Bowling Centers

SIC 7933

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This industry includes establishments known to the public as bowling centers or bowling alleys. Such establishments frequently sell meals and refreshments.

Industry Snapshot

According to the United States Bowling Congress (USBC), approximately 71 million people bowled at least once in 2010, making tenpin bowling the most popular indoor participation sport in the United States, based on participation of once or more per year. Over 2.1 million competed regularly in the 71,904 leagues sanctioned by the USBC in the 2010-2011 season.

Bowling boomed following the invention of the automatic pin setter in the early 1950s. By the mid-1960s, approximately 12,000 bowling centers had been built in mostly blue-collar, urban areas of the United States. Due to demographic and lifestyle changes, however, the bowling market collapsed during the 1970s. In 1998 there were only 6,542 certified bowling centers in the United States, the lowest total since 1954. In response, the bowling industry tried to redefine its image, with the hopes of attracting the affluent middle class and their children. By the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, new centers had been built in better market locations with state-of-the art facilities. Operators renovated their existing centers to include computerized scoring, upscale dining, entertainment, and special services like cosmic bowling. Nonetheless, the number of bowling centers continued to decline slowly. By 2011 the number of USBC-certified bowling centers had declined to approximately 5,160 offering a total of 107,898 certified lanes.

Organization and Structure

Many forms of bowling exist, but tenpins is the most widely played version in the United States and throughout most of the world. According to rules specified by the USBC, tenpin bowling is played indoors with 15-inch pins arranged in a triangle at the end of a wooden or synthetic lane. The game consists of 10 frames with two rolls of the ball per frame. The goal is to knock down all 10 pins with the first ball, which earns a strike. If pins are left standing after the first roll, the fallen pins are removed and a second delivery attempted. Knocking over all the remaining pins earns a spare. A perfect game totals a score of 300 and consists of 12 strikes in a row (two additional rolls are granted on the final frame).

The traditional strength of the bowling center industry is its highly organized, competitive league structure. Men's and women's leagues consist of teams with up to five players each. The total number of teams per league depends on the number of lanes per bowling center. Bowling associations, such as the National Bowing Association, determine the rules of league play. They also handle the prize money collected from bowlers' entry fees.

Most bowling alleys rely on the steady revenue of league bowling instead of walk-in traffic. Approximately two-thirds of revenues come from bowling fees, so it is critical for centers to attract large numbers of customers to their lanes. Demographic and lifestyle changes triggered a decline in bowling leagues in the late twentieth century. In response, some operators instituted flexible leagues, while others shortened their seasons to 20 weeks, or offered league play every other week.

Background and Development

The modern game of bowling probably originated in ancient Germany as a religious ceremony. As early as the third or fourth century, most Germans had kegels, or clubs, that they used for both sport and self-defense. Some Germans would take their kegels to church in an attempt to rid themselves of sin. They would place the kegels at the end of a long lane, similar to the modern bowling alley, and roll a stone toward them. If the kegels were knocked over, the owners were absolved of sin.

Dutch settlers brought ninepin bowling to the United States in the seventeenth century. The game quickly grew in popularity but was soon taken over by gambling interests. Gambling's hold on bowling was so strong that some states outlawed the game altogether. Some sources claim that the tenth pin was added to the game in the early eighteenth century to circumvent the prohibition of bowling, which applied only to the ninepin game.

The popularity of tenpin bowling spread as German immigrants moved to Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Detroit. However, the lack of uniform rules and equipment stunted the development of the sport. In 1875, intending to establish standardized rules and regulations, nine bowling clubs in New York City and Brooklyn organized the National Bowling Association.

Despite this initial attempt, disagreement over game rules persisted. In 1895 a second group, the American Bowling Congress (ABC), was organized in New York City. The ABC established standard regulations and became the governing body for men's bowling, sponsoring its first national tournament in 1901.

The ABC's counterpart, the Women's International Bowling Congress, was founded in 1916 and began its annual national championship in 1917. Although they remained separate organizations, the two groups shared equipment testing and research facilities. In an attempt to attract a younger audience, the Young American Bowling Alliance was established in 1982. This group worked with bowlers from childhood through college age. All three organizations served about 4.5 million members altogether. On January 1, 2005, the American Bowling Congress, the Women's International Bowling Congress, the Young American Bowling Alliance, and USA Bowling merged to create the United States Bowling Congress.

The invention of the automatic pin setter in the early 1950s revolutionized bowling and acted as a catalyst for the growth of alleys and league play. Between 1955 and 1963, the number of bowling alleys in the United States grew from 6,600 to 11,000, while the number of organized league bowlers jumped from less than 3 million to 7 million.

During the same period, the Professional Bowlers Association of America (PBA) was established. Similar to the Professional Golfers Association, the PBA quickly developed a star system complete with professional tournaments. With the advent of television, PBA members became household names and earned millions in prize money.

Following its boom in the 1950s and 1960s, bowling centers were overbuilt in the 1970s. During the same period, bowling's primary clientele--blue-collar workers--moved from the inner city to the suburbs. While demographics and lifestyles changed, the industry failed to adapt.

