Rounding Out the Year with a Look at Bowling Trends and the Future Outlook

Bowling center staff see specific trends at their locations and for the industry overall. A lively discussion about current developments and the future outlook for bowling that occurred for this article revealed a wide variety of responses in both areas.
In Anchorage, Alaska, Pat Boots, lead coordinator and day shift manager at Center Bowl, said trends at the location range from increased league membership to guest interest in new upgrades. “Our league play is up every night of the week, but that kind of thing differs by location; it’s definitely a trend here. We have also upgraded everything about the facility at Center Bowl; we have a new, modern scoring system that offers options for different kinds of bowling games that were never available before. We now have options like a variety of different background screens, and for playing games that are not traditional professional bowling.”

A view the lanes at Jewel Lake Bowling Center in Anchorage, Alaska. The center runs a successful rock ‘n’ bowl program on the weekends.

Boots described some of the most popular new game options as “one that is based on Angry Birds, which is a whole different feeling for bowlers; and another type of play that keeps little kids more interested in the game. We do five frames with one ball per frame to keep things moving for those young players. There are just lots of different screens and choices for both open and league bowlers to choose from.” He noted that “The system is very new, we just added it in May this year. I think being able to offer those kinds of choices is a definite trend.” And for the future? “I think there will be more of that kind of different experience, more of a trend toward open play and fun bowling. I really see those areas growing more than in the past.”
Also in Anchorage, at Jewel Lake Bowling Center, General Manager Dustin Sherman said he sees two trends in bowling right now. “I would say a rock ‘n’ bowl experience and boutique bowling are the strongest.” He explained, “We run a rock ‘n’ bowl on weekends, and that is a big draw. It has been for 25 years. We were one of the first bowling centers in the country to do it. The idea has taken off, and it’s still going strong, that combination of music and bowling,” he stated. “As far as a new trend, I think boutique houses are the thing, where you have a four-lane room you can rent for your own private party. We are looking at doing that in the future, closing off an area, although we haven’t taken that step as yet.” Sherman’s opinion on the bowling industry as a whole is that “It is kind of in a downturn right now. The older folks that used to bowl in the 60s, 70s, and 80s have retired from it. We have a decent junior program, and we are trying to get more and more kids involved; we have a good, strong high school program. You have to look toward the future.” And speaking of the future, Sherman’s outlook is that “In the last 20 years, you’ve seen league bowling decline, but open bowling or recreational bowling has picked up. I think that will continue in the future, but I do think you have to also support league play. Overall, you can bowl for less than it costs to go to a movie, and it’s one of the best values in America,” he pointed out. “There are a lot of things to do, but bowling is an easy sport. People don’t think of it as a sport, but it’s a great physical activity, great exercise for everyone. I think that’s important. I hope it doesn’t die, but in today’s American culture, it’s hard to tell long term. The important thing is to make sure it’s fun for people.”

A view of bowling balls at Jewel Lake Bowling Center. In the future, the center could offer a special space for private bowling parties, according to the general manager.

At Steve Cook’s Fireside Lanes in Citrus Heights, Calif., General Manager Jack Thomas said, “Every bowling center has something different to offer. Ours is more focused on league bowling, and old-fashioned, traditional bowling. At newer centers, the trend would be more toward high tech videos and things like that which we don’t offer. Here, we’re great for league play, we have a friendly, old-style-bowler atmosphere. We cater to service more than flash.” Thomas attested that, “many centers are putting money into their facility and not personnel. We are the reverse. Some people are looking for the tech, sure, but honestly many people are also looking for a great staff.” He noted that, “if you have a successful bowling center then you always have to offer bowling, music, league play, youth leagues, all the traditional stuff. You have to have a little bit of all those things. It’s very hard to sustain a business in this industry without doing a little bit of everything. I suppose that is the real trend.” He described what is needed in greater detail as “it’s about having a great staff, it’s about having things like glow bowling, music, and arcades. For us, we have the largest youth league in the area, and the largest senior league in the area and we really support that. But we also have glow bowling, we have karaoke, and music.”

Jewel Lake Bowling Center General Manager Dustin Sherman. “ …Overall, you can bowl for less than it costs to go to a movie, and it’s one of the best values in America,” Sherman said.

To Thomas, the outlook for the future of bowling is all about the people. “It will always be a people-intensive sport, at least that is what works for us now and will in the future. You have to keep a feeder system, where people are interested in youth bowling, so that when they are older and have kids of their own, they’ll want to interest them in bowling, too. If you lose that feeder system,” he explained, “as a center you’re in trouble. We have a large senior population, and when that goes, you need young people to fill those spots and play regularly.” Thomas asserted, “We have been fortunate to be successful by offering an atmosphere that makes people want to come in, a place to hold birthday parties, and league play, and glow bowling, all those things. That will be just as true in the future.” He stressed that things can be different in other markets. “At newer centers in an area where the there is a higher concentration of people with discretionary income, people who are just looking for an experience of music and lights, those centers can live off the recreational dollar. But we try to have something for all types of people and all kinds of play.” He offered one final caveat for what’s ahead: “We spend a lot of money on our youth leagues, which a lot of people aren’t willing to do. But you need them with an eye on the future, or it will cost you later down the road.”

Jewel Lake Bowling Center employees Brick and Ellen. The center puts the emphasis on fun for customers.

Ron Amin, general manager of Capitol Bowl in West Sacramento, Calif., offered a similar take to Thomas on trends in the bowling industry. “The current trends are toward both high tech experiences and personal play. Both combined are essential, and we see that,” he related. “People want the tech, they want the latest screens and things like that, but they still want a warm friendly touch. The real trend is people realizing that bowling is a fun entertainment for the whole family. It doesn’t need to be competitive. We try to enhance that.” According to Amin, “Guests want the experience of being here, which includes modern features, but also personal service.” For the future, Amin said, “We are really aiming at bringing more and more family groups here. I honestly think that is the future of bowling in general, increasing family guests.”

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