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How Bowling Alleys Made a Comeback

Justin Fox
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How Bowling Alleys Made a Comeback

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In the late 1970s, just over 9 million Americans belonged to bowling leagues. As of 2017-2018, 1.34 million did. This decline has been much discussed, with political scientist Robert D. Putnam’s famous 1995 essay and 2000 book “Bowling Alone” citing it as a symptom and cause of “declining social capital” in the U.S. due to the “social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo.”

Putnam admitted in the book, though, that “only poetic license authorizes my description of non-league bowling as ‘bowling alone.’” Instead, bowling was shifting from something that blue-collar workers did after their shifts to something that kids did at birthday parties and adults as part of a night out with friends.

It just took bowling-alley proprietors a while to catch on. This is from the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, a Kansas City architecture and development firm: 

In 1989, Olathe Lanes East, then an old style bowling alley in a suburban area of Kansas City, burned to the ground, and we were hired to handle its redevelopment. Our research found the majority of its customers were white-collar, and 51 percent were women — even though the owner told us his average customers were “beer guzzling blue-collar men.” So we matched the new bowling center to its market with more upscale art deco décor, cocktail seating on the concourse (the old style settee seating was designed for leagues, not open-play bowlers), one-level floors and approaches, windows and skylights, hand-made hamburgers and nice restrooms. Guess what? After the center reopened, business doubled, food and beverage sales quadrupled and the center was able to command a 35 percent premium price for bowling over other bowling houses in town.

Even with the upgrade, Olathe Lanes East remained (and remains) very much a traditional bowling alley, with a big bowling-league presence. But in 1997, recent business school graduate Tom Shannon undertook an even more radical makeover of Bowlmor Lanes on University Place just south of Union Square in New York City. “I created an upscale vibe, an events space, a restaurant-quality kitchen, and a cutting-edge sound system,” he told Inc. magazine in 2014. “I drew customers with a racy ad that made them wonder, ‘What's going on there?’” Shannon also pitched Bowlmor as a venue for corporate gatherings, which became a big part of the business. Later he added a rooftop arcade/nightclub that eventually grew into the “monstrous shrine to frat culture and preppy nostalgia” (according to the New York Times) called Greenwich Village Country Club, which featured miniature golf, bocce and billiards, among many other amusements. 

While the University Place location had to shut down in 2014 to make way for a luxury apartment building, there are two other Bowlmors in the city (one in the former New York Times newsroom on Times Square), and Shannon’s Bowlero Corp. is now the biggest owner of “bowling entertainment centers” in the world. It bought the bowling-alley operations of two of the industry’s iconic brands, AMF and Brunswick (both of which live on as bowling equipment manufacturers and installers), in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Last month, it acquired the Professional Bowlers Association.

Bowlmor/Bowlero now has many imitators, or at least fellow travelers. There’s Pinstripes, which debuted in 2007 in suburban Chicago and is now taking its “bistro, bowling, bocce” combo coast to coast, with a menu that features a $32 espresso-crusted filet mignon and a $13 Bulleit Rye Old Fashioned.(4)There’s Punch Bowl Social, which opened its first location in Denver in 2012 and has also since gone national with its tacos, burgers, superfood grain bowls, craft beers and cocktails alongside bowling, karaoke, virtual reality games, foosball, billiards, “giant Scrabble” and vintage arcades. And there’s Decades, a six-lane “boutique bowling alley” with a “chef-driven” Southern-inflected food menu and an arcade that opened earlier this year in an 84-year-old former National Guard armory in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.I mention Decades out of a plethora of new, locally owned bowling boutiques because one of its owners is Adam Ozimek, the chief economist of freelance marketplace Upwork and a prominent denizen of #EconTwitter. Just after the release of the monthly jobs report a few weeks ago, I got a little lost in the payroll employment data and stumbled across the jobs numbers for bowling centers. Turns out that, after decades of declines, they’ve been looking pretty good lately.

