It’s smoky in my memory, and it smells like beer. My dad stands slightly hunched, holding his bowling ball near his hip, the sausage fingers of his left hand crammed into the holes. He stares at the pins, as if counting to make sure they’re all where they’re supposed to be.
You could show me the delivery of 1,000 bowlers, and I would pick him out: He walks slowly, deliberately, as if treading a wire, not the polished wood at the bowling alley inside the Clawson-Troy Elks Club in Troy, Michigan, in the 1980s. He doesn’t throw the ball so much as place it with authority. It dangles over the left gutter, clinging to the 42nd of 42 inches across — and I know this is impossible, but in my mind’s eye, it picks up speed — until suddenly it turns right and crashes into the “pocket” to the left of the head pin — a slow roll of thunder followed by a loud boom as 10 pins go flying all over the place.
As I bowl at BAM! Entertainment Center in Holland, Michigan, in December 2022, four decades after I last watched my dad in his bowling league, I ponder the ways I’m different from him, at least at the bowling alley. Besides the fact that I’m a righty and he’s a lefty, I’m nowhere near as good — he was the best bowler in his league for years, and I, um, wasn’t. And I’m nowhere near as methodical. He threw the ball one way and only one way. I rarely throw it the same way twice in a row.
But the biggest difference on this day is what happens when I let go of the ball.
As it heads toward the pins, it sounds not like rolling thunder, but like someone dragging their fingers across piano keys.
A high-tech projector system has turned the bowling lane into a virtual piano. When the ball crosses an infrared plane, a high-speed camera turns on and traces the ball. That triggers the piano sound, which rises in pitch as if to build tension before the ball slams into the pins.
This is just one of several scenes I bowl over on what BAM! owner Phil Huffman calls “Lit Lanes.” Crunchy Tech, the company that makes the technology, calls it Unreal Bowling. An app lets bowlers choose what appears on the lane. In addition to the piano, I bowl atop emojis that change as the ball rolls over them, a rocket whose flight path mirrors the ball’s, and snowflakes that chime when the ball hits them.
I try to explain Lit Lanes to my dad — who is 84, owns a rarely answered flip phone, and has never used a computer. It takes several attempts for it to make sense. He marvels, in a what will they think of next way. Then he asks a question that gets right to the future of this sport he spent decades perfecting: “They’re not going to use that in league play, are they?”
Of course not. Some serious bowlers scoff at innovations like Lit Lanes, thinking they turn a serious sport into a silly game. They’re right, I suppose, but that’s also, increasingly, the key to bowling’s enduring appeal. My dad’s delivery was metronomically consistent, but the sport of bowling — or more accurately, the environment in which it takes place — has gone through constant change and adaptation. It’s still 10 frames, hideous shoes, 60-foot-long alleys, and 16-pound balls (maximum). Everything else has changed.
Part of bowling’s allure is its simplicity: Throw this thing at those things. Anybody can do it, and anybody can get better at it quickly … or at least have fun trying. It helps that bowling is cheap, social, and doesn’t take long. All of that explains why humans have been bowling for thousands of years. Archaeologists trace a form of the sport to ancient Egypt. On its website, the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame reports that in 1366, a predecessor of modern bowling became so popular that “King Edward III allegedly outlawed it to keep his troops focused on archery practice.”
Ten-pin bowling exploded in America in the 1950s and ’60s with the emergence of automatic pinsetters. But the sport’s place in the public consciousness has since withered.
These days, bowling comprises two sports. One is a game and casual; the other is a competition and serious. When I was growing up, my dad spent every Wednesday night dominating at the Elks Club bowling alley. He paid for good chunks of our family camping trips with jackpots. When my mom called on April 14, 1996, to tell me that he rolled his first and only “perfect game” 300, she was crying. I know exactly where I was when she called — in my kitchen in Adrian, Michigan — and I can still hear her voice skipping.
Go to any bowling center and you might see glow-in-the-dark balls, scented balls (orange is the most popular), and personalized video screens celebrating strikes and lamenting gutters.
Far fewer people now are committing to league bowling once a week for 35 weeks (as I did 25 years ago, using a hand-me-down ball from my dad). Yet while league participation and the number of bowling alleys have both cratered — one report put the number of league bowlers five years ago at 1.3 million, down from more than 9 million in the late 1970s —casual bowling is the backbone of a robust business with eye-popping numbers. Bowlero, a company that owns 317 centers and the Pro Bowlers Association, generated more than $1 billion in revenue in 2022. Frank DeSocio, executive director of the Bowling Proprietors Association of America, says bowling centers once derived 80% of their bowling revenue from league bowling and the rest from casual bowlers, but those numbers have flipped.
Dwindling, as a result, are the days of bowling alleys that are only bowling alleys. In their place are entertainment complexes, in which bowling is one of many attractions, and boutique centers, where beautiful people gather to see and be seen, drink cocktails, and enjoy stylish décor as much as the chance to knock down 15-inch tall, 3.5-pound pins.
These casual settings are the breeding ground for technological innovation in the sport. Go to any bowling center and you might see bumpers that go up and down based on whose turn it is, glow-in-the-dark balls, scented balls (orange is the most popular), and personalized video screens celebrating strikes and lamenting gutters. (You can upload a picture so that your digital image is celebrating the strike, and, I suppose, lamenting the gutters.)
The technology fueling Lit Lanes will become more customizable, says DeSocio, who owns two bowling centers. He predicts users will be able to upload the face of a birthday boy or birthday girl and project it on the lane.
I know where I’m taking my dad for his next birthday.
None of that fun tech matters to serious bowlers any more than a high-tech windmill at a putt-putt place matters to serious golfers. As my dad figured out, the fun tech won’t invade league night, which keeps the two sports mostly separate.
But there is an innovation coming that serious bowlers have a legit beef with. Some alleys are replacing freestanding pins with pins that have strings attached to the top. The strings are used to clear and set pins after they’re knocked down.
The problem is, the string pins don’t react the same way as freestanding pins when they are hit. A study in 2020 by the United States Bowling Congress found a decrease in strikes with the stringsetter system compared to the freefall system. That would have annoyed the bejabbers out of my dad (and me in my league days). But it’s less likely that anybody rolling a ball over the image of a soccer field (another Lit Lanes feature) would know that their 9-count would’ve been a strike with a freefall system.
So why bother with a change that does nothing for your casual customers and angers your serious ones? Stringsetters will save owners thousands of dollars a year in repair costs. Ron Getto, who has owned Starlite Lanes in Flagstaff, Arizona, since 2010, will install the string system in May at a cost of $250,000. He expects to save $70,000 per year in maintenance costs, as stringsetter machines have a fraction of the parts of traditional pinsetters.
Cheaper day-to-day costs will help bowling centers, of course, especially if the casual bowling trend continues. There are signs, too, that league bowling could have a resurgence. The number of high school teams and players has grown steadily this century. It seems logical that those players will look for ways to continue in their sport. DeSocio predicts league numbers will grow as the country settles into new “nesting” norms post-COVID. Maybe Lit Laners will discover they are good at bowling and want to get serious about it.
Maybe all of that is wishful thinking and league play will continue to decline. Either way, as Getto of Starlite Lanes told me, “You can’t kill bowling.” Or, to paraphrase the ultimate bowling movie, The Big Lebowski: The Dude abides. Bowling will, too.