Some of the best bowling alleys in the United States are shutting down these days, with a customer base that is ever-dwindling. Yet other bowling alleys are experiencing long waiting lines, record league sign-ups, and significant growth. For the bowling industry trends of today and tomorrow, is it an industry that is in its 10tth frame… or is it an industry poised to do something great?
In the United States, the bowling industry currently generates about $6 billion in revenues annually.
According to Sandy Hansell, who is a former bowling alley owner, she told USA today that the bowling business is changing. “It’s a different business than when I ran centers in the 1970s. In those days, the business was built around leagues. Those days are gone.” Today’s bowling alley offers arcades, sit-down dining, and various other games in addition to actual bowling. Can these and other changes be enough to save the sport?
The Downward Trend of the Bowling Industry
- From 1998-2013, the number of bowling alleys in the U.S. fell to 3,976 from 5,400, or by about 26%.
- The Metro Detroit U.S. Bowling Congress has more than 45,000 members, more than any other metro congress association. In the 1970s, it had more than 300,000 members.
- Although the number of people who say that they go bowling has increased by 10%, the number of people who actually join leagues at a bowling alley has dropped by 40%. As Bloomberg describes the situation, “League members paid for lane time week after week. Occasional bowlers brought in less money over the long haul.”
- The census of certified league members has declined by an average of 5% to 6% annually over the past 10 years.
- Industry observers believe that only about 75% of all leagues now certify their members, which means as few as 1 million people bowl in leagues today.
- Older bowling centers are not seen as attractive to younger consumers. As Mark Kempa told USA Today, “I don’t like the old-time bowling alleys. They kind of smell.”
- From 2011-2016, the bowling industry achieved 0.6% annualized growth, employing about 67,000 people in the United States, according to IBIS World.
- Industry value added (IVA), which measures an industry’s contribution to the overall economy, is expected to decrease at an annualized rate of 0.4% through 2021.
- Fragmented ownership has also had a hand in the downward trend of the industry. The largest company in the bowling industry owns about 340 centers, while the next three largest companies together own only about 50 centers.
Times have definitely changed for the bowling industry. Some of this is likely do to a shift in how the GDP is growing in the US right now. In the past, blue collar jobs were more prevalent and the idea of bowling, even with stale beer and fresh oil lingering in the air, was an enjoyable recreational experience. Today’s consumers have white collar jobs that are more prevalent, which has required the bowling industry to transform the experience. In areas where they have created new bowling centers with multiple levels of activity, there has been renewed interest. When it’s the same old bowling alley it was 40 years ago, however, that interest is fading rapidly.
How the Bowling Industry Can Recover
- In data that covers 2014-2015 sales data, Sandy Hansell reports that sales have started to rebound at a majority of bowling centers. “According to recent national studies, with patronage boosted in part by lower gas prices and reduced unemployment.”
- Bowling centers are repositioning themselves to appeal to a more diversified and younger clientele that has upscale expectations, including high-quality food and beverage options.
- When centers can achieve these changes, it allows them to achieve higher price points for their products, giving them an opportunity to compete for the dollars and time of consumers that may be scarce.
- Approximately 25% of the commercial centers are 32 lanes or larger in size.
- Between 30 and 50 new facilities featuring bowling have been built annually in this country over the past few years, many in vacant big-box store buildings.
- Hansell also reports that “bowling lanes also have been added to many non-traditional venues such as movie theaters, adult communities, hotels and resorts, gambling casinos [commercial and Indian], churches, and young-adult oriented entertainment centers such as Dave and Busters, Hooters, and Gameworks.”
- Outside of the US, the bowling industry is quite popular. The Federation International des Quilleurs has estimated that 100 million people in 150 countries go bowling on a regular basis.
- A recent Experian Simmons National Consumer Survey found that over 51 million adults aged 18 and over, and 19 million youths aged 6 to 17, bowled at least once in the last year.
- Experion Simmons also reports that since 2007, the number of adult women bowling has shown an increase every year while participation in the 6 to 12 age demographic also has trended up steadily.
- Bowling now ranks as the #1 participator sport in the US for adults 18+.
- About 900 bowling centers offer additional outdoor recreational opportunities, such as go-karts, driving ranges for golfers, skating rings, miniature golf, and even carnival rides.
As Hansell has reported for more than a decade, the short-term results for the bowling industry can look bleak at local levels. This is especially true for bowling alleys which are not working to transform themselves into a more upscale entertainment experience. Yet on the whole, the bowling industry is poised for long-term success, especially when looking at the industry from a global perspective. More than 10 million people in the US classify themselves as a frequent bowler, which means they go bowling at least 25 times per year. That’s more than double the number of visits of “regular” bowlers, and that’s an opportunity many bowling centers can take advantage of today.
How the Bowling Industry Can Achieve Strong Growth
- According to IBIS World, the bowling industry’s primary customer lives in a household with an HHI of $100,000 or more.
- By the end of the decade, it is expected that 1 in 4 US households will be able to achieve an HHI of $100,000. This means there will be more households who are part of the targeted demographic for the bowling industry.
- Higher rates of education in the US are also correlated to higher levels of participation within the bowling industry. It is estimated that up to 40% of all bowlers have a college degree of some sort.
- What attracts people to bowling is the fact that it is a lifetime sport. Just look at the age records of individuals who have bowled a perfect game. The youngest known person to bowl 300 [at the time of writing] was 9 years old and the oldest bowler was over 90 years of age.
- Open bowlers, or individuals who don’t belong to an individual league, now comprise the largest customer segment in most bowling centers. Because play pricing is typically higher, this can help bowling centers make up league losses with fewer bowlers if necessary. It is believed that up to 65% of a bowling center’s total business today may come from open bowlers.
- According to Hansell, more than 10 million children in the US each year choose to have a birthday part at their local bowling center, making the industry the top party destination for kids aged 12 and younger.
- Over 10,000 schools now have a “bowling curriculum” in which they set up carpet and pins in their gyms and have access to local bowling centers, which has led to an estimated 17% increase in bowling in the under 14 age demographic.
- Over 250 colleges/universities field competitive bowling teams and bowling is a recognized sport in most major collegiate athletics organizations.
- Recent ratings have increased by 23% for PBA events that have been televised on ESPN.
- 60% of bowling centers recently surveyed by the Bowling Proprietors Association of America reported that they had completed major capital improvement projects within the last 3 years.
- Bowling center purchasers have started to receive returns of up to 40% on their invested capital even in the first year in ownership, especially with financing terms available through the US SBA loans.
There is a lot of potential for the bowling industry to achieve profitability, but it’s going to take some work to make that happen. Bowling centers must transform themselves into destinations that are family-friendly and upscale, but still offering some of the traditional components of a bowling alley. Some factors will always be potentially harmful to the industry, such as the rise of one-parent households or an inability to join a bowling league because it doesn’t work with a person’s work schedule, but with the rise of open bowling and the addition of other activities, those losses can be offset and profitability achieved, often in the first years of operation.