When I tweeted out these surprising (to me) employment numbers, Ozimek got in touch to suggest that technological progress might be a big part of the explanation. The technology is the string pinsetter, which pulls bowling pins into place with strings that are attached to the tops of the pins. String pinsetters have been around since the 1960s, but for a long time they weren’t very good, with a tendency to get tangled. Now they’re much better. The U.S. Bowling Congress still won’t allow their use in bowling leagues, but many casual bowlers don’t even notice the difference.

The biggest attraction of a string pinsetter is its simplicity. “Freefall pin machines, even the new ones, require a very skilled, trained mechanic to maintain,” says Jen Waldo, global marketing manager at Brunswick Bowling Products, which makes both freefall and string pinsetters. “There is one moving mechanism on a string pinsetter and the rest is electronics; 90% of the maintenance can be done by a bartender or cocktail waitress.”  This makes it viable to run a small bowling operation alongside a restaurant and other attractions. Waldo says that string pinsetters now account for “at least half” of Brunswick’s new installations.

String pinsetters can also work with different-sized pins. “Essentially it's just a matter of untying the strings, sliding off one pin and replacing it with the other,” says Waldo. This has enabled a revival of duckpin bowling, which uses squat pins and smaller, beginner-friendly balls but had been suffering from a lack of duckpin-specific pinsetters, given that the only company that made them went out of business in 1973 and refused to sell Brunswick the patent. The New England pastime of candlepin bowling has been less affected because fallen pins (aka “wood”) are left lying between balls — deflections off them are a crucial part of the game — and strings would get in the way.(7)

Bowling centers happen to be among the select industry sectors for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks not only jobs but also labor productivity. That is, how much output (revenue, basically) does an industry generate per hour worked? Productivity growth is a key economic variable and something of a double-edged sword: Increasing productivity can mean job losses, but it’s also essential to boosting incomes and living standards over time. In the U.S. it slowed in the 1970s, made a semiconductor-and-information-technology-driven rebound in the 1990s, then fizzled out again after about 2004. But you know where productivity has been jumping lately? At bowling centers, where inflation-adjusted output per hour worked rose 26% from 2013 through 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared with a 3.8% gain for nonfarm business overall.

The jobs and productivity numbers for bowling centers probably understate the phenomenon, as the BLS will in some cases tally multi-activity establishments’ employees under the category of amusement parks and arcades or, more likely, restaurants; Waldo says most of the new entertainment centers Brunswick works with aim to get 30% to 50% of their revenue from food and drink. That’s probably why the number of bowling centers counted by the BLS has continued falling even amid what sure looks like an industry revival. Old-school bowling alleys are being converted into or supplanted by food-and-drink-oriented entertainment centers that offer more things for sale and charge higher prices, bringing increases in both the number of employees and the revenue per hour worked. String pinsetters make it a lot easier to run such a business. Not all technology-assisted productivity gains involve Moore’s law.

There are those who gripe that string pinsetters still deliver an inferior bowling experience, and Bowlero’s rise has been accompanied by complaints from former employees who say they were forced out because they looked too old-school. It is undeniably bittersweet to see the great blue-collar American pastime taken over by purveyors of craft cocktails and superfood grain bowls. Still, at least bowling isn’t going away — and who knows, maybe some bowlers are having “civic conversations” over their Odell 90 Shilling Scottish ale and cauliflower nachos.

(1) That's in Chicago and the Washington, D.C. neighborhood of Georgetown. At suburban locations, $12 seems to be the norm. There are lots of other mixed drinks for that price too; I just liked the sound of the Old Fashioned.

(2) I also get the sense that letting fallen pins lie allows for a simpler and thus less breakdown-prone pinsetter. In any case, Candlepin Sales and Parts Co. of Georgetown, Massachusetts, is still making the things.

To contact the author of this story: Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Sarah Green Carmichael at sgreencarmic@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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