Is bowling in the gutter?

The following article was published in the first issue of the new Interfun Magazine (Issue 1, 2014). The entire issue and the article (on pages 28-31) can be found by clicking here.

You can find our CEO Randy White's reply to Roger Creamer at the end of this story. It was not published in Interfun and is being published here for the first time..

Is Bowling in the Gutter? (debate)
No way, says QubicaAMF's Roger Creamer, arguing a mix of family and sports bowling keeps the global industry healthy.

In one corner Randy White, CEO of the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, an international feasibility, design, production and consulting company specializing in leisure and entertainment venues, argues bowling operators need to embrace a new breed of bowler instead of clinging to old-school sports league standards. In the other corner Roger Creamer, who heads up QubicaAMF's Middle East office and a bowling 'missionary' of considerable fervor, argues bowling isn't in the gutter but that there is room for open play and sports bowling to happily co-exist. White prefixes his points on bowling with the heading: "Paradigm paralysis has bowling in the gutter", a point which Creamer contests with great passion.

Randy White, White Hutchinson
There's a disruption, a nascent revolution, underway in bowling that is starting to undermine the status quo that the old guard continues to defend. Unlike many bowling operators who are prisoners of the past and suffer from paradigm paralysis, new entrepreneurs, many with no history in bowling, are stepping in to offer new types of bowling experiences, which are bringing them success while older bowling alleys are become extinct. As evidence of this extinction, between mid-2008 and mid-2013, the number of commercial bowling centers in the U.S. declined by 14%, yet at the same time the population grew by 4%.

This revolution is being brought about by societal changes. The first and most significant change is that the customer market which leagues were comprised of, predominately an 8-hour shift worker on a regular schedule, is mostly history and along with it the old bread and butter of bowling, the league itself. People no longer are willing to make any type of long-term commitment, let alone for a large number of consecutive weeks. We now live in a time-pressured, spontaneous culture.

Leagues were based on the 'sport' of bowling. So bowling facilities and leagues had to meet USBC (United States Bowling Congress) stringent sanctioned league requirements, including offering ten-pin bowling with all its rules, equipment and maintenance requirements.

Today leagues are a minor market segment of bowling and are on a declining trajectory. Over the last 5 years, the number of USBC certified league bowlers in the U.S. has dropped 30% to 1.7 million, less than 5% of all bowlers. Even if uncertified leagues are included, league bowlers are still less than one-fourteenth (7%) of all bowlers. However, most new entertainment venues that offer bowling, typically with additional entertainment attractions, still build their bowling based on USBC sport bowling standards. Most bowling capital equipment suppliers continue to perpetuate this standard in their offerings, even in emerging economy countries where there is no ten-pin sport bowling tradition. The conventional wisdom of using these design standards is preventing bowling from achieving its full potential.

Another barrier to achieving full potentials is that most new centers, as well as renovated ones, continue to market to both leagues and casual bowlers, attempting to cater to two completely different customer segments. The centers are trying to dip their toes in the future while keeping a foot in the past and as a result end up nowhere near their potentials.

There can be no doubt that the future of bowling is the casual social customer (often referred to in the industry as the open-play bowler) who could care less about USBC standards. In fact, many aren't even concerned about their scores. They just want to have some fun while rolling a ball and socializing with friends or family. And fun for many, especially children and women, is not trying to throw that awkward heavy ten pin bowling ball with the three holes for your fingers. Talk about offering an unfriendly way to have fun.

And why do we need those monster pinsetters with their multitude of parts that require a full time mechanic to keep them operating? The casual bowler could care less about what spots the pins as long as it works. And those long lanes that take up so much real estate, the casual bowler could care less if they meet USBC length standards. Heck, to keep the casual bowler safe as they often go over the foul line, they could care less if the first foot or so of the lane is even oiled. And speaking about length, the casual bowler could care less about the exact length of the approach.

The USBC standards that continue to be followed as bowling's standard are a major obstacle to meeting the potential bowling has to attract casual customers. A few innovative bowling entrepreneurs have seen the light. They are using string pinsetters; they are shortening the lanes and approaches. We are even seeing new centers under development that are looking back into the history of bowling before the USBC (formerly ABC) dominated bowling and are bringing back duckpin bowling, a truly friendly form of bowling for all players that uses a much smaller, much lighter, palmable ball. In fact, 184 older duckpin and candlepin (which also uses a small ball) centers have survived the proliferation of ten-pin bowling in the U.S. due to its user friendliness. Our company has centers under development in both the U.S. and SE Asia that will have duckpin bowling with string pinsetters on shortened lanes and approaches.

