Did Slow Bowling Destroy League Bowling?

by Dave Williams

One of the items that I always enjoy reviewing each week in the California Bowling News is the “Pages from the Past” offered by Carol Mancini. The most recent offering in the May 10th issue featured part two of the year 1982.

While the 1970’s and 1980’s were my heyday in bowling, 1982 was a difficult year for me on the bowling participation front, because I had just moved to AMF’s World Headquarters in New York. The bowling year had already begun and I could not find a league to join! Hard to believe today, but in 1982 all of the lanes were full, and if you didn’t join a league in September, it was virtually impossible to find a spot.

On Long Island, an area to the east of New York City, and including the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn, there were close to 100 bowling centers, and over 67,000 male league bowlers.

And yet, no league openings! Thankfully I had managed to log 21 games in a league at AMF All Star Lanes in Skokie, Illinois, before moving to the Big Apple, so I was eligible for tournament bowling with a 229 standard.

Going into the review of 1982, I knew that I would not be reading about any 300’s or 800’s by yours truly, but it’s still enjoyable to spot names and locations and reminisce about the good old days.

After reading about Helen Duval (300 game at age 66) and Don Johnson (22 strikes in a row, but no 300), I spotted a blurb about slow bowling. “Officials (ABC, State and Local) were all trying to find the solution to slow bowling. The big complaint was that 6 o’clock leagues were not getting off the lanes for the 9 o’clock leagues.”

That blurb reminded me that one of the first committees that Woody

PBA Hall of Famer Barry Asher, with 10 PBA titles, was the original “slow bowler” on the tour, and had difficulty getting started in his approach during televised matches. (photo courtesy of Professional Bowlers Association, LLC)

Woodruff asked me to join upon my advancement to AMF in Westbury, New York, was the Pace of Bowling Committee. Because I was one of the only league bowlers in the “carpet section” of AMF Headquarters, I soon became a member of many committees designed to enhance the game of bowling.

A quick trip to my mini-storage warehouse archives to locate a Pace of Bowling folder netted nothing. It’s true that while I am not a hoarder, I do have a problem throwing away paper (files, clippings, brochures, etc.). So while I’m sure that I have that folder somewhere, I will try to remember as much as possible from memory for the purposes of this column.

The Pace of Bowling committee, headed by Pete Santora of Fairlanes (one of the truly great men in bowling, who passed away in 2012), was charged with different ways to address the problem of slow bowling. Fairlanes took mechanical methods as a potential means to speed up the game, while AMF and Bowling Corporation of America (BCA) chose league starting times as an option.

It’s interesting to note that while the American Bowling Congress did not adopt the mechanical solutions provided by Fairlanes, including a 30 second time clock light, the Professional Bowlers Association did adopt those policies for slow bowlers on the tour telecasts.

In terms of league starting times, AMF and BCA gave this a very strong effort over the course of many years. By process of elimination we found that 5:30PM and 8:00PM were the ideal starting times for “leaguers,” with four-member teams at 5:30PM and four or five-member teams at 8:00PM.

Did it work? Not really. With the exception of some bowling centers in the southern United States, the leagues were just too territorial about their time slot, and eventually went back to the traditional 6:30PM start. The result was a gradual decaying of 9:00PM leagues, until we wound up with our current situation which generally consists of one shift of leagues on Sunday through Thursday evenings, with Friday and Saturday reserved for the more lucrative casual “open play” bowlers.

For those of you that are old enough to remember, league bowling was once promoted as a “one shift” circumstance, with leagues beginning at 7:30PM. Because of the popularity of bowling in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the demand necessitated the change from 7:30PM to 6:30PM, to allow for a 9:00PM shift.

Another critical factor in all of this was a change in American lifestyles, when working hours were becoming progressively more early, to the detriment of 9:00PM leagues. But slow bowling was certainly a factor, as well as DUI enforcement.

There are exceptions to every rule, especially in areas with a high density of bowlers as a ratio to the number of lane beds. The aforementioned AMF All Star Lanes, just a few miles north of Wrigley Field and the Chicago city limits, was a case in point. A typical evening at AMF All Star, a unique facility that was featured in Life Magazine at their Grand Opening, included 12 bowlers per lane, with 3-member teams at 4:45PM, 4-member teams at 6:30PM, and 5-member teams at 8:45PM.

It’s doubtful that we will ever see a return to the league bowling popularity that peaked in 1975. Perhaps the most critical change in American lifestyles has been the vast amount of options to leisure time activities. When I was a youngster, the bowling center had it all – a place to meet, eat and recreate for all ages. Believe it or not, there were actually more bowling centers (12,000) in the United States in 1975 than there were McDonalds (10,000).

All of these changes in American lifestyles, plus the slow bowling phenomenon, makes Carol Mancini’s answer to the league bowling demise all the more appropriate… “JUST DON’T HAVE ANY LEAGUES!” Hopefully the big bowling operators like Bowlero, Round 1, Punch Bowl and the like will come to understand the importance and profitability of league bowling.