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Upwardly Mobile

By Kayla Ebner

Hana Skirkey says rock climbers are drawn to the sport

Hana Skirkey says rock climbers are drawn to the sport for both the physical challenge and the welcoming community.
Photos by Kayla Ebner

Hana Skirkey says that, increasingly, individuals young and old are looking for outlets that are both mentally and physically challenging — a tough combination to come by.

Perhaps that difficult search for such an activity is why more people are turning to indoor rock climbing as either a fun activity or a competitive sport. It could also be because climbing offers individuals an opportunity to see some incredible places around the world. Or maybe, it’s because of the truly welcoming people that belong to the climbing community.

Skirkey, general manager of Central Rock Gym in Hadley, believes the the answer is, well, all of the above.

“Indoor climbing is great because you can do it in any type of weather, and the community here is amazing,” said Skirkey, who told BusinessWest that the Hadley location is ideally situated in many respects.

For starters, it’s within a few hours — or even a few minutes — of some challenging and thus popular climbing spots. Meanwhile, it’s situated in the middle of the Five College area — and perhaps 40,000 college students, who make up a large percentage of the growing climbing community.

Actually, Hadley is the second location for Central Rock Gym, or CRG, as it’s called. The company was founded by brothers Ed and Joe Hardy, who decided to bring their love for climbing to their hometown of Worcester, and opened their first location there in 2009. Hadley followed just two years later.

Today, there are nine CRG locations spread across Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York, and four more locations are set to open very soon. According to CRG’s website, a location in Manhattan will be opening this summer; another Bay State location, in Stoneham, will open in September; and two facilities, in Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y. will be debuting in November. In less than a decade, this business has grown from one facility to 13.

This profound growth reflects the steadily rising popularity of rock climbing — again, as both a recreational activity and competitive sport — in Western Mass. and across the country, for that matter.

The no-harness activity known as boulder-ing gives climbers a different type of experience.

The no-harness activity known as boulder-ing gives climbers a different type of experience.

And the Hadley facility is, in essence, a microcosm of this phenomenon, said Skirkey, referencing everything from the wide age disparity of CRG members — they range from 3 to 90 or so — to the way families are embracing the sport as a unit.

For this issue and its focus on sports and recreation, BusinessWest talked with Skirkey at length about rock climbing, CRG and its Hadley facility, and why the climbing community continues its torrid pace of growth.

Scaling Up the Business

Located at 165 Russell St., CRG’s Hadley facility is a short drive from some of the top climbing destinations in this region, including the White Mountains, making it the perfect spot for outdoor adventurers to train and have fun. There are also many local crags in the Western Mass. area, including Chapel Ledge in Ashfield, Mormon Hollow in Wendell State Forest, and the Skinner area in Hadley.

“There’s a lot of outdoor climbing specifically in Western Mass. compared to other parts of the state,” said Skirkey, who has enjoyed climbing for most of her life.

She graduated from UMass Amherst in 2010 and was the president of the UMass Outing Club (UMOC) where she enjoyed “fun — what some people call crazy — activities” with friends who had the same interest and excitement as she did for various outdoor hobbies. UMOC is a UMass Amherst registered student organization that organizes outdoor trips to both local and distant areas, taking part in activities such as hiking, rock climbing, cross-country skiing, and everything in between. Aside from being the president, Skirkey was also a hiking/backpacking and whitewater kayaking leader for UMOC.

Although she never imagined herself being a climbing-gym manager, Skirkey knew she wanted to be somewhere with like-minded individuals who enjoy being active as much as she does. And CRG is the perfect fit.

“It’s not a normal office job,” she said. “Being a part of the community is great here.”

A passion for those ‘crazy’ activities is one of the things Skirkey loves about the outdoor community. Making friends is easy, she explained, when everyone in a community loves to do a specific thing together — in this case, indoor rock climbing.

After graduation, Skirkey heard the gym was opening a location in Hadley, so she applied. She got a job as a desk staff member, and a year later moved on to assistant manager. She continued to climb — literally and figuratively — and eventually became general manager at Central Rock’s Hadley location.

Climbers prepare to scale the high walls at Central Rock Gym.

Climbers prepare to scale the high walls at Central Rock Gym.

As noted earlier, Skirkey is not the only college student drawn to the gym’s facilities. Students from the Five Colleges — UMass Amherst, Smith College, Amherst College, Hampshire College, and Mount Holyoke College — and many more schools in the Western Mass. area visit CRG to climb. Skirkey said she also sees students from Springfield College visiting the facility.

She noted that people who enjoy outdoor climbing come to CRG to train indoors on days and seasons when outdoor climbing is not feasible because the rocks get wet, or it’s just too cold outside.

“We’re between two and three-ish hours from other, bigger destinations, and then we also have a bunch of local crags people can go out to,” she explained.

CRG upgraded its Hadley location in December 2017. The original 12,400-square-foot facility was expanded to 26,000 square feet. This expansion added 8,000 square feet of climbing surface, 200 linear feet of new bouldering walls, and 24 top-rope stations on a new climbing-wall product. An additional 80 parking spaces were also created. The project expanded the fitness room to 2,100 square feet and nearly tripled the size of the yoga room, extending it to 900 square feet.

CRG holds daily fitness and yoga classes, Skirkey explained, adding that the expansion has brought a new level of service to the membership and guests they bring — and helped increase the ranks of both.

“We just felt like we were in this bubble that we needed to help grow,” she said. “People love bringing their friends here; it’s really nice to be able to accommodate that just a little bit better now.”

When planning the expansion, CRG looked at the busiest areas of the gym, as well as what needed to be improved in terms of spacing. Bouldering is a popular climbing activity that needs a quicker turnover rate, said Skirkey. There are several other types of climbing that a person at any skill level can do when visiting CRG.

Ascending Order

Skirkey described CRG as a very welcoming and community-oriented company, and noted that one of the most common things she hears in reviews is how friendly the staff is. No matter what age or skill level, anyone who walks through the doors is welcomed with open arms.

“It’s really easy to get into it and feel welcomed,” said Skirkey. “I don’t think you get that with most gyms.”

This welcoming effect has contributed to the growth of membership and the wide diversity within it, she noted, adding that the gym’s youngest climbing club ranges from ages 3 to 6 years old. Skirkey also noted that families often come in to enjoy climbing together, a much different family activity than most experiences.

Aside from the standard membership, which costs $85 a month, CRG also has a family plan for these families who love climbing together. The membership includes two people who are engaged or married, or two parents and their dependent children, for $125 a month. Those who want to add additional family members can do so for $30 a month.

Skirkey believes that climbing can help family members bond with each other.

“It’s nice for parents, too, because they can do something active with their kids,” she noted. “Especially for young kids, it’s critical to get into something that makes them feel strong. I think that’s really important for development.”

Climbers have two main options at CRG: bouldering and what’s known as top roping. Bouldering is climbing that a person can undertake after a brief orientation given by a staff member. This specific type of climbing is a free climb on a wall about 15 feet tall.

A renovation completed last year added 8,000 square feet of climbing surface

A renovation completed last year added 8,000 square feet of climbing surface to Central Rock Gym’s Hadley facility.

The other climb, top roping, is highly recommended for those who are new to the sport. Here, the climber is tied onto one end of the rope, and a supporting climber, known as a belayer, is connected to the other side, making sure the rope stays tight so the climber does not fall.

In order to start top roping at CRG, climbers must take a one-hour introductory class to learn how to belay properly. If a person is not interested in learning how to belay, they can schedule a staff belay in which the staff member belays while the customer climbs. In order to belay, a climber must be 13 years or older.

The intro belay class is $20 per person but free for members, and typically lasts between an hour and 90 minutes. During this class, the climber will learn knots, the belay process, and safety procedures practiced at CRG. The staff belay costs $30 an hour per climber. Both the intro belay class and the staff belay require reservations and are only offered at certain times during the week.

“I would say that roped climbing is a bit more beginner-friendly than bouldering is,” said Skirkey. “You’ve got a staff person when you do staff belay, and you’ve got a rope to catch you when you fall. The way that bouldering is … the type of movements are usually a bit more power-oriented.”

There are, of course, varying skill levels of climbing, and some people coming in are going to be far more advanced than others. CRG offers many options for beginners to help them adjust and start their climbing journey, and also has state-of-the-art facilities for more advanced climbers. Aside from the intro and staff belay classes, customers can also schedule a private lesson with a staff member to help them learn the ins and outs of climbing one-on-one. In the “Technique 101” class, climbers who are interested in learning some basic tips can sign up to improve their climbing skills.

Members ages 6 to 18 at Central Rock Gym may also form both competitive and non-competitive climbing teams to help gear up for competitions, or just for fun. In the past, CRG has sent several members to the Nationals run by USA Climbing. Skirkey says members have done exceptionally well at these competitions, and have even placed in third and sixth place. This year, the gym has six kids going to Nationals.

CRG offers plenty of options for climbers of different skill levels. The gym also offers day passes and discounted memberships for climbers 22 and under or 65 and older, and active military members.

Another characteristic that helps CRG stand out from other climbing gyms is the cleanliness and openness of the building itself, Skirkey said. Climbers will use chalk on their hands to help their grip as they climb the walls, and things can get dirty quickly.

“We dedicate a lot of our time to cleaning and making sure the facility has clean air to breathe and nice lighting,” she said. “A lot of climbing gyms can feel like dungeons.”

But not Central Rock Gym. Each facility, including the one in Hadley, has large glass windows that let in plenty of natural light, making the experience for climbers even more enjoyable.

She noted that CRG even connects people who do different outdoor activities. Sometimes, people who enjoy mountain biking or hiking will come in wanting to try climbing, and end up expanding their circle of friends. CRG is definitely a place that attracts the outdoorsy type, she added.

Due to the rising popularity, Skirkey recommends making a reservation, especially if a person lives far away from the gym.

Reaching New Heights

Summing up the many rewards offered by climbing, Skirkey said that, for those dedicated to this sport, it’s not all about getting to the top, although that’s a big part of it.

It’s also about the journey. Indeed, figuring out how to make your way to the top, step by step, is the best part, she told BusinessWest.

“I love it because it’s fun to try to figure out how to finish a climb and challenge yourself both mentally and physically,” she added.

From her perspective, those twin challenges go a long way toward explaining the growing popularity of climbing and the upward trajectory of CRG and especially its Hadley location.

And the best part is, they can both go much higher still.

Sections Sports & Leisure

Game On

Dr. Scott Cooper, one of PSSP’s managing partners

Dr. Scott Cooper, one of PSSP’s managing partners

No one is totally immune from a sports injury, from kids on the playground to serious college athletes to ‘weekend warriors’ in middle age. Treating those injuries — and helping reduce the risk of sustaining them — is one of the key niches of Pioneer Spine & Sports Physicians, which has been helping patients return to full function for more than a quarter-century.