There's another societal change that new successful developers understand: today bowling has a lot more competition. With all the very affordable in-home digital entertainment options available that no longer require you to leave home to enjoy great social entertainment options with your family or friends, the bar has been raised for what it takes to attract customers. The new developers also understand that there has been a social stratification of out-of-home entertainment with a market share shift to the higher socioeconomic and aspirational customers. What this means is that you have to offer a luxury experience in an upscale atmosphere to win today. Unfortunately, most existing bowling owners who try to move into the future by renovating their facilities still target the fast shrinking middle socioeconomic market with non-luxury remodels and so-so food, missing their greatest market opportunity.

The new entrepreneurs don't even consider themselves in the bowling business. They see bowling only as a part of a larger synergistic socialization mix that includes an upscale atmosphere, contemporary food and beverage offerings, great hospitality and service, and often, other forms of entertainment. For them, bowling revenue is no longer in the majority.

To find success, more bowling centers need to free themselves from USBC-design-and-operations-paralysis and design and operate to attract contemporary casual customers.

Roger Creamer, QubicaAMF
Asked if I would like to respond and give an opposing view to Randy White's "Paradigm (not sure if I understand what the word "paradigm" means) paralysis has bowling in the gutter", my first view that is totally opposed to Randy's is that "…bowling is in the gutter." But as I read through Randy's other comments and observations, I found that on a number of aspects I do not have a view that is opposite.

The statistics that Randy quotes are accurate but somewhat misleading. It is true that membership of USBC has declined and I will take Randy's word for what he claims is a 30 per cent fall off. Similar declines have been seen in other countries where "sport" bowling used to be strong.  I do however dispute that 1.7 million USBC members are "less than five per cent of all (US) bowlers." They are far, far, far less than five per cent. Randy is suggesting that there are something over 34 million bowlers in the US, when in fact the number is twice or maybe more than three times that number-that bowl at least once a year. However, what Randy's numbers do not show is that the 1.7 million USBC members and another 1.35 million or so non-members are in bowling centres most weeks of the years, sometimes several times and bowling on each visit a multiple of games.

A typical league bowler will bowl 100 or more games per year and a considerable number would bowl that in a quarter of that time. While many of the 60, 70,80 or whatever million open play bowlers will not break into double figures. The exact number may be in dispute, but not by much, 50 per cent of all games bowled in the US are bowled in either leagues or tournaments by member and non-members of the USBC. Put another way, by Randy's numbers, half of all games bowled are done by only seven per cent of all bowlers. They don't participate in string machine centres and only on the USBC laid down standard lanes.

I have no argument with Randy's claim the "societal" changes have had a profound impact on the bowling business. He's right in that the number of people prepared to commit themselves to turning up at their local bowling centre at a particular time, on the same night every week for around 34 weeks is few. I love the business that I'm in and used to play at international level but now I couldn't or wouldn't make that sort of commitment.

Despite Randy's claim, there are substantial numbers that want to compete and the creative bowling centre operator has continues to satisfy these demands with shorter seasons and innovative formats.

And how can a bowling centre achieve its "full potential" if five per cent (Randy's numbers not mine) are told they are not wanted because they want to compete? Last year over 70 millions Americans bowled at least once during the course of the year. If the industry lost the three or so million competitive bowlers it would need to find around 35 million more open play bowlers to place them or face an almost total collapse.

"Open play" bowlers are not interested in USBC standards, correct, and the majority probably don't even know what the letters stand for anyway. Yes, they do want to have fun with the family or friends but no, they don't want to do that not knowing the score. By its very nature bowling is competitive. I have run bowling centre management classes for years. I have often said in front of a class that bowling per se is boring. Roll a ball and knock down some pins only for some annoying mechanism to stand them up again, return the ball and demand you do the same thing again. It is only when people and scoring are added to the game does it become "fun".

There is certainly room for a shorter lane game with lighter and smaller balls. But those products are readily available without the need to bastardise the traditional game of ten-pin bowling. A few examples exist where short lane games are installed alongside full-size bowling and in every instance the full-size version is the bigger attraction even among women and children who Randy claims are unable to have fun with the heavier ball and the longer lane.

Bowling certainly has more competition than it has ever had but when it is considered just how much competition together with the current challenging economic conditions many other businesses could be completely wiped out. Fourteen percent reduction on the number of centres (in the US), that's not so bad. What Randy fails to mention is that the bowling business continues to expand in almost every other market outside of the US.

This is a healthy debate and there are a number of things that Randy writes with which I totally agree. Bowling centres do need to seriously consider the constantly changing environment in which they operate and need to continually adjust their offering accordingly.

