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Bowling: Death and Rebirth

In our last Leisure eNewsletter we discussed the trends of decreasing attendance and social stratification at various entertainment and leisure venues. In previous articles we looked at the impact of the recession on community-based out-of-home entertainment. So we decided to dig into some recent data we obtained to see what is happening with bowling and whether it is experiencing the same trends.

Bowling participation is on the decline. The number of U.S. people age 6 and older who bowled at least once during the previous year declined from 60 million in 2007 to 55.8 million in 2010. When you factor in population growth during the same three years, per capita participation in bowling declined by 9%. As bad as that might appear, it’s not the whole story. There are two types of bowlers, the casual bowler, referred to in the industry as the open play bowler, and the serious bowler (almost all are league bowlers). When we looked at per capita participation for the casual bowler (12 or less times a year) and the serious bowler (13+ times a year), we found a 21% decline in per capita bowling by serious bowlers versus only a 5% decline for casual bowlers.

Serious bowlers also declined from 26% of all bowlers in 2007 to only 22% in 2010. And even though serious bowlers bowl more games per year, the total lineage they generate was less than that for casual bowlers and at much lower revenue per game.

This trend is not new. Back in 1998, there were 4.1 million certified league bowlers. In 2010, there were only 2.2 million. If you look at the decreasing numbers of league bowlers over a long time period and graphed it, the graph would show a down slopping line heading in the direction of zero.

Fortunately for existing bowling centers, although the number of bowlers of all types is declining, so is the number of bowling centers and lanes. In 2002 there were 6,300 bowling centers with 125,300 lanes. In September 2010 that had declined to 5,400 centers with 111,000 lanes.

Our research shows that the social stratification trend—the shift of participation to higher socioeconomic households—seen in other leisure activities, is also true with bowling. The serious bowler has traditionally skewed to the lower socioeconomic; the casual bowling to the higher. The social stratification became even more pronounced during the recession, with far more lower socioeconomic bowlers dropping out of bowling than higher socioeconomic ones.

Why did we pick Bowling: Death and Rebirth as the title of this blog post? It’s because bowling centers are simultaneously going in two directions. We have the old style bowling alleys that cater primarily to the league bowler dying off at the same time we are seeing the emergence of a whole new generation of bowling venues targeting the casual bowler. The bowling alleys had their heyday not all that many years ago when leagues constituted 70% or more of business. These old-style centers are rapidly disappearing, as their primary customer base is vanishing. As mentioned earlier, there were 900 less centers in 2010 compared to 2002. For some alley owners, the real estate has become valuable enough that they can walk away with a profit. For some, it’s boarding up the center due to deterioration of the socioeconomics in their markets. But some are attempting to keep one foot in the past and one in the future. These owners are renovating, adding gamerooms and maybe other attractions and trying to cater to both league and open play bowlers. Unfortunately, that is not a successful strategy, as the two types of bowlers are completely different with different needs. So the center ends up being a diluted formula not designed fully to really please either. In fact, we are even seeing some new centers follow this formula. We call this strategy ‘extended life support.’

Now the really smart operators, the ones who understand bowling’s present and where it going in the future, are designing 100% for the open play bowler, the vast majority of today’s bowlers. They understand that casual bowlers come from the higher socioeconomic households. By designing their bowling-entertainment centers, bowling lounges and boutique bowling centers for this group, they are achieving revenues far exceeding those of the old alleys and the bowling centers who still try to cater to both type bowlers.

Our company started our work in the bowling industry back in 1989 when we broke bowling paradigms with new designs for our clients and helped them achieve greater success than typical bowling centers at the time. We are currently working on the redesign and renovation of two existing bowling centers and the design of two new hybrid bowling centers that are being designed to capture business from today’s and future casual bowlers.

Additional reading:
The trend of decreasing attendance with higher prices
What’s happening to bowling?

About Randy White

Randy White is CEO and co-founder of the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group. The 31-year-old company, with offices in Kansas City, Missouri, has worked for over 600 clients in 37 countries throughout the world. Projects the company has designed and produced have won seventeen 1st place awards. Randy is considered to be one of the world's foremost authorities on feasibility, brand development, design and production of leisure experience destinations including entertainment, eatertainment, edutainment, agritainment/agritourism, play and leisure facilities.

Randy was featured on the Food Network's Unwrapped television show as an eatertainment expert, quoted as an entertainment/edutainment center expert in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Times and Time magazine and received recognition for family-friendly designs by Pizza Today magazine. One of the company's projects was featured as an example of an edutainment project in the book The Experience Economy. Numerous national newspapers have interviewed him as an expert on shopping center and mall entertainment and retail-tainment.

Randy is a graduate of New York University. Prior to repositioning the company in 1989 to work exclusively in the leisure and learning industry, White Hutchinson was active in the retail/commercial real estate industry as a real estate consultancy specializing in workouts/turnarounds of commercial projects. In the late 1960s to early 1980s, Randy managed a diversified real estate development company that developed, owned and managed over 2.0 million square feet of shopping centers and mixed-use projects and 2,000 acres of residential subdivisions. Randy has held the designations of CSM (Certified Shopping Center Manager) and Certified Retail Property Executive (CRX) from the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC).

He has authored over 150 articles that have been published in over 40 leading entertainment/leisure and early childhood education industry magazines and journals and has been a featured speaker and keynoter at over 40 different conventions and trade groups.

Randy is the editor of his company's Leisure eNewsletter, has a blog and posts on Twitter and Linkedin.

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