Millennial bowlers are putting their own spin on the sport
The thud of bowling balls and the clattering rumble of tumbling pins mixed with pop music pumped through overhead speakers. It was Tuesday, Sept. 22, a week before bowling season was to start—and the East Hamilton Hurricanes and the Rhea County Eagles were scrimmaging.
In terms of team age, “We’re the newcomers on the block,” Coach Steve Williams of Rhea County High School said over the noise. His school started a bowling team three years ago. East Hamilton started theirs in 2014 after a couple of people kept bringing it up with the administration.
Bowling is changing. And the Millennial generation is the one making it happen. The number of people bowling in leagues is on the decline and bowling centers are closing. But people born between 1985 and 2005 are picking it up as a cheap night out on the town, a source of friendly competition, perhaps even a way to go pro.
Among the students scrimmaging at Pin Strikes in Chattanooga, Whitney Richardson (15 turning 16), team captain for the East Hamilton girls’ bowling team, also pitches softball, and she said launching a bowling ball has a similar motion. Shannon Wallmarker, also 15 turning 16, picked up the sport because her dad told her she needed a place to drive in order to get a car. It’s a sport that she can play with friends. “It’s not a kind of sport that takes away your sportsmanship when you lose,” she said.
Bowling’s Slow Roll Downhill
Randall Lockhart, president of the Chattanooga Area Bowling Association (CABA) said, “I think it’s declined in the last few years,” although, he adds, he now sees the sport beginning to make something of a comeback.
There aren’t as many leagues going on, and two bowling alleys in Chattanooga have closed their doors. Fort Lanes shut down between six and seven years ago and Tri-State Lanes closed three years ago.
But—“We have the high school leagues going on right now,” Lockhart said.
Indeed, among the Chattanooga-area schools Brainerd High School is also working on forming a bowling team. Bowling programs at the collegiate level, however, seem nonexistent. Neither Covenant College on Lookout Mountain, Ga., or the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga offer bowling programs. Caeser Wood, director of campus recreation at UTC, said the university had a bowling program three years ago but interest died out.
When it comes to 20-somethings bowling in an official league, Lockhart does not know of a Chattanooga-area league devoted just to that demographic.
That trend has been national up to now. Terry Bigham, communications director for the U.S. Bowling Congress, says the organization governing the sport of bowling has seen a decline in membership. There were 493,000 members between the ages 21 to 40 in the 2011-12 season. There were 449,000 members in 2013-2014.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the number of bowling centers in the country has been in decline. In its twice-a-decade economic census, the bureau reported that there were 5,590 bowling centers in 1997. By 2012—its most recent measure—that number had fallen to 4,063.
“League bowling in general has seen about a 6 percent decline in the last few seasons, but we are seeing growth in youth, high school and collegiate programs,” Bigham wrote in an email.
Yet while the sport has seen an overall decline in participation, bowling has improved, according to Lockhart. He started bowling while he was still in the military 50 years ago and kept at it, attracted to “the competition of being able to do something right.” Meanwhile, lanes have become synthetic. The balls react better, “the pins, they’ve just improved everything so much,” he says.
Belly Up to the Bar, Bowlers
Six months ago, Southside Social opened its doors along Chestnut Street in the shadow of Finley Stadium. Along with its supersized “adult jenga,” bocce ball and corn hole, the establishment also includes 10 bowling lanes.
“The bowling bar concept has really come about,” said Dustin Everett, operations manager of Southside Social.
In the months that it’s been open, actor Elijah Wood, the members of Five Finger Death Punch, and the Dirty Heads have all bowled there.
Everett said Southside Social follows the bowling bar trend, similar to Pinewood Social in Nashville and The Painted Pin in Atlanta.
“Bowling used to be a lot bigger in Chattanooga,” said Susie Glandon, Southside’s bar manager.
But like pool, darts and corn hole, which was big on the bar scene a few years ago, bowling has become a bar game. Now, when Millennials bowl, Glandon sees some make drinking games out of the activity. For example, bowlers wagering a shot if they make a strike, “Just as they would any other bar game,” Glandon said.