No one is totally immune from a sports injury, from kids on the playground to serious college athletes to ‘weekend warriors’ in middle age. Treating those injuries — and helping reduce the risk of sustaining them — is one of the key niches of Pioneer Spine & Sports Physicians, which has been helping patients return to full function for more than a quarter-century.

The first weeks of spring — not spring in name only, like the bouts of snow and 20-degree weather that dotted late March and early April this year, but actual spring weather — typically send weekend warriors, after a long winter indoors, scurrying for their golf clubs and tennis rackets.

And sometimes, they’re a little too enthusiastic.

“We see a lot of that this time of year — golfers getting the clubs out, only to develop back pain. But we also see hockey players from the over-40 league come in with all kinds of injuries,” said Dr. Scott Cooper, one of the managing partners of Pioneer Spine and Sports Physicians (PSSP), the largest private physiatry practice in the Northeast.

“I had one guy who was probably in his mid-50s, and he had recurrent tennis elbow, and I could not get him to stay off the court,” Cooper told BusinessWest. “I treated him for probably six months for tennis elbow, and I don’t think he ever missed a match — whereas, if he was on a team, I could tell his coach, and his coach would say, ‘you’re going to sit out two weeks until this thing clears up.’ Sometimes the weekend warriors can be determined.”

Cooper and his team should know, seeing a broad range of patients every day, from high-school and college athletes nursing knee and shoulder injuries to the inpatient clients PSSP manages in acute-care settings like Weldon Rehabilitation Hospital and Bronson Rehabilitation, recovering from spinal-cord injuries, neurologic conditions, and amputations.

Physiatry, also known as physical medicine and rehabilitation, is a specific type of practice, he explained, but one with a wide range of applications.

“One of the nice things about physiatry is it’s a very broad specialty, and one of our primary goals is to provide state-of-the-art care in all facets of physiatry,” Cooper explained.

That includes the acute rehab setting at Weldon and Bronson, where Pioneer treats people who have conditions that cause a loss of function, so they can’t return home, but no longer need to be in a medical/surgical unit of the hospital.

“These are people who have had strokes, for example, or spinal-cord injuries or head injuries or complex medical conditions or amputations or other neurologic conditions like multiple sclerosis or ALS — things that cause them to lose function, but they’re now medically stable so they can tolerate rehabilitation.

“We manage those patients, and we’re also involved in pain management, both acute pain and chronic pain, in all our offices,” he added, adding that the practice’s physiatrists also deal with spinal conditions, back pain, herniated disks, pinched nerves, and much more. “We have procedure suites in most of our offices where we can do X-ray guided procedures on people’s spinal conditions, and we are also involved with the Surgery Center of New England; we do procedures there that are not office-based, things that are a little bit more invasive and require anesthesia.”

In short, it’s a one-stop shop for a host of conditions, with one goal in mind — to return patients to the highest function possible — in both their work and play.

The Sporting Life

That ‘play’ factor — sports medicine — is a niche PSSP is well-known for, and around 90% of sports injuries require no surgery at all, Cooper noted.

“If they do require surgical treatment, we work closely with some of the orthopedists in the area who provide those services. But for the other conditions, we’re able to treat them very effectively, and we do that with a lot of recreational athletes, weekend warriors, and we also work with several of the high schools in the area.”

PSSP’s West Springfield location is one of seven offices spanning the Pioneer Valley from East Longmeadow to Brattleboro.

PSSP’s West Springfield location is one of seven offices spanning the Pioneer Valley from East Longmeadow to Brattleboro.

Pioneer also provides team doctors for area colleges including Springfield College, American International College, and Westfield State University, both during and between games.

“For example, hockey and football are the two main ones where they need to have someone on the sidelines according to the rules of their conference, so we provide game coverage in case of an injury during the game,” he explained. Meanwhile, if an athlete is injured in practice, they’re seen in a PSSP office as soon as possible.

“We recognize that one tenet of physiatry is quick return to function,” he said. “So we focus on getting athletes in quickly, diagnosing their condition, treating them, and returning them to the field as quickly as is safe.”

They take the same approach to occupational medicine, working with client businesses — Pioneer has a therapist at MassMutual full-time, for example — on job-site injury prevention and treatment. “We focus on them just the same way we focus on athletes — get them in quickly, diagnose their condition, determine what they can and can’t do in a rapid manner, and treat them comprehensively so they can return to full function.”

While about 70% of all occupational injuries involve the spine, that’s not the case with athletes, Cooper noted. “They have a whole different set of issues. The majority of what we see with athletes involve the knee or the shoulder. And most of those we treat non-operatively. We establish a diagnosis, and if that diagnosis requires a surgical evaluation, we facilitate that, and the surgeons we work with are very accommodating and allow us to get that done very quickly.”

Beyond treatment, though, the team at Pioneer emphasizes prevention. As an example, its physical therapists attended an educational program, developed at Syracuse University, that works to prevent ACL injuries in female athletes, who have a much higher predilection to those injuries than men.

“It’s almost an epidemic,” Cooper said. “Some of the reasons are unclear, but female soccer players and lacrosse players, will come in with ACL injuries, and once you have that kind of injury, it can be devastating, and it generally does require surgery, and requires a long course of rehabilitation.

“So this program has been shown to prevent those injuries,” he went on, explaining that Pioneer’s PTs were certified through the week-long course to teach a group of specific exercises to area sports teams, who come in during the preseason for a week of intensive training, and then continue on a regular basis. The exercises focus on stabilizing the knee and have been shown to prevent injuries.

“That’s one way we try to head off injuries and reduce their likelihood,” he added. “Unfortunately, there’s no way to eliminate them.”

No Slowing Down

That goes for young athletes and older weekend warriors, who often arrive at PSSP with a combination of a sports injury and something more degenerative, such as an arthritic condition.

“It’s something they can normally get by with, but if somebody with an arthritic shoulder is doing OK, but he goes and plays some tennis, now he’s got a rotator-cuff problem. The springtime is definitely a big time for those types of injury, but we see them year-round. And sometimes they can be the hardest to treat because these people are very determined to get back out there.”

With America’s senior population surging, Cooper’s team sees patients from that age group as well.

“We’re definitely seeing an older population that is increasingly active, but we encourage that; we want our patients to be active. There’s good data in the medical community that one of the ways to increase longevity and reduce morbidity in the population as a whole is to have an active lifestyle,” he told BusinessWest, adding that one of the mottos in his profession is that “physiatry adds years to life, and life to years.”

“That’s the idea — we want people to stay active, and it almost doesn’t matter what activity; we want them to engage in exercise, and when they do that, they may encounter some injuries and have some problems, and we’re here to address that.”

Because injuries are often an inevitable speed bump in an active lifestyle, he went on, it’s encouraging that treatments have evolved to allow people to return to full activity much sooner than before.

“Injuries that once may have been considered incompatible with continued competition, we now see as being treatable — and treatable with less-invasive means,” he said. “That can be anything from tendinitis to things like arthritis. In fact, arthritis of the knees is something that used to be, ‘you can take Advil, or you can have a knee replacement’; there wasn’t a whole lot else you could do for it.”

Now, however, physiatrists may tackle the issue with anything from orthotics to new types of bracing; from new exercise methods to injections that go far beyond what traditional cortisone could achieve. “So there are definitely more options to treat those conditions with different means that don’t necessaily require surgery, and allow people to be more active.”

It helps, he said, that Pioneer provides a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary, holistic model of care, where physiatrists, physical therapists, and other team members work together and consult with each other on troublesome conditions. If a patient with a spine injury isn’t progressing quickly enough or has too much pain, the providers aren’t afraid to work together to find a solution.

“Basically, anything that’s needed to treat the conditions we treat, we have under one roof,” Cooper said. “We have specialized nerve testing, guys who focus on different areas … we have all kinds of talent and skill to bear.

“I think that really serves to benefit the patient,” he went on, “because they’re not just getting one doctor and one opinion; they’re getting a team approach. I think that is unusual in a private-practice setting, and I think that’s one of the main reasons we’ve been so successful.”

Bottom Line

When asked what he enjoys about his job, Cooper paused for a moment and smiled.

“We think we have the best specialty in the world,” he said. “Whether I’m treating an 80-year-old patient with a stroke or an amputation or I’m treating a 16-year-old with a sports injury, I’m working with people who want to be here, who want to be treated, who have definite goals. And it’s very satisfying when they reach those goals.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Sports & Leisure

Refreshing the Data

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has released a new official statement regarding energy drinks, published in the college’s clinical review journal, Current Sports Medicine Reports. “Energy Drinks: A Contemporary Issues Paper” provides guidance and warnings regarding these beverages because of the dangers they present to at-risk populations, primarily children who are the most vulnerable and the target of marketing efforts.

“Energy drinks are extremely popular, and concerns about their consumption are coming from every sector of society, which is why we’ve published these recommendations,” said Dr. John Higgins. “Our review of the available science showed that excessive levels of caffeine found in energy drinks can have adverse effects on cardiovascular, neurological, gastrointestinal, renal, and endocrine systems, as well as psychiatric symptoms. More needs to be done to protect children and adolescents, as well as adults with cardiovascular or other medical conditions.”

Energy drinks are highly caffeinated beverages that often contain myriad vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and herbal mixtures. As a global authority for sports medicine, exercise science, and the promotion of participant safety, the ACSM is focused on facilitating high performance while protecting those who compete in athletics or engage in other forms of physical activity. By publishing the new recommendations, the ACSM is helping consumers to understand the risks associated with rapid and excessive consumption of energy drinks.

“When used safely and with moderation, energy drinks may have some short-term, performance-enhancing effects. However, users are generally unaware of the many potential adverse reactions that could have long-term effects, some of which are quite serious,” said Higgins. We highly encourage consumers, parents, physicians, athletic trainers, personal trainers, and coaches to follow these recommendations.”

Children and adolescents appear to be at particularly high risk of complications from energy drinks due to their small body size, being relatively caffeine-naive, and potentially heavy and frequent consumption patterns, as well as the amounts of caffeine. The message that these beverages are not intended for children needs to be reinforced and widely disseminated, Higgins said.

At the same time, he added, marketing should not appeal to vulnerable populations. Currently, manufacturers of energy drinks advertise on websites, social media, and television channels that are highly appealing to both children and adolescents. Target marketing to sporting and other events involving children and adolescents should not be permitted.

Regardless of health and fitness level, and until such time that proper safety and efficacy data are available, the ACSM recommends that energy drinks should be avoided before, during, or after strenuous activities. Some of the deaths allegedly due to energy drinks have occurred when a person consumed them before and/or after performing strenuous activities.

