DETROIT — In its heyday, Cloverlanes Bowl in Livonia was such a popular place to gather and throw balls that the weekend wait for a lane might be two — even three — hours long.
"Oh my God, we thought we were in a coliseum,"Betty Brown, 54, of Detroit said, remembering the first time in 1972 she walked into the new, 64-lane bowling alley with its undulating roof. "We'd never been in a place that big."
The aging center now is expected to be sold to a developer. May 2 was its last open night, and it was far from full. There weren't even enough takers to raffle a chance to throw the very last ball. Brown and other loyal bowlers relived the good times. Longtime workers shed tears.
One by one, America's once-grand bowling alleys are shutting down, raising the question about whether bowling is in its final frames.
But some industry watchers say the $6 billion-a-year business is in transition and ready for a turnaround with a younger, white-collar crowd adopting a type of happy hour, after-work bowling habit.
"It's a different business than when I ran centers in the 1970s," said Sandy Hansell, a former bowling alley proprietor who is now a national broker in Southfield. "In those days, the business was built around leagues. Those days are gone."
Hansell pointed to places such as Punch Bowl Social, which opened in December in downtown Detroit. In addition to eight bowling lanes, it also offers sit-down dining, a round bar, ping-pong tables, arcade games, shuffleboard, darts and private karaoke rooms.
"For the most part, bowling centers have tried to gear toward entertainment," said Matt Cordle, an operations manager at the Punch Bowl, who started his career at a Royal Oak alley that no longer exists. "You see lanes going down everywhere. But, you also see this concept popping up."
On Thursday, Punch Bowl Social was hopping with young professionals, including a group of about 50 accountants from a Troy firm.
"I love this place," said Mark Kempa, 23, of Ann Arbor, who settled in with his BDO colleagues for a bowling game. He said he liked the nostalgic feeling, but it also was trendy, new and full of life.
"I don't like the old-time bowling alleys. They kind of smell."
To some, the shift is evidence of a transition in the American economy from blue collar to more white collar, and the result of greater competition for people's recreational time. It also reflects a willingness of bowling alley owners reaching retirement age to sell their property, now worth more as land to be developed for other purposes.
WORLD'S BOWLING CAPITAL
From 1998-2013, the number of bowling alleys in the U.S. fell to 3,976 from 5,400, or by about 26%. In Michigan, the number of centers fell to 237 from 328, a decline of about 28%.
And the number of bowlers and alleys per capita in Michigan has always been among the highest in the U.S., due in part to the proliferation of auto company leagues, a phenomenon that stretched out into other workplaces.
"This is the bowling capital of the world," said Mark Martin, the association manager of the Metro Detroit U.S. Bowling Congress, which has more than 45,000 members, more than any other metro congress association. "A lot of it goes back to being the motor capital."
At its height in the late '70s, the Metro Detroit Congress had 300,000 members, Martin said.
In Muskegon, where bowling-equipment maker Brunswick has a factory, the company's presence over the years has been shrinking. Last year, Brunswick sold its bowling center division to New York-based Bowlmor AMF for $270 million.
Brunswick said at the time that the deal was attractive because the number of centers, and league bowlers, was declining.
But in 1958, bowling was on a roll. The American Society of Planning Officials, a group of municipal planners that later became the American Planning Association, said: "The bowling alley is fast becoming one of the most important — if not the most important — local center of participant sport and recreation."
Bowling alleys, the report concluded, were the "poor man's country club."
The invention of the automated pinsetter drove construction of new lanes and alleys after World War II GIs came home. More than 20,000 lanes were built from 1945 to 1957. Then, as the Baby Boomers grew up, the centers expanded to also include snack bars, coffee shops, cocktail lounges, even nurseries, drawing in more women and young people.
From 1940 to 1958, the American Bowling Congress went from 700,000 to 2.3 million members; the Women's International Bowling Congress, grew from 82,000 to 866,000, and the American Junior Bowling Congress expanded from 8,000 to 175,000.
A bowling alley was even installed at the White House.
WHAT FRAME ARE WE IN?
Growth in bowling alleys nationwide peaked in the mid-1960s, with about 12,000, according to a 2011 study from White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group in Kansas City.
The group attributed the drop to fading bowling leagues, which used to generate about 70% of revenues and now bring in only about 40%, the study said. Bowlers would commit to coming to the bowling alley every week; but, often, the walk-in bowler was ignored.
White Hutchinson also concluded that bowling has shifted to predominately white-collar participants.
"There's a decline in the old alleys," said Randy White, the group's CEO. "But there's a resurgence of the new centers. They're thriving."
Robert Putnam, who taught at the University of Michigan before becoming a public policy professor at Harvard University, has made the case that a decline in league bowling signals something more: It's a symptom of a decline in social activity.
Putnam's paper, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," which caught the attention of then-President Bill Clinton and was later expanded into a book in 2000, made the case that the decline was a metaphor for community engagement in America.
"It may be it is part of a broader decline in social engagement," said Wayne State University assistant sociology professor David Merolla. "But people's social tastes change, too. It's also possible bowling isn't what people do anymore."
Hansell, who has been in the bowling business since the 1960s, takes the view that there still are more frames to play.
While league bowling isn't what it once was, in part because folks don't have the time to commit to it, he said, it's still popular, with more than 67 million people bowling at least once last year.
"Like most businesses, bowling has changed," Hansell said. "There's some pain going on — like what we're seeing with Cloverlanes. But, at the end of the day — and we haven't gotten there yet — bowling should be poised for another 50-year run."
Original Article from USA Today - can also be viewed at: http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2015/05/10/bowling-final-frames-roll/27070351/