Since the late 1970s, the bowling industry has participated in a collective reconstruction and repositioning campaign. Many operators shut their inner-city facilities while renovating suburban locations. Companies invested in computerized lane operations and added other recreational activities and eating establishments, turning bowling alleys into entertainment centers. One consequence of this regeneration was the demise of small, family-owned bowling alleys, especially those located in inner cities.

Despite a 25 percent drop in league bowling from 1980 to 1987, bowling remained one of the largest indoor participation sports in the United States in the early 1990s. However, the growth of the industry continued to be slow. In 1998 the total membership in the American Bowling Congress, Women's International Bowling Congress, and Young American Bowling Alliance decreased 5.7 percent, the twenty-second consecutive year it had decreased. A 28 percent decline was recorded in "frequency" of play since 1987.

The income level of bowlers gradually increased and most bowlers were male. Between 1987 and 1995, the number of male bowlers grew 13 percent, accounting for about 53 percent of the total, while the number of female bowlers increased only 8 percent. In addition, the number of bowlers with an annual household income above $50,000 increased 52 percent over the same time, while those with incomes under $25,000 fell 15 percent.

Despite downward trends in the industry through the mid-1990s, some analysts saw signs of a comeback. In 1998 bowling manufacturers' sales were up an average of 3 to 5 percent. To take advantage of this trend, bowling center operators continued to diversify their image by renovating their alleys into entertainment centers and marketing to upscale adults, as well as their children. Operators began to attract younger customers by including video games in their centers and promoting programs like "rock and roll bowling" and Brunswick Corp.'s Cosmic Bowling, which integrated music, laser lights, and fog machines. In 1998 teenagers accounted for only 15.9 percent of current bowlers. For small children, bowling operators began offering "bumper bowling," in which the gutters were filled with plastic tubes to keep balls on the lane. In 1996 American Recreation Centers introduced the "family entertainment center" concept with Fun Fest, a 49,000-square-foot facility in Addison, Texas. Many bowling proprietors viewed this kind of facility as the prototype for the future of the industry.

In 2005 the industry included 6,369 certified bowling centers, with a workforce of 80,272 people and a combined $2.7 billion in revenue. A bowling center employed an average of 13 people. Bowling centers were the largest industry sector, numbering 3,283 and representing more than 50 percent of the market. Centers boasted estimated revenues of $1.1 billion for 2005. Tenpin centers numbered 3,023, accounting for nearly 48 percent of the market. This sector generated nearly $1.2 billion in revenue, employing 31,235 people. In the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, the U.S. bowling center industry was highly fragmented. At that time, approximately 5,000 bowling centers were owned by single-center and small-chain operators. Of those, about 2,000 had 24 or more lanes.

Although the total number of bowling centers had decreased slightly since the mid-1990s, the popularity of bowling had not slowed, according to the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA). The NSGA's annual sports participation survey found that bowling grew 3.5 percent in 2005 to 45.4 million participants. Bowling placed fifth of 41 sports-related activities, based on of a survey released in May 2006. The NSGA found that Americans spent $183.5 million on bowling-related equipment in 2005, representing an increase from $181.6 million in 2004.

The bowling industry did its best to survive during the economic recession at the end of the first decade of the 2000s. The number of league bowlers continued to gradually decline annually. However, those centers that had successfully transformed themselves into family entertainment centers were reporting increasing business among families, youth, and children. Bookings for birthday parties, youth groups, school events, college clubs, and even corporate events were creative ways that bowling centers were luring customers to their facilities. As a result, although league bowling continued to ebb, recreational bowling was keeping the sport alive.

Current Conditions

In 2011 the U.S. bowling industry employed approximately 78,058 people who together earned a payroll of about $985 million. The states with the most centers included New York, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. About 70 percent of establishments in this industry were small, employing fewer than 20 people. According to IBISWorld, this was a $3 billion industry in 2011, although it had experienced an annual decline of about 3 percent between 2006 and 2011. The future of the industry hinged on the popularity of league play, according to the IBISWorld report. "Savvy bowling alley companies need to get the league tournament players back for the recreational players to follow." The Professional Bowlers Association, however, predicted that getting youth involved was key, and that this was occurring in the early 2010s. According to an October 2011 press release, "As of 2010 high school bowling has seen double-digit growth in five of its last eight seasons, and the number of varsity bowlers has more than doubled within the past decade." In 2010, 47 states recognized bowling as a high school varsity or club sport, up from 20 states in 2002.

One of the ways bowling centers were attempting to attract more business in the early 2010s was by looking to niche markets of upscale or party bowlers. For example, Brooklyn's Lucky Strike boasted a dress code and a VIP room with four separate lanes. Its Web site advertised the venue as a "unique entertainment bar and restaurant that provides bowling lanes wrapped in a stimulating atmosphere of art, music, and an energetic crowd," and even promoted the idea that "bowling [is] optional." Brooklyn Bowl offered a digital scoring system, eight HD televisions, and a live music stage with a dance bar upstairs. Other venues were built or revamped to be inviting to the college-age crowd as a place to gather. Increasingly, providing a quality bowling experience was becoming secondary to creating the right environment.