Clearly, Higgins notes, investment in awareness and educational resources highlighting the potential adverse effects and safe use of energy drinks is required. Significant efforts should be made to educate consumers regarding the clear and present differences between soda, coffee, sports drinks, and energy drinks. Energy-drink education also should be a priority in school-based curricula related to nutrition, health, and wellness.

The ACSM is calling for a research agenda to prioritize key questions about the acute and chronic effects of energy-drink use. At a minimum, standard safety and efficacy studies should be performed and submitted to the FDA by manufacturers. Well-designed and controlled research is required to examine the increasing frequency of adverse events being reported by emergency departments.

In addition, the organization notes, healthcare providers must talk to their patients about energy-drink use and report adverse events to watchdog agencies like poison-control centers, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the FDA. A national registry should be set up to specifically track energy-drink side effects with mandated reporting requirements.

Among other specific recommendations, the ACSM argues that energy drinks should not be consumed by children or adolescents; should not be consumed by other vulnerable populations, including pregnant or breastfeeding women, caffeine-naive or sensitive individuals, or individuals with cardiovascular or medical conditions; should not be used for sports hydration; should not be mixed with alcohol; and should bear a label such as “high source of caffeine” or “do not mix with alcohol.”

Sections Sports & Leisure

Keeping Score

Valley Blue Sox owner Clark Eckhoff

Valley Blue Sox owner Clark Eckhoff

As the region’s only collegiate summer-league baseball team, the Valley Blue Sox are surging both on the field and in the front office, which is celebrating league-topping attendance last year and a growing reputation for on-field success. Those victories didn’t come overnight, but result from both skilled roster building and a recognition that the product should be, above all, affordable and fun.

When Darth Vader or one of his stormtrooper henchmen roam the third-base line, it’s understandable that not every eye is fixed between the white lines of the diamond.

That’s OK, though, in the world of college-level baseball, and particularly the world of the Valley Blue Sox, who have turned MacKenzie Stadium in Holyoke into a bona fide summer destination.

“We have to be reaching out through promotions and engaging people who might not otherwise have interest in the game, but they’ll come out for a fireworks show or to see Star Wars characters,” General Manager Hunter Golden told BusinessWest. “There’s a hook, something other than the game.”

That’s true of minor-league and amateur baseball organizations across the country, a culture known as much for its mascot races and bobblehead giveaways — in short, family fun — as for the product it puts on the field. But the Blue Sox are garnering increasing attention in the New England Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL) for both the crowds it draws, thanks partly to those promotions, and the quality of the play itself, which is turning casual visitors into devoted fans.

It’s a success story that didn’t happen by accident.

This is truly a team that reaches the entire area; we have fans driving down from Northampton, Amherst, and Hadley.”

In fact, team owner Clark Eckhoff, a veteran of minor-league baseball who oversaw the revival of a team in the Great Lakes region before buying the then-Holyoke Blue Sox in 2013, saw potential in this team and its surroundings, and had a vision for how to grow its popularity.

“This is truly a team that reaches the entire area; we have fans driving down from Northampton, Amherst, and Hadley,” he said — not to mention the fact that Springfield itself is the largest metro area in the country lacking professional baseball. Consider the success of the AA-level Hartford Yard Goats, who are selling out most of their tilts, and it’s clear a regional appetite for baseball has long existed. The challenge was to field a product — on field and off — to sate it.

Blue Sox attendance ranked first in its league last year

Blue Sox attendance ranked first in its league last year, and 11th among 169 summer colleague teams.

So far, mission accomplished. Canny roster building (more on that later) resulted in a deep playoff run last year, and a hot start in 2017 that included a nine-game winning streak in mid-June. Off the field, the team’s heavy promotional schedule of giveaways and events, plus ramped-up efforts to engage with the community, have turned the Blue Sox into the NECBL’s top draw, ranking 11th nationally among 169 summer collegiate teams in 2016, and besting the turnout of 20 A-level professional teams — and three AA squads — to boot.

“I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to take something literally close to not even existing — based on where the team was trending in 2011 and 2012 — and seeing the fanbase grow,” Eckhoff said. “The majority of these kids will be in A ball in two years, so the quality of baseball is really good, and the other things we do provide a great family experience.

“I love going to Fenway Park,” he added. “It’s the most historic stadium; it’s iconic. But the majority of people can’t afford to go there more than once or twice a summer. Here, tickets are $7 — $5 for kids — with affordable concessions, and you can get autographs from guys who will sign pro contracts in a year or two.”

All that and stormtroopers? It’s proven to be a winning combination, both literally and figuratively.

Call of the East

Eckhoff previously owned the Wausau (Wisconsin) Woodchucks of the Northwoods League for 13 years, and was looking for a change of scenery when he bought the Blue Sox in 2013. When he bought the Woodchucks in 1999, the team was drawing some 600 fans per night. By his 10th year, attendance averaged 2,000. He attributes that to the team getting the word out about the quality of play — some 15 of his players eventually made the majors, including Ben Zobrist — but the fun factor as well.

Hunter Golden says building a winning roster means recruiting

Hunter Golden says building a winning roster means recruiting not only talented players, but those who will best fit into the culture of the team and its region.

“There was a study done showing that 80% of fans who walked into a minor-league baseball game were leaving the game in the sixth or seventh inning and couldn’t tell you the opponent or the score, but they knew it was bobblehead night, and that they had enjoyed an affordable night out,” Eckhoff said.

Golden arrived in the baseball-management world much more recently, after parlaying a passion for sabermetrics — an innovative way to analyze a baseball player’s potential by crunching his in-game performance into, essentially, hard math — into a nationally visible role as a blogger and speaker on the subject. That caught the eye of Eckhoff, who tapped Golden as an advisor early on and later offered him the GM’s chair.

They have proven to be a solid team, pairing Eckhoff’s nose for creating a memorable fan experience with Golden’s ability, tested on the fly, to turn his sabermetrics expertise into actual roster building.

It’s a blend of science and art, Golden said, that extends far beyond the numbers.

“The first is key is building the culture you want,” he said. “There’s a lot of great talent out there, but it’s not just about how much talent a kid has. It’s the best kid versus the right kid — finding not only a baseball player who has great ability, but also a kid who’s going to thrive in our area and culture.”

The NECBL has long competed regionally with the Cape Cod Baseball League, and good players concerned with the difference in scenery between the two won’t make good Blue Sox candidates, he went on.

“I tell college coaches, ‘I don’t have a beach. They won’t be taking their parents out to dinner at a nice restaurant on the boardwalk. Guys that prioritize that stuff won’t have success here.’ I want guys who wake up in the morning, and what they’re looking forward to most is grabbing a bat and glove and getting out there to play baseball. That first month, everyone is into it, but when you get into your second month of three-hour bus rides, the first type of kid starts to run out of gas, but the second type of kid wants to be on that bus. That’s what we’re looking for.”

In return, the Blue Sox offer players a robust array of host families — there’s currently a waiting list to house a player for the summer — and activities ranging from trips to Fenway and Cooperstown to gym memberships and opportunities to engage with the community through educational baseball clinics and other events.

It’s a model that makes recruiting easier each season, Golden said. “Schools want to send their guys to us when they see how they’re treated and how they enjoy their time here.”

College students are also paying attention to how successfully NECBL players transition to the pros. In the recent Major League Baseball draft, 11 former Blue Sox players were drafted, led by left-handed pitcher Aaron Leasher, a sixth-round pick of the Red Sox, followed by outfielder Garrett McCain (Tigers, round 10) and catcher Erik Ostberg (Rays, round 13).

Sound Investments

The city of Holyoke has noticed the recent run of Blue Sox success too, and has been making financial investments in the team, including $3,000 to improve the playing surface. The bullpens are also new, and the left-field fence — where long fly balls long went to die — was pulled in to boost home runs and, by extension, excitement.

Eckhoff also credited the businesses that are finding it increasingly rewarding to buy sponsorships in the club. “In the summer, we reap what we sow in the offseason,” he said of those relationships. “That’s what drives the engine — people buying billboards, community nights, ticket sales. It’s become easier for businesses to support you when you’ve got 2,800 fans out there for almost three hours, looking at the signage and hearing public-address announcements promoting businesses. It tends to multiply.”

Hopefully, he added, a new scoreboard is in the works for 2018. “You add some new pieces every year to improve the experience for fans. That’s our goal.”

The key, Golden said, is to take player development seriously, but also understand that families that show up at MacKenzie Stadium want to have a good — even silly — time. That’s where the bobbleheads and ketchup-and-mustard races come in. But the team doesn’t shy away from meaningful displays as well, such as a recent ceremony that honored the World War I hero for whom the stadium is named.

“What keeps the engine going is the fan experience,” Golden said. “The minor-league teams that fail appeal too much to the hardcore baseball guy. You should want as many people as possible to have access to baseball, and that means going out of your way to appeal to non-traditional fans.”

But the sabermetrician and lifelong baseball fan in him certainly appreciates the product he’s helping put on the field.

“There’s not a lot of difference between low-A ball and the best of college baseball,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s great that our community has access to that. It’s affordable entertainment families can enjoy on a Friday night. We’ve been able to do it the right way, and that’s the plan going forward.”

In other words, play ball.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Sports & Leisure

Course Change

Ryan Hall

Ryan Hall says his move to the public-course realm is a learning experience that is ongoing.

Ryan Hall acknowledged that he really didn’t know what to expect when he left the posh private-club realm within the broad business of golf, specifically Avon Country Club in Connecticut, for Springfield’s two public courses, or ‘munis,’ as they’re called, this spring.

But in making that dramatic and somewhat unique career course change, he strongly implied — without actually and officially saying it — that the unknown was and is a better bet for him than something he’d for known for pretty much his entire career.

Thus, his move to Franconia Golf Course and Veterans Memorial Golf Course speaks volumes about the state of this game and what Hall sees happening — or not happening — down the road.

In short, the landscape has changed dramatically across the golf spectrum and at private clubs in particular, especially as the Great Recession put a huge dent in discretionary spending such as club memberships.

“The recession really clobbered the private clubs,” Hall told BusinessWest, adding that the past several years have been, in a word, a struggle — to build and maintain membership and bring more people into the game. “And to me, that model is in real trouble.”

Elaborating, Hall said Avon, like most other clubs like it, is “surviving,” a term that could not have been used, or perhaps even imagined, a few decades ago. And he doesn’t really see that landscape changing in any significant way in the years to come, especially amid conjecture that the Millennial generation is unlikely to enthusiastically embrace the country-club life.

So Hall chose to go work in a far different landscape, the daily-fee world of municipal golf courses, where cash is actually exchanged, there are nine-hole rates, and no one really knows who might walk in the pro-shop door.

