elements of a more modern nightclub. Bowlmor expanded over the next two decades and in 2010, it opened its flagship location in Times Square. Three years later it bought AMF Bowling Worldwide, which had filed for bankruptcy, for $310 million and in 2014 it purchased the bowling center business of Brunswick Bowling and Billiards for $270 million. In July 2017, private equity firm Atairos Group acquired the conglomerate from a group of investors for more than $1 billion, and it was rebranded as Bowlero Corp. earlier this year. It is now the largest bowling center operator in the world with more than 300 locations in the U.S. and 10 others in Mexico and Canada.
The company’s headquarters in Manhattan share space with Bowlmor Times Square. The location might not stop passersby in their tracks — a large BOWL sign meets you on 44th street — but once inside visitors find a 90,000-square-foot space that is exactly what Bowlero thinks the bowling consumer is looking for in 2018.
Its 48 lanes are split into themed bowling lounges, each inspired by the places of New York City’s history, such as Coney Island or Chinatown. Each features HD video walls with massive sound systems and is lined by blacklights. The lanes are surrounded by plush seating, as well as digital kiosks that allow players to order drinks and food from their lane to be delivered by the center’s wait service.
In another wing of the center, a massive arcade with a suite of new games sits alongside a wall of prizes, ranging from stuffed animals to electronics. On the opposite side, a room-length bar offers top-shelf cocktails and beer.
“Consumers have wanted and demanded more, and we need to keep up with that,” Edison said. “It’s not OK to not have changed your carpets since the 1970s, not have well-lit lanes or parking lots, and to have exterior and interior paint colors that are no longer relevant.
“It doesn’t make sense to have our customers suffer deprivation to come bowling,” she said.
The company has already rebranded 47 of its newly acquired locations as Bowlero and those join 17 Bowlmor Lanes with the enhanced features, including upscale food and beverage choices and an arcade.
The company has 168 AMF Bowling centers in the U.S. that operate more as traditional bowling alleys. However, Bowlero is spending more than $30 million this year to renovate those centers and outfit them with additional features and entertainment options.
“I’ve always associated what was known as the ‘Bowlmor experience’ as an entertainment experience,” Edison said. “Bowling is one of the few activities that I think can be called social-tainment, where you can take the idea of being social with friends and family with true entertainment. When you look at where millennials are spending their dollars, it’s on experiences. We need to cater to that.”
Decline of leagues
While the vast majority of bowling centers in the U.S. are still independently owned and thus not able to deploy the same capital as Bowlero toward this shift, there is an increasing recognition that not only is this the path forward for the industry, but that it can power the sport’s resurgence.
That is no more obvious than at Bowling University.
Run by the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America, the programs that make up Bowling University aim to better teach bowling center owners and employees around the country how to step up their game and ways they can best manage what is called a “bowling-anchored entertainment center.” The trade group launched a special weeklong course dedicated to the complexity of that business in 2012. It attracts more than 30 proprietors a year, focusing on game-room operations, food and beverage service and execution, and group events promotion. The Bowling University program also hosts several five-day seminars across the country each year, in addition to nearly 30 daylong boot camps in several cities.
“It’s about what do people want to see when they come in,” said Frank DeSocio, the executive director of the BPAA, whose family has owned centers across Kansas and Oklahoma for decades. “It’s about the maintenance of your center, the curb appeal, and things like instead of getting a pitcher of beer with five plastic cups, getting glasses. There is a higher expectation from the consumer now, and we as bowling centers have to deliver that.”
While the industry is looking to meet the desires of consumers in 2018, the shift toward centers with other entertainment options is also coming at a time when bowling leagues — traditionally the lifeblood of the industry — are steadily declining.
Tim Corley is the president of Bowl New England, one of the largest independent operators in the U.S., owning more than 20 centers mainly across the Northeast. He oversees a family bowling business that dates back more than 50 years and concedes that “league bowling has been on a steady decline for the last 25 years.”
“When league bowling was in its heyday, it was almost like a fraternal organization that someone did with their friends as a weekly social outing,” Corley said. “And just like you’ve seen in all the Elks Clubs or the other fraternal organizations, membership in that lifestyle has just sort of dropped. Maybe it was the pricing, or the cost of bowling and food, or the fact that these were 30-plus week leagues. There have been a lot of variables that contributed to it.”
League bowling had been crucial to the financial success of local centers. Corley estimated that during its peak, league bowling accounted for nearly 70 percent of local center revenue. Now that number is closer to 15 percent.