Over at Pin Strikes on Perimeter Drive, General Manager John Rasmussen said older bowlers used to dominate the lanes. But 15 years ago, the older bowlers packed away the bowling balls and hung up the shoes, leaving room for younger people to pick up the sport. “Now they’re doing it for recreation and social activities,” he said.
At its height, 10 million people bowled every single week, Rasmussen said.
When people strapped on bowling shoes every week, fierce competition was on their minds. “ ‘How much money can I win from these guys?’ people used to ask,” Rasmussen said.
Technically, Pin Strikes is a family entertainment center, offering bowling among other activities like laser tag. It’s a business model more lucrative and easier to run than an establishment that just offers bowling, according to Rasmussen.
While the bread and butter of traditional bowling centers is the steady revenue of league bowlers coming in every week, Rasmussen can earn just as much by hosting a large, corporate party.
“We don’t do anything for 55 and over,” he said. “We don’t market to them.” His target customer is between the ages of 25 to 40, perhaps a family of four.
As the nights wear on, a different demographic walks through his doors: 18- to 35-year-olds.
Holiday Bowl Brainerd, which is making a name switch to “Spare Time” along with its sister establishment in Hixson, offers bowling and only bowling.
General Manager Blake Curtis said he has noticed more Millennials joining leagues, but there is a gap between bowling occasionally with friends and regularly bowling. “Most people are scared about joining a league,” Curtis said.
It’s why the bowling industry started the “8 For 8” program in which, for $8 a week, the bowling center invites people to bowl in mini-leagues for eight weeks to try out the sport. At the end, the bowling alley gives participants a bowling ball drilled to their specific hand shape, the thinking being, “If you have a bowling ball, you’ll bowl more,” Curtis said.
Monday night is the busiest night for Spare Time, as that’s when it hosts the biggest bowling league in Chattanooga.
Curtis says bowling faces the stigma that it’s not a sport. When some people think of bowling, they think of a bunch of rednecks drinking beer and eating greasy hamburgers on a Friday night.
But bowl a lot of games and, as many people interviewed for this story said, you’ll feel the next day how much a sport bowling is. Curtis added that the Olympic committee is voting this year to include it as an Olympic sport.
“Bowling is a long-lost art in some people’s minds,” Curtis said.
Dreams of Going Pro
Some Millennials want to take that long-lost art and see how far it will take them. Friends Scott Demirjian, 24, and Alex Lain, 25, first met on the Soddy Daisy High School bowling team. Recently, Lain said, they have talked about traveling around, entering tournaments, “getting back in the winner’s circle,” trying to break pro.
For now, they help run the bowling alley at Southside Social, booking games, renting out shoes.
The two got into the sport differently. When Demirjian was 12 or so, he would watch his dad bowl over 200 at Holiday Bowl Brainerd. But when he picked up a bowling ball, “I realized pretty quickly that it’s not as easy as it looks,” Demirjian said.
At the beginning, he wanted to see if he could push the boundary to break his highest score. In the traditional sports, a coach will tell his or her players, “Do what I say and don’t ask questions.” But Millennials want to understand and then act because their questions are answered, Demirjian said. “We want to know why.”
Lain started the sport in middle school because he hung out with a family that “constantly bowled.” For him, the team aspect of the sport, the team riding on the number of pins he knocks down in a frame, “drew me in.”
The perception of bowling, Demirjian said, is that pro bowlers are out of shape. But athletes such as professional basketball player Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers have crossed sports into bowling.
And then there’s the new breed of professional bowler, someone like Jason Belmonte, who sends bowling balls zipping down the lane using two hands and no thumbhole drilled into his balls.
There’s more athleticism. Still, bowlers can still bowl in their prime when they are 45, Demirjian said. This is because bowling is a more mental than physical game.
“You gotta be in the moment,” Demirjian said about competing in tournaments. “[You] gotta forget what happen in the last frame or what happens in the next five minutes.”
After Demirjian and Lain bowled five to seven years, a light switched on. “There was one day you realized you could do this,” Lain said.
Demirjian bowls in a league Thursday nights and competes in two different tournament circuits. In the semi-pro tournament circuit, he’s near the cutline to making pro. In the meantime, “You gotta put yourself in that atmosphere,” he says, to get used to that kind of pressure.
As for the future? According to Demirjian, “There’s a beautiful part to not knowing.”