As he talked with BusinessWest in his small office in the back of the pro shop at Franconia on Dwight Road, Hall noted that, while he didn’t know what to expect at the city’s two courses, what he’s seen and experienced has nonetheless surprised him in many ways.

Elaborating, he said the crowded sheets for tee times, packed leagues, and steady play all seven days of the week have been somewhat inspiring revelations that have left him feeling pretty good about his career decision.

“It really has shocked me how busy this place and Veterans are; Saturday and Sunday morning, the tee sheets are full from 6 o’clock till noon, and during the week, it’s just non-stop,” he said, adding that people are still playing golf, but more of them are likely to be playing public or semi-private courses rather than private clubs.

Still, Hall, like golf pros everywhere and at public courses as well as private operations, knows that these are ultra-challenging times for the game, and business, of golf.

Young people are not embracing it with the enthusiasm of previous generations, and the cost and time involved with playing 18 are considerable obstacles to those thinking about taking it up.

Thus, public-course managers must be creative — a word you never heard in this business years ago but now hear all the time — and also resilient, and laser-focused on providing something not often thought about in golf until this century: value.

Hall takes over Springfield’s courses at a time of lingering controversy. Well, sort of. His predecessor, Kevin Kennedy, was essentially relieved of his duties amid an investigation involving the Internal Revenue Service. An audit undertaken by the city hinted strongly at revenue skimming on Kennedy’s part as well as a distinct lack of institutional oversight on the city’s part.

The latter seems to be a thing of the past, with a number of new policies, procedures, checks, and balances in place. And the former is mostly in the past as well, said Hall, who is firmly focused on the present and future tenses, which are challenging exercises in their own right.

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked at length with Hall about his move to Springfield’s courses and the public-track world, and also about the state of the business and its prospects for the future.

Rough Estimates

As noted earlier, Hall, who grew up in Springfield, played both of its municipal courses, and graduated from Cathedral High School, had really only known the private-course world, career-wise, until last March.

Indeed, he cut his teeth at Springfield Country Club, working in the bag room under long-time pro Harry Mattson Jr., and later served as an assistant to Dave DiRico at Crestview Country Club in Agawam before gravitating to Avon in 2001.

In the private sector, we were working so hard the last few years to bring golf to people, to grow the game through junior golf and women’s clubs,” he said. “We had to be so creative and think outside the box to secure these golfers for the future.”

When he later became head pro there, he had a front-row seat, or pro-shop-window view, if you will, to the profound changes that have come to most all private clubs, including exclusive ($25,000 for an initiation fee) clubs like Avon.

“In the private sector, we were working so hard the last few years to bring golf to people, to grow the game through junior golf and women’s clubs,” he said. “We had to be so creative and think outside the box to secure these golfers for the future.”

To get his points across, Hall summoned some numbers.

“When I started as an assistant at Avon, we had 425 members and a waiting list,” he noted, adding that many private clubs were similarly healthy at that point. “At Avon right now … we had a very strong membership drive last year, and they’re still below 300 members and no waiting list.

“And this is Avon,” he went on, accenting that word for a reason. “This is what I view as a protected sort of environment, a very affluent area where you would think that a private club would survive very easily. It’s not to say that they won’t, or aren’t, but it became very, very challenging.”

So much so that Ryan eventually became one of two bidders for the contract to manage Springfield’s courses, a career change he described as a “learning experience,” and one that is very much ongoing.

“I’m learning every day — culturally, it’s definitely much different here,” he said in a classic bit of understatement when asked to explain this career move, something he had to do a lot in the spring and is still doing. “When I learned of the opening, I viewed it as an opportunity to do some different things.”

And thus far, as he said, the scene is in most all ways healthier than what he expected (although he didn’t really know what to expect) and healthier than what he left.

Despite a late start — mid-April, as opposed to early April or even late March most years — and some wet weather that wiped out a few precious Saturdays in May, both courses are off to a solid start, revenue-wise and otherwise.

“It’s the end of June, and things are very promising,” he said, adding that the volume of play generally picks up once school is out and students and their teachers are looking for ways to fill their summer days.

And, as noted earlier, one of the things Hall has learned since arriving is that the decline in interest in private clubs has in some ways benefited public courses, or at least those that are in good condition, present a solid test, and offer value.

“We’re seeing groups coming up from Connecticut and groups from Eastern Massachusetts,” he said, adding that the condition of the two courses and their low price ($40 for 18 holes and a cart on a weekend) are attractive selling points, and news, in the form of word-of-mouth referrals, travels fast. “And I enjoy that aspect of it; if I see a group come through on a weekend and I don’t know them, I’ll ask where they’re from, and they’ll say ‘we’re from Glastonbury.’

“Price drives things,” he went on. “They hear $40 with a cart and the course is in great shape, they come and they check it out, and then they go tell their buddies. We’re seeing that happening more and more.”

Still, there are serious challenges confronting all those doing business within the broad realm of golf, said Hall, adding that perhaps the biggest of these involves getting more women and young people involved in the game.

Women have become a particularly stern challenge, and for a number of reasons.

“In the private sector, I’ve watched the level of play among women diminish — it’s very challenging,” he explained. “And it comes down to the commitment — there’s the time involved, but also the cost. When it comes to the household budget, where does golf fall? What’s important, and what’s not?”

But there is another factor involved, one that Hall says he and other club pros might be able to do something about: the intimidation factor.

By that, he meant everything from the difficulty of the sport to the number and complexity of the rules.

“There are women who are definitely intimidated by golf,” he explained. “I spoke to the group here at Franconia, and some were really concerned that some of the women weren’t counting all their strokes.

“Let’s not worry so much about their strokes,” he went on. “Let’s get them out there playing; let’s grab hold of them and get them comfortable and willing to continue golf; let’s not worry about the competitiveness of golf.”

Elaborating, he said his experience at Avon showed that some women don’t like the word ‘tournament,’ or the notion that they have to play for something, be it a trophy, money, or whatever.

And that led to one of those creative strokes he talked about, a group he called the ‘no-holers.’

“We had the 9-hole ladies, the 18-hole ladies, and then the no-holers,” he explained. “We would invite them out late in the afternoon, give them a glass of wine and some cheese, and just talk about golf, maybe show them the course and introduce them to it. We were trying to get them off on a different foot than that fear many of them experience.”

Going for the Green

While Hall is certainly settled in now at Franconia and Veterans, the learning curve, as he called it, continues.

This was the relative unknown that he chose over the world that he had known since the start of his career.

Thus far, his choice seems like a sound course of action in a business — and a game — where there are challenges around every turn and things can change in a hurry.

And where the phrase ‘going for the green’ is definitely a risk-reward scenario.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Sections Sports & Leisure

Polishing a Gem

Camile Hannoush

Camile Hannoush on the soon-to-be-renovated front porch at Springfield Country Club, which has a commanding view of downtown Springfield.

Camile Hannoush, managing partner for a group of new owners at Springfield Country Club, doesn’t buy into that argument that the younger generations don’t necessarily want to join a private club. He believes they will join if they’re given enough good reasons to do so. His group’s broad assignment, then — and they’re already hard at work on it — is to create more of those reasons at this venerable landmark.

Camile Hannoush says he’s been a member, and, therefore, a co-owner, of Springfield Country Club (SCC) for more than 25 years now.

“So nothing’s really changed,” he told BusinessWest as he talked about what he and a group of partners who acquired the 120-year-old club last month for $2.8 million intend to do with it, and for it.

He was saying that tongue in cheek, of course, because with this new ownership model — from member-owned to private control — and Hannoush’s new business card identifying him as managing partner, a great deal has changed.

And this is exactly the message that Hannoush and his fellow partners — his brothers Tony, Norman, Peter, and George, as well as Raipher and Joe Pellegrino — want to get across to members and prospective members: change — for the better.

It is coming, and will continue to come, in the areas where it is most needed, especially in the broad realm of financial stability, said Camile, who noted that SCC, like many private clubs, has struggled in recent years with membership and everything that comes with that challenge, especially cash flow, or lack thereof.

As we improve the situation here, once the remodeling is complete and members start coming and bringing friends and guests … once we bring that customer-service level up to five-star, I believe word of mouth will bring us the additional members we need.”

“Our first goal, obviously, is to increase membership,” he explained. “And one key to that is achieving confidence among the community that the club is a solid business and a solid place to be a member.

“One of the reasons we’ve struggled to bring in new members in recent years has been assessments,” he said, referring to the charges imposed upon members to cover everything from cash shortfalls to capital projects to course improvements. “And people don’t want to join a club where they’re not sure what their bottom line is going to be at the end of the year and how much it’s going to cost them.”

Change is also coming to the facilities — everything from improvements to the pool area to a broad renovation of the front-porch area, with its dramatic view of the Connecticut River and the Springfield skyline, to a new fine-dining restaurant now under construction (more on all this later).

What will also change is Hannoush’s typical workday. Also a partner with his brothers in Hannoush Jewelers and Giftology, a gift boutique with several locations including Longmeadow and Springfield, Camile says the country club will be his main focus for the foreseeable future. To prove it, he has taken over what used to be the “ladies card room” on the second floor of the massive clubhouse and created an office there (a new card room for women will be created elsewhere).

“I’ll be running the club this year — this is where I’ll be,” he said, adding that all the partners will be involved, but he’ll be leading the various efforts to return the club to the prominence it has enjoyed through most of its history.

SEE: Chart of Golf Courses in the the area


Hannoush said there is already a good deal of momentum at the club — roughly 25 new members (some of which are former members returning to SCC) have signed on since the change in ownership was announced, and he expects more in the coming weeks as the golf season, delayed by that massive March 14 blizzard, gets underway.

And once these new members bring their friends to the facility, and as word gets out about the many improvements and new amenities, he expects momentum to continue building.

“I believe in word of mouth,” he explained. “And I think that, as we improve the situation here, once the remodeling is complete and members start coming and bringing friends and guests … once we bring that customer-service level up to five-star, I believe word of mouth will bring us the additional members we need.”

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked with the Springfield Country Club’s new managing partner about how the facility intends to refine its game, build membership, and become the region’s club of choice.

Course of Action

Hannoush said he’s heard all that talk and conjecture about how the younger generations simply are not into the country-club scene as much as their predecessors, and this is one of the big reasons why many area clubs are struggling to find members.

He doesn’t exactly buy into that argument, and adds that a quick demographic breakdown of those new members he mentioned earlier helps him state his case.

the younger generations will join a country club

Camile Hannoush says the younger generations will join a country club if they’re given enough good reasons to do so, and that’s his mission at SCC.

“Many of them— in fact, most of them — are under 40,” he said of those new recruits, adding that he’s firmly of the opinion that the younger generations, or any constituency, for that matter, will join a private club if they have the wherewithal, and if you give them enough good reasons to do so.

