It’s not your dad’s bowling alley any more.
There still are polished wooden lanes, the thud and roll of heavy balls and the crash of scattering pins.
But now there are light shows, music videos, electric fog, laser tag and go-karts, aimed at the fast-growing teen market instead of the middle-aged blue-collar workers for whom many of the alleys were built.
Many teens are embracing bowling as a way to have fun with their friends and compete for high school teams and college scholarships.
“It’s becoming not just something that they do for fun, but it’s their social club as well,” said Mario Mosesso, a longtime bowler who now satisfies his passion for the sport as a coach for his son’s high school traveling team in suburban Dayton.
Other alleys around the country are taking a run at the upscale crowd with boutique bowling, which includes stylish surroundings, gourmet food and fancy drinks.
“The bowling centers have had to remake themselves,” said John Bergland, executive director of the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America.
The Strike Zone Bowling Center in Huntington, W.Va., in business for 46 years, is converting its lounge into a teen club that will feature Xbox video game systems and serve milkshakes.
“Bowling used to get a small amount of people to bowl a lot. Now, it’s get a large amount of people to bowl a little bit,” said Mike Prater, general manager of the center.
Participation in high school bowling nationally nearly has doubled in the past five years, from 20,976 participants in 1999-2000 to 39,251 in 2004-05. In April, Ohio became the 18th state to recognize bowling as an interscholastic sport after it was determined that more than 150 Ohio schools have teams. About 25 other states offer bowling as a club sport.
The growth among teens is not just in competitive bowling. Last year, 8.1 million Americans 14 through 17 went bowling at least once, compared with 7.9 million the year before, according to Simmons Research, a Florida-based company that tracks consumer behavior.
And 11.8 million people 12 through 17 — or nearly half the number in that population — bowled at least once last year. That represented 22 percent of the total number of bowlers and was by far the largest number of any age group.
Prater said he has lost many of the 40-something, blue-collar workers who once embraced bowling as a way to unwind after work. Many of those jobs are gone, and the people of that age now seem to prefer to stay at home and watch television or seek other entertainment.
“We don’t have time,” moaned Mosesso, a longtime bowler. “We’re running the kids around. We’re working more than 40 hours a week. If you get any free time, you’re trying to get caught up on your stuff at home. That’s why it’s falling off among the older crowd.”
On a recent Saturday morning, Mosesso was at Poelking Lanes watching his 17-year-old son bowl. The place was packed with teenagers.
Dressed in T-shirts and cargo shorts or jeans, the teens let out whoops of joy and gave each other high fives when they bowled a strike or picked up a tough spare. Many of them have taken part in late-night “cosmic,” “extreme” or “glow” bowling, which feature strobe or disco lights as well as loud music and videos.
“You don’t have to bowl really well to have a good time,” said 18-year-old Aaron Richter. “They play music, they do the lights. There’s usually food and giveaways.”
Kyle Slanker believes it attracts teens to bowling.
“When you take bowling and make it more like a nightclub, they’re obviously going to be more interested in that,” the 16-year-old Slanker said. “That does bring in some people. And if they’re having fun doing that, they’re going to come back.”
Joe Taylor, a general manager for Poelking Lanes, plans to introduce special nights when the alley is closed to everyone but teens. For a cover charge, they will get bowling shoes and be able to bowl all they want for several hours, amid light shows and music.
“A lot of it has changed the market you’re shooting for,” Taylor said.
The older, more traditional bowlers sometimes complain about the music, light shows and other teen-oriented glitz.
“They’re here to bowl,” Taylor said. “They don’t want to listen to music.”
The 24-lane Pickwick Bowling alley in Burbank, Calif., has light shows, music and electric haze — a machine-generated fog.
“It’s the whole excitement of it. It makes it a party atmosphere,” said manager Janie Desgroseilliers.
Last year, Frank DeSocio opened a 24-lane bowling center in Wichita, Kan., that features billiards, a 100-seat sports bar, a game room and indoor go-karts.
“By attracting youth early you will keep youth as they get older,” he said. “I think you’ll see more and more entertainment centers.”
But some bowling alleys have turned their backs on the trend.
“We stayed traditional,” said Bill Brennan, owner of Bluebird Lanes in Chicago. “I definitely thought about doing it. The revenue is there for it.”
But Brennan worried about rowdiness, underage drinking and other behavior that might ruffle the feathers of his regulars.
“I didn’t want to alienate them,” he said.