Sections Sports & Leisure

New Spin on Bowling Helps Keep Sport Alive

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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