In a nutshell, this new ownership group has taken on the singular mission of creating more of those good reasons.

There were already many to begin with, said Hannoush, listing the club’s location — just off Riverdale Street in West Springfield and, therefore, easily accessible to downtown Springfield and a host of area communities — as one of its best assets. Others include the stately, well-appointed clubhouse, diverse membership, and a course known for its impeccable condition.

Lately, though, this mix hasn’t been quite enough, he went on, noting that membership had dipped to around 240, down considerably from pre-recession days, and just over half the high-water mark of more than 400 around the start of this century.

To get those numbers back up, the new ownership team has commenced creating more reasons to join, starting with perhaps the biggest — financial stability and far less uncertainty about what members’ financial obligations will be to the club, as he noted earlier.

Of course, this stability can only come through greatly increasing membership, he went on, but not only getting members, but convincing them to spend time and money at the club.

“There’s a lot of overhead — this is a big, big business,” he said while essentially outlining the basic strategy in the business plan moving forward. “That’s why you need a certain number of members to be here, and why you need the members to dine here and spend time here.”

This simple fact explains the current emphasis on amenities with a strong focus on families, and meeting their specific needs, said Hannoush, who said the improvements to the pool area, including a new pool house and cabana, are a good example.

“What we’re going to try to do is bring back more family-focused events,” he explained. “We want to give them more reasons to come to the club. Improving the pool area and giving them more services there will bring them back.”

The extensive renovations to the porch area are another example, he said, as he took out his phone to show pictures of a planned 50-foot ‘fire wall’ that will replace a row of hedges, a new patio, new ceiling, tiling, and other improvements that will make that space more liveable and much more popular with members.

Another big step forward, he said, is creation of a fine-dining restaurant. The club has a grille room and a banquet room that can sit more than 200 people, said Hannoush, but it has long lacked the fine-dining facility that many clubs have and that most current and potential members relish.

One is being created in the former ‘19th hole’ just off the banquet room, he said, adding that the new facility, now walled off from the main room, will seat roughly 40 and have its own bar. Meanwhile, another room, the Brooks Room, with stunning views of the first and 10th holes and the setting sun, will also be renovated and used for small parties and receptions.

“So we’ll be more aggressive with social and dining memberships,” he explained, adding that another focus of change at the club will be its menu of memberships. It will be lengthened and diversified, with corporate offerings, a weekday membership, and other options, to accommodate different constituencies, create value, and, therefore, help bring in new members.

And, as he mentioned earlier, as those new members begin to talk about the club, and as their friends and guests get to experience what they’re talking about, he expects momentum to build.

Diamond in the Rough

As he completed his quick tour of the facilities and posed for a few photos before returning to his new office, Hannoush paused on the porch, gestured toward the Springfield skyline in the distance, and then back toward the clubhouse.

“This club is a gem — it’s always been a gem,” he said. “It just needed to be polished a little.”

Spoken like someone who’s been in the jewelry business his whole life.

Actually, it was spoken like someone who has been a member, and therefore an owner, of the club for 25 years. As he said, in one respect, nothing’s changing.

But in most all others, everything is changing — and for the better.

 George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Sports & Leisure

Challenge Cup

the PGA Junior League Golf program has helped swell the ranks

Chris Tallman, head pro at Cold Spring Country Club, says the PGA Junior League Golf program has helped swell the ranks on the local high-school golf team — and get more families involved in the game.

It was with discernable pride in his voice that Chris Tallman noted that there are 30 members on the Belchertown High School boys golf team.

He said that number slowly and with emphasis, as in 30! And with good reason. That is certainly a large number, especially for a comparatively small school, especially at a time when many larger institutions are struggling to field a team. But also because Tallman, head pro at Cold Spring Country Club in Belchertown, believes he probably had something to do with it.

More specifically, he believes his enthusiastic support of a youth program called the PGA Junior League Golf had something to do with it.

The national initiative, administered by the PGA of America, creates teams of young people at participating clubs that compete against one another. The goals are to have fun, learn the game, make some friends, and maybe get families involved in the sport, as well as young people.

And it seems to be working on all those levels.

“You have 70 to 80 juniors at each match, which is great to see,” Tallman explained. “But looking at the business side of things, if you get the juniors to the course, their parents are going to come, too, and they might get involved in the game.”

Such efforts to grow the sport are certainly necessary at this intriguing and somewhat precarious time for the game — and the business — of golf.

Indeed, those we talked with used a host of synonyms, but mostly ‘flat’ and ‘stagnant,’ to describe both business activity and interest in the game. In short, golf isn’t growing — in fact, it’s probably declining slightly — and many are outwardly skeptical about whether the younger generations will embrace the game with the same vigor as their predecessors.

Dave DiRico

Dave DiRico says young professionals comprise the fastest-growing segment of his business.

Tom Hantke, executive director of the Connecticut PGA, which covers most of Western Mass., used some different numbers to get some important points across.

He said there are roughly 24 million golfers out there, meaning people who are active and play the game regularly. And that number has remained at about the same level for some time now. Meanwhile, there are another 86 million who could — that’s could — perhaps join the core group, with some encouragement and attention.

A problem for the industry, said Hantke, is that many within it continue to focus their efforts on those 24 million in the core group, and not the other 86 million. He puts many club owners and managers in that category, as well as the equipment manufacturers, who continue to focus their energies on those who might buy a $500 driver, a $1,000 set of irons, and a $200 pair of golf shoes, rather than those who might be interested in a starter set or some used clubs.

“The industry gets it backward,” he said. “They’re targeting the 24 million core golfers, or whatever the number is in their respective market. And what they should be doing is marketing toward the 86 million, the ones who want to try the game or be part of the game or be entertained by the game.”

But amid the skepticism and heavy use of ‘flat’ and ‘stagnant’ to describe conditions within the industry, there are some positive signs.

Dave DiRico, owner, with his wife, Joann, of Dave DiRico’s Golf & Racquet in West Springfield, said ‘young people’ — a term he used to describe those in college and their first decade or two out of it — constitute the fastest-growing segment of his customer base. He said many of these individuals played sports in high school and maybe in college, they’re athletic, and they’re looking for a place to park that athleticism and spirit to compete.

And many are choosing golf.

“We’re seeing those people coming in more and more,” said DiRico, now in his sixth year with this venture. “The college kids, they’re buying used equipment to get into the game. And later, when they want to stay in the game, it’s those same people circling back to buy newer sets; the game has got them, and they’re going to continue to play.”

Meanwhile, a host of other initiatives — everything from a campaign to convince players to step up to the tees that suit their age and abilities, not the ones that suit their ego, to a set of proposed new rules changes — are aimed at making the game more fun, less confusing, less penal, and thus more popular.

The question lingering over the industry is whether all these efforts will make a difference at an age when many don’t seem to have the time or inclination for the game.

Since we’ve focused on numbers quite a bit, we might as well keep going and call that the $64,000 question. And for this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest  goes about getting some answers.

Round Numbers

Dave Fleury knew he was going to get some heavy flak from his male members. And he was right about that.

But he went ahead with his plan to award a popular, coveted night — Thursday — to a women’s league at Crestview Country Club in Agawam, which he owns, along with Elmcrest Country Club in East Longmeadow. And he’s never regretted that decision; in fact, he did the same at Elmcrest.

He told BusinessWest that, along with young people, women constitute the largest, most potential-laden, but also perhaps the most challenging component of that block of 86 million people who could embrace golf.

Like all the other constituencies, including men, they are challenged by the amount of time and money it takes to play golf, but also its complexity and thick, confusing rule book. What many women who take up the game seem to like about it are the social aspects, he went on, meaning the camaraderie and friendships that result.

Which brings us back to Thursday night.

I really applaud these efforts to change the rules. These are the kinds of things that need to happen to make the game more approachable for women, and for everyone, really.”

For many, that’s a social night, a night out, said Fleury, which is why he awarded it to this women’s league.

“Women really focus on the social side of the game,” he explained. “And for a long time, women’s leagues used to be on Monday afternoon, when the men aren’t playing anyway. We turned that on its ear, giving them Thursday night.

“We took flak for it, but you have to take a stance and make it clear that there’s no reason why women shouldn’t have the same accessibility, the same opportunity to go out and have a good time on a night that makes sense, like Thursday,” he went on. “So now, they come in for cocktails and food after the round and socialize like the men would. And as a result, they can see the game the way men see the game, and golf doesn’t become this drudgery.”

Fluery’s decision on what to do with Thursday night at his clubs is a good example of movement toward giving some thought and attention to those aforementioned 86 million potential golfers out there.

It’s a not a huge step, but an important one, he noted, adding quickly that it’s not going to generate tremendous or immediate improvement when it comes to the big picture. But it’s a step in the right direction, something the game and the industry need many of at this moment.

PGA Junior League Golf is another one, only those involved with it say it has the potential to become huge.

“It’s really cool — the kids have jerseys with numbers on them, so it’s similar to other team sports like soccer and basketball,” he explained. “We’ll play against other teams from other clubs; it’s a fun, laid-back format. There’s not a ton of pressure, the kids are competing against one another, and they’re having fun.”

And, as he noted earlier, the juniors’ parents, grandparents, and friends come out to watch them play, possibly inspiring more interest in the game.

“As a golf professional, my main job is to create more golfers, not just for my facility, but for the game of golf as a whole,” he went on. “And this program is helping clubs do just that.”

E.J. Altobello, head pro at Tekoa Country Club in Westfield, a public course, which hosts several teams, agreed, noting that participation has grown from just over a dozen young people in 2013 to more than 50 last year.
“I value it as one of the best programs they’ve probably ever rolled out,” he said. “It’s definitely piqued more interest in junior golf. The kids get involved, the parents get involved; it’s a good way to get families together on the golf course, just as you would in a Little League game.

“I think the program has gotten more kids in the game, and it’s gotten more families into the game,” he went on, adding that he can see results at his course and on area high-school golf teams. “We have parents now who probably wouldn’t have played ever if their kids hadn’t become involved.”

Green Business

But while the youth program is encouraging, Altobello has real concerns about whether the young people can stay with the game after they’ve graduated from college and the many pressures of life — work, family, and more — take hold.

“I don’t have any trouble getting college kids out here — we have a lot of them come down and play,” said Altobelli, noting that Westfield State University is only about two long par-5s away from Tekoa, and many students walk or even skateboard to the course. “But it’s after college — that’s when we lose them for a bit.

“There are tremendous time and money issues at that point that make it difficult for them to stay in it,” he went on. “But if we give them a good base when they’re juniors, and then increase their play when they’re in their early to mid-20s from two rounds a year to six rounds a year, that’s huge.”

