By numbers alone, the bowling industry can be very upbeat about its future. The number of people who bowl is up. More than 71 million consumers annually take to the lanes to bowl, an increase of more than 4 and-a-half percent over the previous year and the fourth year in a row of continued growth in the industry. As the number one participatory sport in the United States, bowling has a $10 billion impact on the national economy. To keep bowling growing in 2011 and beyond, proprietors are taking advantage of the latest trends and responding to customer preferences with innovative programs.
E-mail is no longer something only accessed from a computer at a desk. You can now check e-mail on your cell phone, and coupled with the popularity of social media like Facebook, Twitter and others, people can instantly connect with each other at incredible speed. Demographically, all age groups use social media, especially teen and young adults, but the most predominant user segment is women 18 and older. Proprietors are taking advantage of the seemingly insatiable appetite for texts and tweets as a great way to drive traffic to their centers and are finding a willing audience to help spread their message.
Joe LaSpina of Maple Family Centers, N.Y., uses a variety of viral marketing methods to stay connected. Among his tools, LaSpina uses e-mail blasts and Facebook posts to keep customers up-to-date on the latest happenings and specials at his centers. “We’ve been pretty successful in using what’s popular to help drive business, and it helps on the management side because it keeps us connected to our customers.”
As an example, LaSpina said, when they get a group of teen/college-age customers in the center, and they have open lanes (especially after 9 p.m.), they entice the group with a free pizza or pitcher of soda if they text a bunch of friends and get eight more people to come and bowl. “They always seem happy to do it,” said LaSpina, “and, better still, it forces managers out on the lanes to talk with these people and make friends.”
Jim Doty, owner of Royal Pin Leisure Centers in Indiana, is capitalizing on the advantages of viral marketing. “We keep our Web site updated,” said Doty, “and have a Facebook page plus e-mails and blogs, all to keep in touch with bowlers. In fact, one of our bloggers is chronicling her experience taking bowling lessons and has a pretty loyal following online.”
Regardless whether league play is slightly up, steady, or a bit off, proprietors are working harder than ever flooring leagues. As customer’s lives get busier, proprietors are responding with short season leagues to accommodate hectic lifestyles.
LaSpina says his first shift (6 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.) is fairly solid, and to shore things up after 9 p.m. (traditionally the harder league to sell) he’s gone to shorter, late night leagues with little or no prize money. To keep the time commitment down, some leagues play only two game matches instead of the traditional three game contests. LaSpina has seen some success with the format and by adjusting rates during the late night hours, he’s attracting bowlers looking for something to do in the latter part of the evening.
Doty uses a similar approach with his leagues. “We are trying some non-traditional ideas, using a prize or reward for being part of the league, and not offering money or an end-of-season banquet helps keep costs down.”
Bowling is a fun sport with few physical barriers, which means nearly anyone, at any age, can participate. Affordable coaching opportunities help bowlers become better so they enjoy the game more. And bowlers who enjoy the game are more likely to become repeat customers.
Proprietors who lease out their pro shops are encouraging owners to develop coaching programs that appeal to a wide audience. A popular offering is inexpensive lessons on empty lanes before leagues start. Bowlers can pick up a tip or two and go out on the lanes and see immediate results.
The key to the continued growth of bowling is youth. The Youth Education Services fund (YES) is the new joint initiative of the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America (BPAA), United States Bowling Congress and The Bowling Foundation. Many of the leading brands of bowling, including Brunswick, Columbia 300, Ebonite, 900 Global, Hammer, QuibicaAMF, Roto Grip, Storm and Track are making significant contributions to create a new funding source dedicated to youth bowling development and marketing.
Initially, the focus of the YES fund project will be the development of a new mainstream sports model for bowlers 12 years old and younger. It will involve testing new team-based structures for competition, along with the development of training and recruitment programs to attract volunteer coaches.
Proprietors will continue to introduce bowling in elementary and middle schools as part of their physical education programs. “In-school” bowling curriculum is currently being used successfully by over 15,000 schools and the number is expected to grow. Working with teachers and administrators, local centers are introducing the sport to a whole new audience that can enjoy bowling for a lifetime.
Bowling is also one of the fastest growing sports in high school sports with double-digit increases in five of the last eight seasons and the number of varsity bowlers more than doubling in this decade. College bowling is up as well, with the NCAA participation growing 16.4 percent. With students the prime users of social media and the audience most likely to take advantage of viral marketing offers, proprietors seeking to expand their audience need to look no further than their local schools and colleges.
The number of consumers who consider themselves frequent bowlers is up 5.6 percent over a year ago with significant growth among youth and young adult segments. In fact, more than 60 percent of all bowlers are under the age of 34 and half are women. The demographic is family-centric and to be able to attract families or groups, centers are doing what the fast food industry has done for years – offering package deals to maximize the value.
Like adding fries and a drink with a hamburger, proprietors are developing bowling packages that combine shoe rental with games, or bowling, shoe rental, pizza and a pitcher of soft drink for one price. LaSpina said single-priced packages can be very attractive to a young family on a budget. “It’s also a great up-sell at our front counter, and allows us to get an additional game we may not have gotten from the customer otherwise.” Plus, getting families in the door increases opportunities to sell birthday parties. In fact, bowling centers continue to be the leading destination for birthday parties and proprietors are capitalizing with offerings like Bowlopolis® brand birthday party packages for children.
Doty said, “Our regular customers know what we offer. By developing new and attractive family and group packages and using all our resources, we are expanding our universe and spreading the message about bowling to a larger audience than ever before.”
As the bowling industry continues to evolve into a mix of traditional centers, multi-venue family entertainment centers and upscale boutique facilities, bowling proprietors will continue to adapt to the changing landscape. The BPAA and its Marketing Committee will continue to work in developing programs to keep bowling top of mind and to deliver maximum fun and enjoyment.
(Ron De Roxtra is BPAA’s Communications and Media Relations Coordinator.)
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