Christopher Lombardo, market research analyst for IBISWorld, said that while many centers in the industry are switching over to a more entertainment-focused model, bowling is facing an increasingly higher level of external competition than perhaps ever before. “If you think about the competitors to bowling, it’s basically every other entertainment source available both in and out of home,” he said. “When you add in how quickly home entertainment is evolving, for a family of five playing a game in your own home is going to cost you a whole lot less than going to a bowling center of any size.”
Lombardo said that IBISWorld’s analysis of the bowling industry indicates that while the shift toward entertainment options has helped centers grow revenue, the majority of centers in the U.S. are still built with league bowlers in mind, with no indication that model will return to its former prominence.
“We need to cast a wider net to a much broader market as well as to birthday parties and corporate events, rethinking what we’re offering,” Corley said. “Bowling itself is a fun thing to do that essentially anyone at any age can do; if we can add different elements to it and enhance the bowling experience at the same time, you’ll see success.”
Bowling’s Topgolf moment
While many people involved in bowling say that the industry has been moving toward an enhanced experience around the sport well before Topgolf made its splash reinventing the driving range experience earlier this decade, the comparison between the two is not lost on them.
“Topgolf took one corner of a well-known activity and redressed it in a blended experience like bowling has had — a socializing, friendly competition that only needs a basic skill set combined with technology and a higher level of food and beverage,” said Kelly Wilbar, director of scoring and technology solutions for QubicaAMF. “Topgolf was able to drive a new generation of people to the sport that were not playing it. We think bowling is even better suited to do that since so many of the aspects of the bowling experience young adults and millennials already like.”
Still, to this point, the game of rolling a ball down 60 feet of lanes toward 10 pins and scoring based on how many you knock down has not changed. Meanwhile, Topgolf’s unique scoring system and integration of technology has refreshed what was a stodgy experience for non-golfers.
Enter HyperBowling, perhaps the sport’s biggest effort to attract casual and non-bowlers since bumpers were introduced in 1989.
While bumpers are viewed as a crutch for poor bowlers, HyperBowling is aiming to make them part of the scoring system. Using lights along bumpers that feature special sensors, bowlers are encouraged to aim for colorful moving targets along the bumpers themselves, with the pins acting as multipliers.
“We recognize for some that there is the frustration of throwing gutter balls and having to throw a perfect shot to get a strike,” said Wilbar, who has spent much of the last few years working on this project. “We think this can remove that, open the game up to more people who can enjoy and play together, as well as still offer a great challenge along with competitive play.”
Last November, the product was shown for the first time to a select group of bowling proprietors over a two-day workshop in Florida, followed by a small demonstration at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions a few weeks later.
“Of the people we’ve shown it to, about 5 percent were a bit skeptical, 15 percent said they want to see when it comes to market; the rest said what’s the price and when can I have it,” said Jay Buhl, senior vice president and general manager of QubicaAMF Worldwide, one of the largest manufacturers and distributors of bowling products in the world. “We’re bullish, but we think this can have the same impact on the game as when bumpers were introduced.”
HyperBowling will officially be launched to the industry at the International Bowl Expo in June, with hopes that installations will start by the end of the year, followed by a larger rollout in 2019. Along with that national launch likely will be a broader marketing plan, aiming to get people to experience this new twist to the sport.
“We view HyperBowling as a gateway,” Wilbar said. “If you can turn someone who goes bowling once or twice a year into someone that is going once or twice a month, that is a game changer for the industry and for centers. The hope is that once people are reintroduced to the physical act of bowling, that will also grow them into wanting to play more competitively or in a league in the more traditional sense.”
HyperBowling is also going to be featured at some of the sport’s activations alongside NASCAR events this fall, an increasing part of getting bowling in front of more potential fans.
“Our goal is to just change the face of bowling and the image of bowling,” said John Harbuck, president of Strike Ten Entertainment, the sponsor-activation arm of the bowling industry.
Harbuck pointed to a recent consumer survey done by Strike Ten that had 33 percent of respondents saying they still think of bowling centers as dirty, smoky, dark and outdated.
“The face of bowling today is largely a new, refurbished, family-friendly, no-smoking environment where you’re offered upscale menus and drinks as well as a lot of other things,” he said. “When consumers do come back into our centers, they recall they had a great time and the experience is fun, and they often end with ‘why don’t we go bowling more often.’”
“Like that old advertising campaign,” Harbuck said, “our message is ‘try us again for the first time.’”