There are many keys to getting young professionals — those in their 20s, 30s, and 40s — involved in golf, said those we spoke with. And they come at different levels, from the individual course to national and even international initiatives.

In that first category, said Fleury, courses have to tailor programs for that specific market. Private or semi-private models (the latter of which is used at both Crestview and Elmcrest) typically enable members to pay only for what they’re going to use, and nothing more.

“If they just want to play golf, they can just join the golf course,” he explained. “They don’t have to pay for the pool or the tennis courts, and we don’t have any food minimums; they just play for golf.”

Meanwhile, all courses can encourage nine-hole play, rather than 18 — a major consideration when everyone seems to be strapped for time and when a round plus lunch at the end absorbs five hours or more, said Fleury, and they can take steps, as he did, to accommodate women and enable them to enjoy the social aspects of the game.

On the national and international front, a broad campaign to convince players to choose the right tees — you might have seen Jack Nicklaus in those TV commercials encouraging people to “play it forward” — is designed to make golf more enjoyable, said DiRico.

“The game was meant to be fun,” he explained. “It’s not fun if you can’t reach many of the par-4s or struggle on the longer par-3s. By playing the right tees, people can relate better to the game they see on TV; they’re on in regulation more often, and they’re putting for more birdies. That makes the game enjoyable.”

And then, there are the rule changes. The U.S. Golf Assoc., working in a joint initiative with the R&A (the ruling body on the other side of the Atlantic), have proposed many of them, all with the twin goals of ‘modernizing’ the rules but also making them easier to understand and apply. The hope is that they also make the game less imposing and more fun.

Players will still have to play the ball as it lies, but there are changes regarding everything from play on the greens (one can leave the flagstick in the hole if they choose and repair spike marks) to taking relief (one could drop the ball from any height, not just from the shoulder, as currently prescribed).

“I really applaud these efforts to change the rules,” said Fleury, also a golf-course designer, who said these changes won’t impact the integrity of the game. “These are the kinds of things that need to happen to make the game more approachable for women, and for everyone, really.

“The game can be quite confusing and seem extremely penal, and sometimes unfairly so,” he went on. “A softening of some of these stringent rules and making them more understandable will help make the game less intimidating.”

Rough Guesses

While it may be some time before those owning and managing golf courses can use words other than ‘flat’ or ‘stagnant’ to describe things within their industry, there are some positive signs and many intriguing steps being taken to grow the game.

All one has to do is look at the Belchertown High boys golf team, for example.

But such efforts won’t change the picture overnight, as Fluery noted, and everyone in this business has to remain focused on both those core 24 million golfers and especially the many more who might take up the game with the right encouragement.

Like the game itself, this is a very stern challenge, but one with some significant rewards.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Sections Sports & Leisure

Plane and Simple

Angela Greco stands by her Cessna 172 SP

Angela Greco stands by her Cessna 172 SP, which she acquired just before Thanksgiving and is now putting through its paces.

Attaining a pilot’s license involves a deep commitment — of time, money, and energy. But for those who persevere, the rewards are many, and include freedom, convenience, and sometimes a career. Meanwhile, there is the simple phenomenon of flight, which continues to captivate and stir the emotions. Said one woman who recently bought her own plane, “it’s almost like magic when that plane lifts off the ground.”

Angela Greco says she first started dreaming about learning to fly and one day owning her own plane when she was a freshman in high school.

Her family had a summer home in Laconia, N.H., she told BusinessWest, and she would become captivated watching the sea planes land and take off, allowing her imagination to take her to a time and place when she might be able to do those things herself.

The dream was put on hold for awhile — OK, a long while, as in more than 40 years. Her mother said ‘no’ when she first raised the prospect of taking flying lessons, and then, well, life got in the way, as it often does. But it has been realized — big time.

Indeed, Greco got her license three years ago, and just last month took possession of a 2005 Cessna 172 SP (price tag: $200,000). She is still in the process of breaking it in and becoming comfortable with its so-called glass cockpit — one that features electronic (digital) flight-instrument displays, rather than the traditional analog dials and gauges — but she’s just about ready to put it through its paces.

Specifically, she’s starting to assemble a list of attractive destinations, and is zeroing in on the state of Tennessee — she recently took in a show on the Smithsonian channel detailing many of its attractions and scenery from the air, and her interest was certainly piqued.

“I love to travel, that’s one of my passions,” she said, adding this pursuit was one of the reasons she pursued a pilot’s license. “There seemed to be a lot of interesting things in Tennessee, and it’s a state I haven’t been to yet.”

Thus, Greco has joined what appears to be a growing number of people making the sizable commitment — in terms of both time and money — it takes to learn how to fly and gain a license.

The numbers of new flyers are not exactly soaring, to use an industry term, noted Rich MacIsaac, manager of Northampton Airport and Northampton Aeronautics Inc., who has been a flight instructor for nearly 20 years. But they are climbing.

And, as has been the case historically, most of those taking to the air are in their 20s and early 30s — before the responsibilities of everyday life really start to pile up — or their 50s and 60s, after those responsibilities have at least started to ease up a bit.

Greco falls in that later category, obviously — she’s an owner and manager of several residential properties and is getting ready to sell them and officially retire — while Shannon O’Leary is among the former.

She’s a 22-year-old senior at Ithaca College in Upstate New York who told BusinessWest that, if all goes well, she might just be handed her diploma and her pilot’s license at roughly the same time.

She said she gained the urge to fly from her father, who flew years ago, put that hobby aside, and then picked it up again a few years ago, or just in time to start flying to Ithaca to hear his daughter, an accomplished French horn player and music teacher in the making, perform at a host of events.

Gaining a pilot’s license, as noted, is an expensive, somewhat time-consuming endeavor, said MacIsaac, noting that, when all is said and done, a license will usually set one back between $8,000 to $10,000, and most will spend 12 to 18 months earning their wings.

Rich MacIsaac

Rich MacIsaac says the sensation of flight continues to attract people of all ages.

Thus, only about half of those who start down this path will reach their destination, he said.

For those who persevere, however, the rewards are considerable, in terms of everything from the convenience that flying provides — one can get from Northampton Airport to Martha’s Vineyard in maybe an hour, a fraction of the time it take to get there via car and the ferry — to the sensation of flying, which can lead those who have experienced it to summon a host of descriptive words and phrases.

Like these.

“It’s almost like magic when that plane lifts off the ground,” said Greco. “That’s the only way I can describe it — magic. It’s exciting, and at the same time very peaceful.”

Added O’Leary, “taking off is probably my favorite part. It’s that moment when you really feel like you can do something so liberating as flying a plane; that feeling that you’re flying is just incredible.”

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked with a number of people who can talk about that experience, what it takes to join those ranks, and why it’s all well worth it.

Working in the Cloud

It was bitterly cold the day Greco talked with BusinessWest, and the wind, while not as strong as the forecasters predicted, was significant, and gusting up to 15 to 20 miles per hour.

Not ideal flying conditions, certainly, and many of the people who were scheduled to head out of Northampton Airport that day or take lessons there decided to scrap those plans.

But not everyone, and eventually Greco decided that the weather was not bad enough to keep her on the ground. When asked what she had in mind for the afternoon, she paused for a moment as if to indicate she was still considering options, before saying she might head up to Keane, N.H. to have lunch and maybe do some shopping. After all, in her Cessna, she could probably do all that in just a few hours — and take a nice, relaxing ride while doing so.

“It is just this convenience and … let’s call it freedom that has always appealed to people with an interest in aviation,” said MacIsaac, adding quickly that, for most, there is much more involved than a desire to chop a commute time in half.

Indeed, the phenomenon of flight still resonates with many individuals, he noted, even at a time in history when being at the controls at cloud level certainly isn’t as, well, mind-blowing as it was a century ago, or even a few decades ago.

“Flying used to be a kind of technical thing, and it was something people could gravitate toward — these were technically advanced pieces of equipment,” he explained. “Now, if you’re interested in technology, there’s lots of other things you can be doing.”

Still, flying continues to capture the imagination, said MacIsaac, who speaks from personal experience. He moved into a house not far from a small airport outside Omaha, Neb. in his early 30s and, after years of watching planes fly over his yard, eventually decided he’d rather do than observe.

Shannon O’Leary, seen here after her first solo flight last summer

If all goes well, Shannon O’Leary, seen here after her first solo flight last summer, will get her college diploma and pilot’s license at about the same time.


“I got to the point where financially I could do it and I had the time to do it,” he explained. “So I got my private pilot’s license and flew recreationally. Over time, I added ratings and became a flight instructor, and it slowly morphed into a career.”

In many ways, his story is typical of those who take the plunge and get their license, he said, adding that recreational flying is just part of the equation. Indeed, some are attracted by career opportunities, he went on, noting that, while many airline pilots don’t earn as much as one might think, that’s just one route one can take, and, overall, one can certainly earn a decent (and fun) living with a pilot’s license.

He’s proof of that.

After instructing for several years, he took aviation as a career to a much higher plane, becoming manager of Northampton Airport in 2004, the year it was acquired by local business owner Bob Bacon, who invested heavily in infrastructure and facilities, including several new hangars. He owns his own plane, a four-seat Sirrus SR22.

Today, MacIsaac oversees a multi-faceted business that operates under the name SevenBravoTwo Inc. It includes everything from the flight school to scenic flights; aircraft maintenance to leasing hangar and tie-down space (there are roughly 90 planes based there).

The flight-school operation generally has about 50 people working toward their pilot’s license at an given time, and that translates into roughly 4,000 flights a year, said MacIsaac, noting that 70% of these individuals are doing so for what would be considered personal or recreational flying, with the other 30% harboring aspirations to become a professional pilot of some sort.

One must be 17 to attain a license, he went on, adding that an individual can start the process earlier. He sees a few who choose to balance flying lessons with high-school classes, but most are older and fall in those two categories mentioned earlier — young professionals who still have the time and the means to pursue a license, and older individuals who have paid off the house and put the children through college.

One must have 40 hours of flight time and be able to successfully complete a wide array of maneuvers to get a private pilot’s license, MacIsaac noted, and most will take their time gaining that requisite experience, usually more than a year. And many won’t reach their intended destination, for one of many reasons.

“For many, it’s a financial issue; it becomes more expensive than they thought it was going to be,” he noted. “Or, over a period of time, something happens in their life that puts them in a situation where they can’t afford it anymore and they have to stop.”

As for those who persevere and gain their licenses, only a small percentage, maybe 5%, will actually buy their own plane, he told BusinessWest, adding that many others will join partnerships and clubs that jointly own planes.

And many will simply choose to rent one of the many aircraft the airport has available for such purposes, he went on, adding that they generally lease for about $120 per hour of flight time (that includes fuel).