I am an employee of a leading manufacturer of bowling products and I will quickly add that the preceding and what follows are my thoughts and not those of my employer. This year on February 1 I will have been in the bowling business for 50 years, in both bowling centre operations and products and in 40 or more countries. I therefore think I've earned the right to have an opinion. I'm not embarrassed to admit being an old timer but I work with some of the most innovative products that are exceptionally easy and relaxing to use and keep the game of bowling fun, exciting with extended social reach.

The future success of the bowling centre business does not rely wholly and solely on the "open play" customer, but nor do I believer or ever did, that it should be dominated by sport. Randy's views, not surprisingly, are US-biased but look outside and there is a very clear picture of the formula for success. Where bowling came to a country for the first time and was driven by sport it boomed and quickly died. When it was introduced exclusively as a leisure activity, it did exactly the same-failed.

Success relied upon getting both of the two primary customer segments open play and competitive. It could be achieved in one bowling centre that wants to accommodate both sport and leisure customers or it can be achieved by two centres close to each other where one concentrates on one segment while the other serves the other.

Something that Randy does not refer to is that there are too many bowling centres in many parts of the world that I would not enter with my pet crocodile let alone my family-and thankfully a number of those disappeared among the 14 per cent of bowling centre closures in the US. But that is another debate for another time.

Randy's reply to Roger (not a part of InterFun's original article)
Roger, congratulations on your 50 years in the bowling industry. However, I wish you had looked up the meaning of paradigm before replying, as much of your reply clearly demonstrates the conventional wisdom of bowling's old guard that continues to hold back so much of the industry from its full potential.

First off, for the statistics you argue I am wrong on, The Sports & Fitness Association conducts very statistically significant surveys (42,363 on-line interviews) on the number of U.S. bowlers every year. Their data shows that there were only 48,600 people age 6 or older who bowled one or more times in 2012. This is very consistent with a similar annual nationwide survey by the National Sporting Goods Association that found 46,400 bowlers age 7 and older in 2012. No Roger, as much as you and QubicaAMF may wish there were 64 to 96 million bowlers, the number is far less.

Concerning how many games league bowlers bowl versus casual bowlers, the data doesn't support that "50 percent of all games bowled in the US are bowled in either leagues or tournaments by member and non-members of USBC." The data shows that only 10% of bowlers bowl 30 or more times a year. Furthermore, it's not the number of games bowled that equates to a center's revenues and profitability, but rather the revenue per game bowled. The per game revenue from league and tournament bowlers is far less than from casual bowlers, as they get a discounted per game bowling rate, bring their own bowling shoes and eat and drink far less. And sport bowling requires the bowling houses to have those complex free-fall pinsetters that have over 1,500 moving parts and require the expense of hiring a full-time mechanic to keep them running properly.

Duckpin balls

Roger, concerning what you call "short lane games," I don't think you understand what duckpin bowling is. It's not mini-bowling that you appear to be referring to. Duckpin bowling is on full width and length lanes. The difference is that the duck pins are smaller and the ball is smaller, lighter and palmable, similar to a candlepin bowling ball, so it is much more user friendly. It was one of the original forms of bowling back in the 1800s. Today there are still approximately 150 duckpin and candlepin bowling centers in the U.S. that continue to be very popular for casual bowling, especially by women and children (read more about the duckpin bowling).

I totally disagree with you Roger that "success relies upon getting both the two primary customer segments open play and competitive. It could be achieved in one bowling center that wants to accommodate both sport and leisure customers." Those are two completely different types of customers with two completely different values, wants and needs. When you try to focus on two completely different types of customers, you can't end up maximizing the appeal to both as you have to compromise the ideal experience for both. Today success is achieved by focusing on the causal social customers. Yes, Roger, as you suggest, the answer is that you can have two different centers in the same area, one that concentrates on casual bowlers and the other that concentrates on sport bowlers. The problem is that it doesn't make sense to concentrate on the rapidly declining sport segment (13+ times a year bowlers are down by almost one-third in 5 years and all indications are that rate of decline will continue) unless you own one of the older bowling alleys that can't attract the modern causal social bowlers who demand a far more upscale environment with quality contemporary food and beverage. Hopefully the sport-focused alleys won't be one of the ones where Roger won't visit with his pet crocodile. The problem is that many of the older alleys are not crocodile-friendly to the casual bowlers either, which is temporarily resulting in a five-year 13% decline in their participation (far less than for the sport bowlers). That decline should stop once more of the new upscale centers that appeal to the casual bowler come on-line.