Could Bowling At Walmart Be In Our Future?

by Dave Williams

An interesting and lengthy article by David Garrick caught my eye in a July issue of the San Diego Union-Tribune, and I began to wonder if perhaps the integers of bowling should focus more on the individual aspects of bowling, rather than team play. The article focused on the obvious: league bowling continues to “dry up,” as land values soar.

Numerous tired and cliche comments regarding “bowling alleys” were mentioned in the article, including many that you will immediately recognize:

  1. Bowling centers can’t generate the same tax revenue as Walmart or Home Depot
  2. Ditto with apartments or condos, which provide more revenue to local government
  3. League bowling has been in decline for more than 45 years (peaked in 1975)
  4. Young bowlers do not want to join leagues (at least in the form currently offered)
  5. There has been a national switch from league bowling to recreational bowling

However, what the article fails to convey is that a lifestyle change is at the heart of league bowling loss of membership. In 1975, league bowling was a part of everyone’s life. Popular shows on television, such as Laverne & Shirley, wove many episodes around bowling (remember the Pizza Bowl?). The question was not if you were going to bowl, but what night you and your friends planned upon participating in a league.

The 84 lane Satellite Bowl in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, was demolished to make room for a new Home Depot in 1994.

“It seems like young people don’t want to be committed to anything,” said Jim Decker, president of the Bowling Proprietors Association of America (BPAA), and owner of Double Decker Lanes in Rohnert Park, California. Decker goes on to say that he sees more people bowling than ever, but they just don’t want to join a league. “People are bowling less regularly than the league bowler of the past, and those less predictable patterns create staffing and other issues for proprietors.”

It was at about this point in reviewing the article that I suddenly realized that perhaps the bowling industry should embrace the individual aspect of the game. When I was young, the opportunity to bowl without a team was a plus. I remember as a child spending hours at our local bowling facility during the summer months, just practicing on my own without the need for a team of players.

Robert Putnam, in his now famous book, Bowling Alone, summarizes that all forms of social interaction upon which the public used to educate and enrich the fabric of their lives have been reduced. This really hit home for me today, as I was standing in line at a Starbuck’s in a local shopping mall, and everyone (including me) had their eyes fixated upon their cell phone while waiting for the opportunity to place an order for a $5 coffee concoction! The bowling industry, in my opinion, needs to embrace this new phenomenon of the individual, in addition to a team or league structure.

Pro 300 Lanes in Portland, Oregon, closed in 2017, and is now occupied by Target Stores. The storied building was saved, and features underground parking – a definite plus in this “waterlogged” city.

Tony Cerrato, one of the most innovative proprietors that I have ever known, used his background in teaching high school to launch a very successful “second career” in bowling. One of his most unique promotions involved individual bowlers. Because the bowling center was located in a densely populated area of New Jersey, he did not discourage individuals from bowling, but made it clear that when the center was full, and no lanes were available for open bowling, he had the right to add bowlers to their lane, up to a maximum of 6 players.

While this might sound like a nightmare scenario to many of you, it was actually an opportunity for individual players and couples to “strike” up new relationships and formulate teams of players for future bowling visits! “Bowling Alone,” in the case of Cerrato’s promotion, became “Bowling With Many,” and Putnam’s declining social capital was reversed. In fact, the Cerrato idea could easily be used to address less formal recreational bowling, with an eye on developing more teams.

The San Diego Union-Tribune article goes on to describe the square footage required to operate a bowling center, which ultimately leads to a takeover involving a more profitable big box retailer like Walmart, Target or Home Depot. “The industry has started to meet the demand in new ways,” states Garrick. “Several smaller bowling venues have located inside of restaurants or other businesses, including Break Point in Pacific Beach, Urge Gastropub in San Marcos, and two venues in downtown San Diego: East Village Tavern & Bowl, and Punchbowl Social.”

I wonder if anyone has ever talked to Walmart, Target or Home Depot about constructing  bowling lanes beneath, within or above their big box store? Individuals, spouses and children could enjoy a ten pin foray while their significant others contribute to the city tax revenues — the best of both worlds! Doug McMillon, Brian Cornell or Bernie Marcus… are you listening?