Considering that one can fly to the Vineyard and back in two hours and skip a considerable amount of time and hassle that are part and parcel to driving to the island, renting a plane has become an attractive option for day trips to that destination and many others.

Winging It

Dave Strassburg’s story is in many ways similar to MacIsaac’s.  A pharmacist by trade, he attained his license more than 20 years ago, and continued to add ratings, moving from private to ‘instrument,’ to commercial.

Becoming an instructor was an objective he put on his bucket list some time ago, and he’s been doing it for 15 years now. While doing that at Northampton Airport on a very part-time basis, he also flies recreationally, and for business — he owns a medical-device-manufacturing company, Strassburg Medical Inc., based just outside Buffalo, N.Y., and takes his twin-engine Cessna there at least once a month.

Business takes him all over the country, and whenever possible, he’ll fly himself, he said, adding that doing so frees him from having to comply with the airlines’ schedules and a host of other inconveniences.

“Besides, if I was sitting in the back of a commercial airliner, I’d just be wishing I was up front anyway,” he said with a laugh.

Strassburg says flying is a passion, and he’s dedicated himself to encouraging others to take up that pursuit and persevere in their quest for a license. He’s convinced a good number, including his wife, who got her license about six months ago, and two Blackhawk helicopter instructor pilots based at Barnes Municipal Airport in Westfield.

“I’m a big proponent of aviation, and I love getting other people involved in it — I like giving people that little push they need,” he told BusinessWest. “There are so many people who think about it, but they never pursue it. I instruct people for the passion of flying and getting people involved in it and showing them that they can do it.”

That push he described comes in various forms, including Groupons used as incentives to get people who are on the fence to try to get over it.

And it was one of that Groupons that caught Greco’s eye.

“I said to myself, ‘that’s it, it’s sign, time to go do it,” she said, adding that she never actually lost that fascination for flying she acquired while summering in Laconia. She just had to wait till the time was right.

She said the lessons were not easy or inexpensive, but she stuck with it and gained her license in the spring of 2014. Soon thereafter, she rented planes and became a half-share partner in a another Cessna 172, taking trips to a host of destinations, including, Block Island, Niagara Falls, Cape Cod, Maine, and North Carolina.

“My plan now is to take my plane and just fly to destinations all over the United States,” she said, adding that she’ll likely start with Tennessee and move on from there.

O’Leary has some similar ambitions, and some others as well. She plans to teach music for a living, but intends to make flying an important part of her life.

“In an ideal world, I see myself getting a recreational license and being able to have a side gig where I might be able to take people on scenic flights,” she told BusinessWest. “That would be a second source of income for me during the summers, because I’m going to be an educator.

“It would be awesome to be able to fly and also service others,” she went on, adding that she intends to make this a life-long pursuit. “You start doing this because you love it, and when you don’t stop loving it, you get to open up all kinds of possibilities.”

And with that, she spoke for everyone who has had the privilege to enjoy life in what’s known in aviation as the ‘left seat.’

Final Approach

Summing up the pursuit of a pilot’s license and recreational flying in general, MacIsaac said it’s like golf or many other activities one might pursue during their lifetime.

“Some people are naturally going to be better at it than others, some people are going to enjoy it more and it’s going to become a big part of their life forever,” he explained. “And for some, it’s going to be something they tried, and maybe they enjoyed it, but for reason or another, they moved on to something else.”

Perhaps, but not too many of those activities can evoke the same kind of emotions — and the same kind of language used by those who have experienced flight.

As Greco said, “it’s like magic when that plane lifts off the ground.”

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Sports & Leisure

Level Best

Greg Stutsman and George Myers

Greg Stutsman and George Myers say the Quarters is intended to appeal to a wide range of people, from kids to college students to adults who crave a nostalgia fix.

George Myers and Greg Stutsman didn’t spend the early ’80s in arcades; they were toddlers when the arcade craze peaked in 1982 and 1983 before collapsing alongside the boom in home consoles.

So they don’t remember first-hand the thrill of mastering Ms. Pac-Man and Q*bert and Donkey Kong and dozens of other titles from that golden age. But they experience it vicariously every day at the Quarters in Hadley, watching 40-somethings light up with nostalgia at the old games while their own tweens, raised on the hyper-realistic games of the 21st century, discover the simple charms of these retro titles for the first time.

“A lot of people say our games are obsolete, and one reason is home-gaming consoles,” said Stutsman, who opened the Quarters with Myers in January 2014. “But the thing that’s missing is being in the physical space, enjoying the games alongside other people. Here, they can play one game, move to another — it’s a more energetic space.”

The pair had known each other for 12 years through event production, mainly music shows, and began talking about going into business together. The original idea was a music venue with food and drink and maybe a few arcade games, and they visited several potential locations before their current neighbor, who runs a tattoo business next to the Quarters, told them about the available space, which used to house a café and a furniture gallery.

It didn’t work as a music venue, but Myers and Stutsman saw plenty of potential for both nightlife and weekend traffic, and the Quarters concept began to take shape.

“We’ve seen an emergence of destinations like this, arcade bars,” Stutsman said. “A lot of places focus on nightlife, a young, creative crowd, but we saw an opportunity for a more inclusive place, where we could include a broader community than the college-student nightlife crowd.”

Myers recalled with a smile how friends they’d go out with would complain when he and Stutsman criticized how a venue was laid out and how they’d do it differently. When they had their space, and saw how it bordered the region’s main bike trail and was close to both Hadley’s downtown area and area colleges, they recognized that the games should be the main draw, with their appeal to multiple generations.

And so they are — almost two dozen at any given time, ranging from 1978’s Space Invaders to a few from the early ’90s, but mainly hailing from that early-’80s golden age.

“We liked the idea of creating a space that was special in nature and provided opportunities for people to bond over their shared love of these retro games,” Myers said. “We wanted to make sure it was exciting and interesting for a lot of different people.”

Some patrons might be drawn by theme trivia nights, he went on, while kids tend to pour in on weekend mornings and early afternoons. “We want all these different people in this space. At its core, it never stresses one thing, and we make sure no one feels alienated or unwelcome.”

Word on the Street

After deciding on their concept, the owners relied on an Indiegogo campaign to raise money to buy the initial machines, which got the word on the street that a retro arcade was coming. That turned out to be a positive development, even when the opening took longer than expected.

“All businesses take longer than people think to open, and we started advertising pretty early,” Stutsman said. “But that was to our benefit. People knew about us; the word was out. We were often telling people, ‘next month it’s going to happen.’ And when we did open, we were busy from day one.”

Myers said he and Stutsman deliberately crafted their business as a space where everyone could come and feel comfortable. It’s a popular booking spot for kids’ birthday parties, and weekly Super Cereal Saturdays, which feature unlimited tokens, a cereal and milk bar, and ’80s and ’90s cartoons, are well-attended.

“It’s a place for 11-year-olds and people who remember being 11, and may be in their 30s or 40s with their own kids,” Myers said. “People on the bike trail might stop by for lunch. At night, it’s a little more bar-oriented crowd. In the span of 24 hours, so many different types of people can come here and enjoy it on their own terms. We went through great pains to make that happen.”

As for the food, it’s not an afterthought, said Stutsman, who ran sandwich shops in Northampton in a previous career. “We’re happy to see the recognition it’s getting. People are really happy with the food. For us, it’s an important piece of the puzzle, and a lot of thought was put into that.”


Myers and Stutsman get a kick out of seeing parents introduce their kids to the games they grew up with, like Q*bert, Ms. Pac-Man, and Burgertime.

The menu features food that can be carried around while patrons play games, but with a twist. For example, a series of small, locally made hot dogs, or ‘pups,’ come in varieties ranging from the classic New York pup to a kimchi pup and a banh mi pup. At the other end of the taste spectrum, the place was packed for a recent vegan night, which featured a wide-ranging menu of all-vegan fare.

But the games themselves are the main draw, and they’re not as difficult to find as one might think, Stutsman said. Craigslist was an obvious starting point, and in the four years since they began collecting the machines, they’ve come to know a network of sellers across the country — some in the Western Mass. region — so the task of replacing games and adding to their collection has become easier.

When they sat down with BusinessWest, the Quarters had 22 games on the floor and another 35 in storage. Games are rotated in and out on a regular basis, both for repairs and simply to maintain variety for players.

And, yes, the games do need repairs. Over the years, they’ve learned enough to fix some issues themselves, while others require outside repair experts; some are hobbyists, others electrical engineers with an interest in vintage games.

“Games do break, and we try to stay on top of that,” Stutsman said. “This is not a museum.”

Some video-game collectors, he elaborated, display their machines as showpieces, not meant to be played, but the games in the Quarters are meant to be used, and used a lot, and their moving parts often require maintenance. “These aren’t like the collector’s pieces you’ll find in someone’s basement.”

Blast from the Past

Myers and Stutsman knew their concept was a winner after the success of their Indiegogo campaign and the initial crowds, which haven’t dampened. They recognize they’re giving something valuable to their customers: a chance to relive fond memories and create new ones.

“One of the neatest things for me is to see the joy on people’s faces when they walk in here,” Stutsman said. “It’s a pretty special place — not just because it’s a room full of arcade games, but because of the atmosphere. On the flip side of that, all the work that goes into it is hard to overstate.”

Myers agreed.

“It’s much easier to talk about the fun aspects as the years move along, but opening it was a challenge, a lot of sweat equity,” he told BusinessWest. But he’s gratified to see the sheer range of people who come in every day — kids and their parents, teenagers, college students, young professionals — all with a shared love of playing retro games and soaking in the distinctly ’80s vibe. Here, after all, is a place where the arcade industry never disappeared, where people still patiently line up for their turn on Galaga or Arkanoid or Burgertime.

“I love seeing a dad in his 40s introducing his daughter to the game he was so great at — and the daughter turns out to be better than he is,” Myers said.

“That’s a great experience,” Stutsman added, “sharing that joy, seeing someone experiencing a game for the first time.”

And then dropping in another quarter. And another. And another.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Sports & Leisure

Strike Force

Jeff Bennett, general manager of AMF Chicopee Lanes

Jeff Bennett, general manager of AMF Chicopee Lanes, says there has been a seismic shift in the bowling industry in recent years.

Those who haven’t been in a bowling alley in decades probably wouldn’t recognize today’s centers. There are strobe lights and black lights, disc jockeys, and fine food. These are just some of the adjustments center owners have made to bring people to their doors and, more importantly, bring them back.

It is late Friday night at Shaker Bowl in East Longmeadow — or ‘Galactic Bowl’ time, as it has come to be called.

The lanes are lined with tiny rope lights, and bouncing colored-light orbs dance on the walls and floor as a disc jockey plays tunes and bowlers enjoy drinks from the bar or food from the recently expanded menu. There are also prizes awarded each night in the form of discount coupons for return visits.

