WHAT HAPPENED TO THE BOWLERS? The Middle Class Disappeared. That’s What.

According to Bill Abercrombie in a story he calls Number of Sanctioned Bowlers Dropped, the number of registered bowlers in the United States Bowling Congress has fallen from over 9 million in 1979 to about 2.3 million today.   That’s quite a drop by any measure.  Naturally, the bowling industry tracks these statistics quite closely and has tried to adjust its business model to cope with what seems to be a steady decrease in the popularity of bowling leagues.   Mr. Abercrombie cites that the, “reasons for the decline vary from other sporting venues being available, decline of the Baby Boomers, the amount of entertainment money accessible to the middle class, fragmentation of the family and the current economic climate.”  His citation is one that could have been written 30 years ago, however.   Bowling started in its death throes when:

Ronald Wilson Reagan was elected President of the United States in 1980.

I have fond memories of the explosion in the popularity of bowling in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  In about 1960, I recall my father taking me to see the opening of Rosewood Lanes in North Pekin, Illinois.   I remember that the joint was so packed that we could barely squeeze in the front door.  As a part of their grand opening, the proprietors invited  the most famous bowling team in the world (ever) – the Budweiser team from St. Louis.  It was exciting stuff.  In 1958, this team of bowlers, which included Don Carter, Ray Bluth, Pat Patterson, Tom Hennessey, and Dick Weber scored a team record of 3,858 pins, an America Bowling Congress record that stood for over 30 years.  In bowling circles, these guys were considered the equivalent of the 1927 or 1961 New York Yankees.  Don Carter, a member of that team, would later become the first athlete in any sport to receive an endorsement deal of  1 million dollars (from Ebonite Bowling Balls).   All five of these bowlers had long and successful individual bowling careers as well – and all were eventually  inducted into the American Bowling Congress Hall of Fame. 

 I know that it’s hard to believe it now, but bowling in the 1960’s had a big wow factor.  Most people in any walk of life can probably remember having fun at some point their life bowling with friends or family.   But now, a bowling alley is not the first place, nor even the last, that most people think of when contemplating an enjoyable recreational diversion.  I may or may not be typical,  but I have not been in a bowling establishment for at least 15 years.  The fad, if that’s what it was, is basically – just passe.  

Bowling has long  been linked to the blue-collar man.  Construction and factory workers in fact played a huge part in the rise of its popularity.  As the economy boomed with new construction, new automobiles, and almost everything else new after WWII, men earned enough money to not only support new families, but to take part liberally in leisure activities.  Bowling seemed to hit the spot for “a night out with the boys,” and the bowling alley developers and entrepeneurs caught on quickly.  Thousands of new bowling alleys sprang up everywhere, and bowling quickly developed into family fun with organized leagues for women and, also, children.  I recall a weekend bowling league that I joined as a child with my cousin – we all wanted to be pro bowlers.  Then, over a course of years, it just gradually began to peter out.  So what happened?

First, I am not about to completely blame the demise of bowling on former President Reagan.  For all I know, the amiable dunce may have liked to bowl., and may have been a bowling proponent. 

  However, for 8 consecutive years the Reagan administration  did about everything in its power to cripple the middle class blue-collar worker.  Aside from its notorious union-busting, it decimated (with Democratic Congressional approval) the steep progressiveness of the income tax rates, which had worked so well post-war for the middle class; it unnecessarily began systemic de-regulation, which consolidated corporate entities and  power (which continues to kill consumers); and it leveraged up government debt to fund what was a semblance of prosperity.  The middle class paid a dear price for Reagan’s follies, and the chasm between the bowlers and non-bowlers began a process of widening , which has not yet stopped.

It wasn’t and isn’t all about Ronnie though.  Television coverage hurt the business and popularity of bowling as much as anything.  Bowling is not a spectator sport. Somehow, it just doesn’t translate to an exciting viewer format i.e.  bowler picks up ball, walks, rolls ball toward pins, knocks down pins, and then does it again.  The commentary never was very exciting either, such as, “I wonder why he has a five-step approach and not the conventional four-step?”  I believe it all equates to the definition of viewer monotony.  Without successful TV coverage, other recreational sports managed to push bowling further and further into simply a niche activity.  With lousy TV ratings came almost no big advertising money, and then, no new business.  Hence, fewer and fewer bowlers were attracted to the sport.

Another theory about the decline of bowling in the United States involves a strange conspiracy theory about Japan.  In the 1980’s it was difficult to find new maple furniture anywhere in the United States.  The rage in the ’80’s seemed to be country oak or a more formal cherry.  Every piece of furniture that my parents purchased in the 1950’s and 1960’s was hard rock maple.  But when they wanted to add to their repertoire in the 1980’s, they were told that maple was not available. When they asked, “Why?” they were told that the Japanese had cornered the market for maple because of their insatiable appetite for the construction new bowling alleys.  Setting the conspiracy theory aside, it does seem on the face of it that bowling fever raged in Japan concurrently with the rise of their blue-collar workers in the explosion of their auto industry.  This, of course, paralleled America’s decline in the auto industry. 

If I have made any point at all about the relationship between bowling and blue-collar middle class workers, I would like to punctuate it with one last thought.  With the ascendency of Asia, and China in particular, and their determination to create at least some sort of middle class in the near future, I have a recommendation for investors out there.   Buffett, Berkshire, are you listening?  It’s going to be bowling in China.  If not now, then soon.  It might be time to get your money down.

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