Bowling is experiencing a resurgence in terms of both fan interest and participation. Overall viewership for Pro Bowling Association (PBA) events across Fox, FS1 and FS2 rose +100% YoY this past season (to 22.5 million viewers), the downward membership trends that the United States Bowling Congress (USBC) has reported for decades are leveling out and casual play has accelerated since Go Bowling! – the marketing arm of 3,400 predominantly independently owned mom and pop bowling centers nationwide – began an entitlement partnership with NASCAR back in 2013. While PBA Tour viewership growth can be attributed to a new multi-year rights agreement with Fox Sports that has increased exposure (see: 10 hours on the broadcast network, the most in at least 20 years and 5 straight days in primetime on FS1) John Harbuck, president of Strike Ten Entertainment says the uptick in people playing the game is the result of “the significant capital investments being made in bowling centers across the country.”
Howie Long-Short: Bowling really rose to mainstream popularity in the 1960’s after the PBA inked a deal to televise Tour events on ABC. By the end of the decade 12,000 new alleys had been constructed and 4.6 million Americans were registered as members of the U.S. Bowling Congress. The sport peaked in the mid ‘70s when television networks would regularly pull 9.0 ratings for matches, but a steady decline in bowling league participation and in the number of centers nationwide (in many cases the land was repurposed for a more profitable venture) has resulted in the sport existing as an afterthought since. For reference purposes, bowling league revenues used to account for as much as +/- 70% of the overall bowling business; that figure has since dipped below 40%.
Significant money has been invested to revamp existing bowling alleys and to build new modern ones, so today’s contemporary bowling entertainment center is not the dingy, smoky environment you might recall from childhood. Harbuck says, “there are arcades. There is enhanced food and beverage. There are cosmic bowling lights. It’s a better consumer experience that is driving people back to their local lanes.” Those improvements have resulted in an increasingly white collar demographic playing the game and have helped to increase bowling center revenues as those affluent customers are spending more time (90-120 minutes) once at the venue.
Harbuck acknowledges that “putting a new face” on bowling is critical if the sport is going to attract the millennial and Gen-Z demographics. Partnerships with NASCAR, the Chris Paul (CP3) Celebrity Bowling Invitational and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade have all helped to reshape the narrative and get people in the door.
Go Bowling! is owned by Strike Ten Entertainment. The organization is jointly funded by the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America (BPAA) and the United States Bowling Congress (USBC), the sports’ National Governing Body (NGB). The BPAA is the trade association tasked with driving top of mind awareness for the sport and increasing the profitability of its 3,400 member centers. 1.3 million individuals pay the USBC annual dues to become certified participants in leagues and tournaments across the USA, including the largest NGB sanctioned event (U.S. Open Championships) in the country which draws 50,000+ bowlers annually. Go Bowling! works on behalf of both the USBC and BPAA.
Fan Marino: Go Bowling! serves as the title sponsor of two races (Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Watkins Glen, Xfinity NASCAR Series at Richmond) and is the primary sponsor of the Stewart Haas Racing #10 (Aric Almirola, Cup Series) and #00 (Cole Custer, Xfinity Series) cars at both tracks. While it’s difficult to attribute the resurgence solely to the investment in NASCAR, Harbuck said BPAA proprietors have been vocally supportive of the organization’s “involvement with sports” – particularly the motor racing series as “demographically, NASCAR fans and bowlers are same people” (think: household income, male/female split).
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