Nostalgia

America's Vanishing Bowling Alleys


America's Vanishing Bowling Alleys

Photograph by Michelle Pedone/Getty Images

New York City’s Bowlmor Lanes opened in 1938 in the neighborhood south of Union Square and closed for good on Monday night after its landlord decided not to extend its lease. Patrons will miss the historical charm of the city’s oldest alley and the Bowlmor brand’s modern take on the activity, which includes disco lights, a menu by chef David Burke, and pricey cocktails. Given trends in the sport—OK, recreational activity—it’s less remarkable that the alley is closing than that it managed to survive so long.

The U.S. had 4,061 bowling centers in 2012, down 25 percent from 1998, the earliest year for which the U.S. Census collected consistent data. But the decline of the bowling alley probably started a lot earlier. The U.S. added 2,000 bowling alleys between the end of World War II and 1958, when the American Society of Planning Officials reported that “the bowling alley is fast becoming one of the most important—if not the most important—local center of participant sport and recreation.” (The growth spurt included a two-lane alley installed in the White House in 1947.)

In those days, bowling was a social imperative for many Americans, says Marcel Fournier, who owned a string of bowling centers in western New York State starting in the 1960s. “The bowling alley was the blue-collar country club,” he says, and most of his business came from people competing in weekly leagues. As the workforce changed and access to other recreational activities expanded, interest in bowling leagues waned.

The number of Americans who bowled increased 10 percent from 1980 to 1993, but those who belonged to leagues declined 40 percent. That made a convenient metaphor for the political scientist Robert Putnam, whose 2000 book Bowling Alone tracked American’s dwindling civic engagement.

For alley owners, the implications were more immediate: League members paid for lane time week after week. Occasional bowlers brought in less money over the long haul. By the late 1990s, alley owners began to reconceive their businesses as family entertainment centers. That meant improving food and drink offerings, says Fournier, who now works as a bowling center broker. Also: tearing out lanes to add other amusements, including indoor go-kart tracks, laser tag games, and rock-climbing walls.

Bowlmor’s chief executive, Tom Shannon, who bought the now-shuttered alley in 1997, was an early player in moving bowling upscale. “When you went bowing 15, 17 years ago, you had to suffer some sort of deprivation, whether it was the greasy hotdog on the roller or stale beer,” Shannon told Bloomberg Television’s Pimm Fox last month. “What we wanted to do was allow any user, an upscale user, to come in and enjoy the sport of bowling but not have to suffer that deprivation.”

Don’t cry for Shannon. Last summer, he merged his company with the world’s largest bowling operator, AMF Bowling Worldwide, which had fallen on hard times. The combined company, which Shannon heads, runs hundreds of bowling centers. Its latest concept ”takes all the best elements of Bowlmor—upscale, nice, fun—and makes it hipper,” Shannon told Bloomberg Television. “It’s sort of the next version of bowling.” And one that may take bowling even farther from its working-class roots.

Clark is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek covering small business and entrepreneurship.

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