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Bowling centers struggle to compete for entertainment dollars

Palmyra Bowling's 32 lanes are usually filled on Friday and Saturday nights. So far, the business is evading a nationwide bowling fatigue trend.

But it took a significant investment, owner Amy Eiserman said, as well as some good fortune.

“We updated our scoring system a few years ago and it cost between $40,000 to $50,000,” she said. “That got us all the cool graphics and the cool stuff kids want to see.”

Around the same time, North Londonderry Township voters approved the sale of alcohol. Palmyra Bowling acquired a liquor license and saw food and beverage sales increase.

Both business moves were needed to remain competitive in a society with many more entertainment choices than were available in the 1950s and 1960s, when bowling enjoyed its zenith. Today, successful startups like the Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park, a chain of family entertainment centers that recently opened franchises in Cumberland and Lancaster counties, are cutting into bowling center revenues.

According to U.S. Census data, the 4,061 bowling centers nationwide in 2012 represent a decline of 25 percent from 1998, the earliest year the federal government collected consistent data. Pennsylvania ranks in the middle of the pack with about 1.75 bowling centers per 100,000 people.

But local officials say several midstate bowling alleys have shuttered over the past decade.

“It has always been a topic of conversation at our national meetings,” said Eiserman, state president of the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America. “It’s very sad when we notice that centers are closing because of the economy.”

Trying to adapt

Gary Bauer runs three bowling centers in Dauphin and Cumberland counties: ABC East in Swatara Township, ABC North in Lower Paxton Township, and ABC West in Silver Spring Township. As league participation dipped, he began borrowing money to get through the summer months.

“January, February and March are our busiest months, because it’s cold and people are looking to do stuff inside,” he said.

Then he offered what bowling center owners long resisted: discounts. In the summer, league bowling drops off dramatically, Bauer said, so the price breaks at least get people in the doors. And the fear that league bowlers would revolt has not happened, he added.

The down economy has something to do with the lean times, he said. Less disposable income means fewer nights out. Bowling center owners also took a hit when the state passed the anti-smoking law in 2008.

At the time, Bauer surveyed his centers and found that roughly 35 percent of ABC bowlers smoked. Many left and didn’t return, he said.

“Bowling has become such a friendly sport,” he said, “and it seems like when one person quits, the whole group quits rather than just find someone else.”

Family fun

With league memberships declining in the 1990s, many bowling centers opted to become “family entertainment centers,” adding activities like video games and laser tag and expanding food and drink choices.

ABC doesn’t have the room, so it remains an old-fashioned bowling alley, Bauer said. Eiserman calls Palmyra Bowling a “partial FEC.” The center added some of those amenities but remains a strong league bowling site.

“Those facilities that are strictly FECs are completely open bowling,” she explained. “They don’t have any leagues.”

Meanwhile, competition for the disposable family entertainment dollar is stronger than ever. And few recreational businesses have done as well as Sky Zone.

Founded by Rick Platt in Las Vegas in 2004, Sky Zone features open jump, 3-D dodgeball and “SkyRobics” fitness classes. The concept took off, with franchises springing up across the country and deals to expand to Australia and New Zealand.

Forbes reported a 133 percent revenue growth for the company from 2010 to 2013.

Sky Zone spokeswoman Stephanie Lantz said there are now 70 franchises, with licenses for 70 more. All locations are smoke-free and equipped with Wi-Fi. Parents can drop off their kids knowing they will be exercising and can’t use their cellphones, she said.

“It’s a basic concept, and when you do something that’s basic and you don’t crowd it out, it makes sense,” Lantz said. “Right now, the sky is the limit for them.”

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