Remember when? When you could go out to that favorite local bowling alley where all your buddies and you had been coming since you were babies? Then one day comes the news they are going out of business, or maybe, there’s no news, you come by and there’s the “Closed” sign on the door. Nowadays you really have to look around to find that ambiance and immediately see that its almost gone. There are more and more closings – mostly smaller businesses, but not always. What happened?
The real story is that there is not one all-encompassing cause. There are many. Some singular. Many compounded with others. Together they have caused many, if not most, small bowling centers, to close.
The biggest of the causes is the pure economic of running such a business today. Owners all say the increase in running costs is devastating, whether or not you’re forced out of business by it. The big operations aren’t immune to it either. AMF is a prime example of even a large operator being hit by inflation, increased operating costs, forcing them to restructure. That meant closing a lot of their small operations. Collins Bowling in Lexington, KY halved their size, closing one facility, moving everything to one location, citing high operational costs. Bowling alleys in surrounding towns, Winchester, Paris, Mt. Sterling, all closed, all small operations.
Hidden among those small bowling alley operations are pro shops, in-house businesses, usually run by some small folks who sell and drill balls plus sell bowling supplies for a living. Classic case was Hurst Lanes in Hurst, Texas. This pro shop had been in business 50+ years. Started by a World War II vet, it was housed, as are most pro shops, inside a bowling facility, in this case, Hurst Lanes. Hurst Lanes was an AMF owned facility. In their corporate haste they also closed the Pro Shop by closing the bowling alley – on very short notice. The AMF employees were offered jobs at other facilities BUT the pro shop owners were out. They were not AMF employees.
Possibly the biggest crippler/killer is increasing utility costs. The ever rising cost of electricity and gas is difficult to offset. There is a point that cost can no longer be passed on to the customer. This has been reached for some time now. The absolute cost of bowling causes loss of customers, decline in interest in the sport. This is in process now. One facility manager told me they have a $16,000/month electricity bill alone. They are a large facility and host large events to make that end meet. With a smaller facility such costs can’t be offset, especially in a small town and customer base.
Another factor is interest. There is a school of thought that the proliferation of handicapped bowling increases interest in the game, allowing more folks a shot at winning. This is part of why there are no scratch leagues. There are an ever increasing number of scratch tournaments though. League bowling is also a big draw, especially for seniors, where many leagues are in session during times of day when bowling alleys would normally be empty. There are stories of when scratch bowling filled the alleys with grudge matches. Today this is done with “beat downs”, but these are private, heads-up, scratch competitions in small groups. They do attract spectators and trash talkers, though.
On the other end of interest is where the small facility can’t support a large school outing. These are dollar generators. But you have to be able to have enough lanes for bus loads of students. Youth tournaments are generally that way too, so large they take a coliseum to host.
And yeah, there is that handful of small ownerships that just have been in the business so long and retired.