“The people who are here come to hear the music and have a good time. It’s a different atmosphere – more of a nightclub feel,” said Justin Godfrey, general manager of the operation.

This scene, and Godfrey’s words, speak to just how much the business of bowling — not the game, really — has changed over the decades and especially the past several years.

Indeed, where once people came to bowl, and the only thing those who owned such establishments had to do to bring in business was unlock the front door, now there’s … Galactic Bowl and a whole host of initiatives like it. And they are the new reality.

Today, there are fewer bowling lanes in operation than even a decade ago, and those still in business would be somewhat unrecognizable to those who grew up on the game in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Now, the lanes have black lights and strobe lights. There are music videos or disc jockeys on weekend nights to appeal to young people looking for a place to socialize with their friends. Arcade games have become a staple, and food and beverage sales figure prominently as a source of income.

Bowling, it seems, is not the thing people come to do — it’s something else they come to do.

“There has been a huge shift in the bowling business,” said Jeff Bennett, general manager at AMF Chicopee Lanes, who has been involved with the industry since the ’80s.

He noted that AMF bowling centers represent the largest operation of its type in the world, and today, some are set up more like lounges and don’t cater to leagues, which were once the backbone of the business. “They’re designed for folks who want to make food and drink as much a part of their experience as bowling.

“Centers used to have double shifts on weeknights for league play; one would start at 6 p.m., and another would begin when the first league finished at 8:30,” he went on. “Years ago, many people bowled three to four times a week; they belonged to a men’s or ladies’ league as well as a couple’s league, and food and drink only accounted for 10 to 15% of a center’s revenue.”

Jon Roberts, left, and Jim Feeley

Jon Roberts, left, and Jim Feeley are committed to making needed adjustments at Agawam Bowl, one of the few remaining candlepin facilities.

Jim Feeley, who grew up bowling and watched it every Saturday on TV, made similar observations. “When I was a youngster and young adult, I was glued to the TV set when candlepin bowling was on,” said the manager of Agawam Bowl, a candlepin operation.

He bowled on a sanctioned team at Springfield Technical High School, and today he enjoys the sport with his son. But Feeley and others who have spent years in the business say people today are too busy to make long-term commitments to league bowling, and there are so many sports and activities for young and old alike that can be done year-round, that bowling no longer takes the lead when it comes to recreational pursuits.

“Owners have had to make big investments to improve conditions and the attractions they offer at bowling centers to stay in business,” Feeley said. “It’s not easy to do well today.”

But some operations are. These are the ones who have made the necessary adjustments — and the requisite investments.

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest looks at how the game — and the business — have changed, and the types of programs bowling centers have developed to attract patrons.

No Time to Spare

Erik Semb remembers when people used to line up at the door of French King Bowling Center in Erving, just east of Greenfield, in hopes of joining a bowling league.

Some of its busiest years were from 1987 to 1991, when 300 people bowled in leagues Monday through Friday. At that time, 80% of the business consisted of league play, and 20% was open play.

But today, those numbers have become reversed, not only at French King, but at all bowling operations, and Semb cites changing demographics, attitudes, and priorities as the main reasons why.

Three decades ago, all of the area factories, including Erving Paper Mills and Strathmore Paper Co., had leagues, he noted, but when those industries left town, went to swing shifts, or downsized, business began to plummet.

Meanwhile, today’s young professionals don’t have as much time for recreation as previous generations, or so the theory goes, and there is considerably more competition for what time they do have, he went on, listing everything from the Internet to ziplines.

“It’s a commitment, and people today are so busy today,” he said of bowling and especially league play. “The average person works longer and more hours than they did 20 years ago, and there are more women in the workforce.”

So, like most all bowling facilities, French King has made necessary changes, many of which have been successful.

These include everything from a focus on corporate outings — Dylan Chevrolet in Greenfield has hosted several there, for example — to leagues that play only every other week.

“We also have black-light bowling on Friday nights and all day Saturday and Sunday,” said Semb, adding that these steps are typical of what’s taking place across the industry.

“The industry is at a crossroads,” said Shaker Bowl’s Godfrey, noting that everything about the business is different, from how the game is presented to how it’s marketed to how operations are staffed.

Indeed, most bowling centers now have an event planner on staff, he said, adding that one is necessary to make sure that the many different types of gatherings that now take place are well-planned and well-executed.

“Marketing used to be mainly done for leagues, but now you need to invest in advertising just to get people in the door,” he told BusinessWest, citing another key change. “Arcade games are huge, and many centers are going after birthday parties or offering laser tag.”

“For most people, bowling is simply a night out and a social experience,” he went on, adding that only 5% to 10% of people who bowl do so competitively. “Our goal is to elevate the guest experience; we want to create memorable experiences for every guest on every visit; it’s become our mission.”

And it’s the mission for every bowling facility, because the game itself is not enough to bring people in.

Making the needed adjustments is difficult — and costly — and many operations simply haven’t been able to keep up, said those we spoke with.

There used to be about eight 10-pin bowling lanes locally, Bennette noted, but now there are only a handful, including AMF Chicopee Lanes. “There are none in Greenfield, one in Pittsfield and one in Great Barrington,” he said, adding that few candlepin bowling lanes exist in the area, and the ones that are still open are often small operations. “Their struggle is more mighty than the 10-pin centers.”

Candlepin bowling is almost strictly a New England and Canadian sport. The main difference between 10-pin and candlepin is that, in the latter form, each player uses three balls per frame rather than two; the balls are smaller, weigh less, and don’t have finger holes; the pins are thinner; and when they are downed they not cleared away between balls during a player’s turn.

Justin Godfrey

Justin Godfrey says aggressive marketing is necessary today to get people in the doors and attract new bowlers.

The average age of bowlers at AMF Chicopee Lanes is 25 to 45, and they usually bowl at least once a week. Many are there on weekend nights, when the average age is 25 to 35.

“We have music videos playing on screens over the lanes and black lighting. It’s a very upbeat atmosphere, and people are here for two to three hours, eating and drinking while they bowl,” Bennett said, adding that, generations ago, bowling centers were often empty on weekend nights.

AMF Chicopee has two men’s leagues on Friday nights that are very competitive and a few competitive women’s leagues, but they are the exception.

In general, there are very few men-only leagues, and the remaining women’s leagues are typically made up of senior citizens, although the number of mixed leagues has grown.

AMF Chicopee’s leagues have remained at the same levels they were at 15 years ago, but Bennett says that may be true because there are fewer centers today, and whenever one closes, many of its bowlers move to the remaining centers.

Knowing the Score

Jon Roberts purchased the building Agawam Bowl is housed in on April 1, and had no plans to continue the bowling operation, but decided to do so when he found how important it was to the community.

“There aren’t many candlepin lanes left, and one woman in the senior league has bowled here for more than 50 years,” he said, noting that candlepin centers in Westfield, Holyoke, and Springfield closed over the past several years; there were at least a dozen candlepin centers in Springfield alone decades ago.

His decision to keep the business going and make needed adjustments are steps reflective of those trying to make what amounts to a 7-10 split in this business.

He reconditioned the lanes and recently hired a marketing manager, he said, citing a few examples.

Agawam Bowl offers a number of summer programs, including a Friday Night Pizza League that people can join with no commitment — each person is assigned a handicap score, and each week teams are composed of bowlers who show up. At the end of the night, the top-scoring team gets free pizza courtesy of the other bowlers.

It also started a Summer Fun Bowling program; children have to rent shoes, but if they register, they can play two free games each week.

The program has been very successful: 1,400 young people are registered, and an additional 100 family passes have been sold.

Feeley said there has been a revival of interest in candlepin bowling in Eastern Mass., but owners everywhere have had to improve conditions and add attractions.

For example, the center in Wilmington, Vt., which that was rebuilt after it was devastated by Hurricane Irene, has added a restaurant and mini-golf course.

“We have had a pretty good summer and are trying to reestablish a youth group here, but have problems because so many kids have schedule conflicts,” he said, adding that they tried adding special effects such as lights and music, but it didn’t prove popular.

However, Agawam Bowl does host its share of corporate events and birthday parties.

“The game is not out of the woods, but I have hope for the future. There are people who want to continue to go bowling at a competitive level, but we need more families to start bowling,” Feeley said.

Bennett agreed. “The game’s inexpensive, and something people can do from age 2 to 102,” he said, adding that AMF Chicopee Lanes has an e-mail club that offers discounts several times a month and other special offers for people who sign up when they bowl.

“It’s a benefit for our loyal customers,” he went on. “Marketing has had to change to keep up with time and the demographics; today people can text and get coupons, so we run contests on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to keep in touch with young people. But our customer base is so broad that it takes a lot to keep in contact with people of all ages.”

Although the center used to target 25- to 40-year-olds, today, every age group has become a focus. There are ramps so people with handicaps can bowl, six-pound balls that can be pushed down the ramps by 3- and 4-year-olds (bumpers are put in the gutters to increase their chances of knocking down pins), and senior leagues with members in their 80s. “Millenials have fun here on Saturday nights, and we have programs that cater to all abilities and interest levels,” Bennett said.

AMF Chicopee is also the setting for many corporate outings and fund-raisers; it caters to eight to 10 groups a month and works with corporate planners to build special menus.

Semb says French King Bowling Center holds about two corporate events a month as well as a lot of Christmas and birthday parties. “When companies go out to dinner around the holidays, people usually only socialize with co-workers who sit next to them. But when they have a party here, everyone socializes with each other when they are not bowling,” he said.

Since it’s a candlepin center and the balls weigh only two pounds, six ounces, small children can enjoy it, and even preschool groups have gone to French King.

Next Generation

Although the scope of bowling has changed, many adults are introducing their children to the sport. Theresa Sherman was at Agawam Bowl with her two children, their friend, and her own friend Alicia Richter, who brought her 5-year-old daughter and 4-month-old to the lanes on a recent stifling hot day.

“My high school had a bowling program, and I came from a generation that bowled a lot and enjoyed it. My daughter is at a good age to start, so I definitely plan to bring her here more often,” Richter said.

Sherman recalled bowling lock-ins in high school, when students would spend the entire night in a center, bowling and eating pizza. “I bowl occasionally and came here when my son’s school sponsored a bowling night. We loved it and hadn’t known that there were candlepin bowling centers around here. But we discovered their summer program; the children love it, and it’s definitely a good family activity.”

Five-year-old Logan agreed. “It’s better than anything. The pins are like bad guys, and the balls are like power balls,” he said.

Indeed, although the reasons people bowl have changed, it’s still a sport and an activity which current and future generations can enjoy in a world where superstars and special effects reign.

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