Will America’s Quintessential Bowling Alleys Survive the Pandemic?

Checking in on a beloved national pastime at the end of a horrifying year

November 5, 2020 9:36 am
American bowling alley
Michael Edwards/Getty

There was a bit of a laugh — a nervous, this-definitely-isn’t-a-good-idea laugh — when Georgia reopened its bowling alleys on April 24th. After just one month of lockdown, Governor Brian Kemp had relaxed restrictions for a number of small businesses across the state. Here in November, late April may sound like the very beginning of the pandemic. But when Georgia’s non-essential businesses opened their doors that Friday, New York City was already on the other side of its darkest hour (when nearly 1,000 people were dying daily) and the country had 880,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

In addition to bowling alleys, Georgia opened up banks, barber shops, health clubs, salons and tattoo parlors to the public. At the time, Georgia ranked at the bottom of the nation in per capita testing. But the decision to bring back bowling alleys seemed particularly suspect. Late-night hosts had fun with it. Stephen Colbert said in one monologue: “Really? Bowling alleys? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say now is not the time for a sport where strangers stick their fingers inside the same three holes.” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was more muted, saying, “There’s nothing essential about going to a bowling alley.”

Of course, Georgia’s early punt on the lockdown was short-lived. The state went on to see some of the largest summer spikes in the country. By the end of July, it was reporting more than 4,000 cases a day. And like the rest of the country, it could be facing a long, difficult winter as the virus refuses to go away. Still — it’s now a bit easier to sympathize with Georgia’s initial attempt to reopen bowling alleys. Not the decision itself, which was fueled by misinformation and political posturing, but by the reactive instinct of it, the desire to preserve one of America’s most iconic pastimes, and the businesses that subsist on it.

bowling alley
How has the bowling industry fared in 2020?
Photo by David Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Bowling and the coronavirus have one thing in common. In both cases, Americans comprise a disproportionate number of the people involved. Of the 100 million annual bowlers worldwide, Americans make up an astonishing 70 million. Before the pandemic, the industry was raking in around $6 billion each year. A majority of states across the nation offered bowling as a high school sport. Highly successful professional bowlers were making well over six figures a year (believe it or not).

Still, rewind just a few years back, and some reports were spelling doom for the country’s lanes, noting that revenue was down $10 billion since the mid-’90s and growth had lagged since the ’60s, when there were 12,000 bowling centers nationwide. Forty years ago, it was all about bowling for the sake of bowling. There were maximalist, 64-lane behemoths opening across the country (like the iconic Cloverlanes outside Detroit), which relied on the once-a-week (or more) bowlers, the “bowling is the poor man’s country club” crowd. But a decline in popularity necessitated the sideshow that is now inseparable from our understanding of the modern bowling alley: salty pizza, adjacent arcades and pitchers of beer.

That expansion worked. Birthday parties followed, mostly for kids, and in the last decade, compelled to adapt even more, a new wave of “boutique” bowling spots have cropped up throughout the country, creating birthday party options for adults. They’re smaller (some have just six lanes), more modern in design and intended for 30-somethings who would never join a league but still appreciate a good bowling outing — especially if it involves bacon-on-a-stick, extensive cocktail menus, pop-up concerts or self-consciously retro lounges. These places have names like Pinstripes, Mission Bowl Club and Punch Bowl Social.

Vibe aside, every type of bowling alley had to close down earlier this year. An industry used to having its back against the wall lined up for yet another test. Back in April, Chicago resident Keith Hamilton, who puts out a publication called Bowlers Journal International each month, said to the Associated Press: “It’s about as bad as it can get.”

bowling alley covid
Some bowling centers have designated balls for specific lanes.
Hollie Adams/Stringer

Here in November, though, the embattled sport is actually holding firm. We recently spoke with Jim Decker, the president of the Bowling Proprietor’s Association of America, a trade association that represents thousands of bowling centers across the country. According to Decker, nearly 90% of those were able to reopen in late summer or early fall, when states officially progressed into stages that allowed for Phase Four industries (sports, entertainment, amusement). In New York, for instance, that meant the third week of August. It was a big deal for the city. Beloved local haunts like Williamsburg’s Gutter Bar were cleared to open, while the Midtown factories set about planning fall and winter intramural leagues.

But by that time, somewhat surprisingly, the state was actually late to the party. An incredible 45 states (excluding California, Michigan, New York, New Mexico, Washington and North Carolina) had already allowed for the reopening of lanes by the second week of August. It was part of a larger resilient streak among bowling centers to stay afloat, reopen and adapt to the new status quo. “BPAA has been tracking the closure of bowling centers closely,” Decker says. “Of the over 5,000 centers nationwide, just over 100 have gone out of business. The majority of these centers still have their bowling equipment intact, which gives us hope that many of these centers will be acquired by new ownership groups and be reopened.”

According to Decker, suburban bowling centers had an easier time than urban ones in reopening. There’s only one missing piece to total geographic recovery: 150 lanes are still closed in California. But for a public activity that subsists, somewhat infamously, on shared equipment, it’s responding quite well. Decker believes this is because cleanliness (those 50-year-old carpets notwithstanding) is built into bowling’s DNA. He says, “Bowling centers for a long time have recognized the fact that they have to keep their facilities and equipment clean. Centers have always disinfected equipment after each use. For now, what people will notice is that in most cases “house balls” will no longer be out in public areas where people have access to them. The balls will now be kept in a controlled environment and sanitized after each use.”

Other COVID-era measures? The usual fare, like mask mandates, hand sanitizer stations, HEPA filters and industrial cleaning equipment. But shoes are getting an extra once-over now with disinfectant, and many centers are electively operating at limited capacity (with every other lane closed) in order to practice maximum social distancing. So far, these efforts have resonated best with regular bowlers, who sorely missed their favorite hobby during lockdown. “As bowling centers across the nation started to reopen, what we noticed was the first customers to return to lanes were the league bowlers,” Decker says. “They often bowl with their families and friends and they are the ones who feel most comfortable returning to the centers.”

The long-term challenge will be getting everybody else back. Bowling alleys, by and large, have managed to stay open — even the expensive ones. But in order to be successful again, they can’t just rely on the regulars. They’ll need the kids, the office parties, the reunions, the folks who come to bowl, but also to eat, drink and chill — three other public pastimes currently waging their own comebacks. Decker hasn’t yet registered effects from the growing second wave, but he concedes that bowling will not be fully back “until there is a vaccine available.” Still, he optimistically predicts it will be bigger and better than ever when it does. We won’t bet against it.

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