Industry Leaders

With annual revenues of more than $650 million, AMF Bowling Centers Inc. was the world's largest owner and operator of bowling centers during the early 2010s. It was also a leader in the bowling industry consolidation, acquiring Bowling Corp. of America in 1996 and American Recreation Centers Inc. in 1997. In 1998 AMF Bowling Worldwide owned and operated 490 bowling centers, with more than 100 in the United States. It also was buying more of them, at a rate of 13 a month. After aggressively researching new prototype designs for its centers, AMF conducted a $1.6 million renovation job at its East Meadow Bowl on Long Island. The establishment included an AMF automated scoring system, an updated color scheme, and a 20-foot outdoor sign. Another AMF project was a $10 million recreational complex in Franklin, New Jersey. This property included a bowling center, movie house with 10 screens, a video arcade, a billiard parlor, and a restaurant. AMF Bowling Worldwide conducted approximately 60 percent of its business in 70 international markets. This rapid expansion led to cash flow problems in a declining market, and in 2001 AMF filed bankruptcy. After emerging from Chapter 11, in 2004 the company was acquired by a private equity company. In 2005 AMF and its parent company, Worldwide, entered into a joint venture with Italian-based Qubica to form QubicaAMF Worldwide, LLC, which offered a wide range of bowling equipment and supplies.

In 2008 Brunswick Recreation Centers owned and operated 104 bowling centers, of which 45 had been built or modernized as "Brunswick Zones' that offered an array of family-oriented entertainment. There were 11 extra-large Brunswick Zones that were about 50 percent larger and offered even more entertainment options. To cut costs, by the end of the first decade of the 2000s, Brunswick had moved the manufacturing of its bowling products from U.S. plants to Mexico or other outsourced locations. Brunswick introduced Glow-in-the-Dark Cosmic Bowling in the mid-1990s, which increased open play revenues at more than 20 of its locations. In 1996 Brunswick began offering Cosmic Bowling to other proprietors. Brunswick Corp. was also a major manufacturer of bowling equipment, from balls and bags to computerized scoring systems and pin setters. Brunswick Corp. also manufactured fitness equipment, camping and fishing equipment, boats, marine engines, and bicycles. Brunswick's bowling and billiards business segment (the company was also heavy vested in marine products) posted revenues of $443.8 million in 2008.

America and the World

The modern game of tenpin bowling became popular in Great Britain during World War II, when lanes were installed on U.S. military bases. Since that time the business of bowling in Great Britain followed its U.S. counterpart, peaking in the 1960s and decreasing continuously ever since. However, British companies, such as First Leisure Corporation, were so successful in shedding the poor image of bowling that U.S. operators toured facilities in Great Britain for ideas. At the end of the first decade of the 2000s, Tenpin was the United Kingdom's largest provider of bowling centers, with 38 bowling facilities and family entertainment centers around the country. Tenpin's facilities offered cosmic bowling, billiards, skysports, dining, and birthday parties packages.

Bowling also became popular in Asian countries, including Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia. The Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) expanded its international presence when it held the first Korea Cup in Seoul in 1996. The event grew over the years to be similar in popularity to the Oronamin C Japan Cup, which has had a successful annual run since the mid-1980s. The PBA also planned to expand into other international markets.

The Japan Bowling Congress, established during the 1964 Summer Olympics, is the major sanctioning body for tenpin bowling in Japan, where the sport has found some popularity. The JBC sponsors tournaments and events for amateur bowlers. Professional bowling events are organized through the Japan Professional Bowling Association, the Asian Bowling Federation, the World Tenpin Bowling Association, and the International Bowling Federation. Japan boasts some massive bowling centers with over 100 lanes, sometimes on multiple levels.

Research and Technology

Although technological innovations affected all aspects of bowling, some of the most dramatic changes occurred in the makeup and design of bowling balls and alleys. Wooden lanes were replaced with synthetic lane surfaces, which were designed to look like wood but provided a much more consistent plane and required much less oil. In addition, in the 1970s, the oil had been sprayed on manually, usually unevenly, but by the 2010s the oil was being sprayed on by machines in a smooth, even coat, creating a more consistent path for the ball. Balls commonly found in bowling alleys remained solid plastic, but professional bowlers use multilayered balls made of reactive resin, which have the ability to grab the lanes through the layer of oil and provide a much stronger and more consistent roll into the pins. Technology had raised scores so dramatically over the course of the last 40 years that in April 2009 the USBC set precision limits on how porous the cover of bowling balls could be, creating a standard for how well the ball holds the lane.

Another major change in bowling over the years has been in scoring technology. Traditionally, bowling was scored with a pencil on large sheets of paper with boxes for each frame and lines for each player. By the end of the first decade of the 2000s, scoring had gone high-tech. Touch-screen computers were installed at each lane, and overhead screens showed not only scores but also remaining pins, ball speed, and an array of 3D entertaining graphics and animations.

© COPYRIGHT 2018 The Gale Group, Inc. This material is published under license from the publisher through the Gale Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan. All inquiries regarding rights should be directed to the Gale Group. For permission to reuse this article, contact the Copyright Clearance Center.

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