Percentage-of-population-wise, bowling had its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. But absolute number-wise, it's currently at its peak: The U.S. had 55 million bowlers in 2003, the last year for which figures are available. It's America's number one participatory sport, more so than fishing (53 million participants).
You'd think the bowling industry would be clicking its heels over this numerical dominance, but it’s not. Instead, bowling industry trade groups lament recent events. "For many years, the sport has suffered a severe erosion of core participants—league bowlers. Twenty years ago, league bowlers accounted for 60% to 70% of all play," says SGMA International, a trade association for manufacturers, marketers and retailers of bowling equipment. "Today, the figure is closer to 30% to 40%. The industry has replaced its lost league bowlers with young people and families who experience bowling as a night of fun, but these customers are not serious about the game and represent a poor market for balls, shoes and bowling accessories."
OK, so most of today’s 55 million bowlers don't buy a lot of gear. But let’s think this over. Hmmm, young people and families on the lookout for a night of fun…. Aren’t these the exact same groups that drove, and continue to drive, the nonstop growth of the casual dining segment?
SGMA demographic figures show why bowlers are a desirable market for restaurant operators: 53 percent are male, 47 percent are female, the average age of all bowlers is 28.9 years, and the average annual household income of a bowler is $62,300. Who wouldn't want to attract more of this crowd—young adults with money to spend?
Certainly the relative handful of places that already combine bowling and dining have done well. The super-hip Garage in Seattle is a 14-lane, 3-level bowling alley that attracts wannabe hipsters and corporate types alike. The menu and the drink offerings are first-class, and Garage's "Spare Room" is a hard-to-beat spot for private parties: six bowling lanes, two pool tables, a 20-foot-long shuffleboard set-up plus its own bar and bathrooms.
In Chicago, the people behind the ultra-busy Harry Caray's Restaurants have opened the 10 Pin Bowling Lounge inside the Marina City/House of Blues compound downtown. The features: 24 lanes, a small plate menu (average price: $9) and lots of martinis. Visitors to Jasper White's Summer Shack in Boston's Back Bay can't bowl in the restaurant, but can step downstairs to roll a few games at Kings—a nice way to start or end an evening that includes a lobster prepared upstairs by a Beard Award-winning chef.
If you don’t think there’s money to be made for those who are redefining the bowling experience for a contemporary audience, visit one of these places soon.
The marketers at bowling equipment giant AMF want to latch on to this trend, too. They've come out with something called Thunder Bowl, a scaled-down version of the real thing that can be installed in two days at your operation.
You'll need a bit of space to accommodate a Thunder Bowl setup, although not as much as you might guess, and certainly not as much as a full-size bowling arrangement requires. The footprint for each Thunder Bowl lane is 41" X 8’ 8" and state-of-the-art touch screen scoring technology and flat screen monitor graphics are included in the package.
Keeping it simple, Thunder Bowl comes with a one-size-fits-all ball and your guests don't need special shoes to use it. AMF claims that early adopters among restaurant owners have reported a one-year payback.
But maybe you'd rather opt for a bocce ball setup instead. A handful of Italian restaurants around the country have offered a bocce court in back of their places for years. You don’t have to be Italian to conclude that there are few more pleasant ways to spend an evening than polishing off a good Italian meal and then engaging your tablemates in a game of bocce.
But no one has taken it to the level that Anthony Battaglia has. His 32,000 sq.-ft Palazzo de Bocce encompasses a 4,000 sq.-ft. dining room plus 10 year-round, state-of-the-art bocce courts, each 12' X 86' tournament-sized. Opened last year in Orion Hills, MI (a suburb of Detroit near the Palace of Auburn Hills, where the Detroit Pistons play), the facility offers fresh, authentic regional Italian fare. There's a dress code (shirts with sleeves for men, covered midriffs for women) and even a pro shop. Roving espresso and grappa carts keep bocce players hydrated.
"Popular for millennia with kings and common folk alike, bocce's allure today is in its simplicity, fun and athleticism. Virtually anyone can play bocce," the venture's backers say. "Our passion is bocce and our mission is to promote the game in a friendly, sophisticated and authentic way."
They’re promoting, all right. Maybe you could, too.