HEAR THE ROLL, the crash, the mechanical reset. Smell the shoe deodorizer and the odors it can’t beat. Heft the battered polyurethane orbs, taste the cheap beer and pizza, and gaze upon the rows of glistening lanes. Now look up—away from the long lines of polished wood—to the missing sections of ceiling. To the exposed wires. To the water-damage stains.
North Portland’s Interstate Lanes used to house two long walls of bowling lanes. League players with determined faces would spin heavy balls across the vast room, while their jovial companions traded statistics over $6.75 pitchers of PBR. The entire congregation wore matching shirts.
One of a handful of Portland bowling alleys known for its league bowling, Interstate closed at the end of April to make way for apartments.
But while Interstate is gone, the alley was hardly alone in facing a new landscape. The bowling alley has long been part of American life, but now, it’s entered a different era: Unable to depend on leagues for the majority of their revenue, alleys have shifted their businesses to attract more casual players. Alleys are no longer crammed with regulars who roll at their own pace and keep careful track of which pins fall. These days, alleys have made room for younger players who forget their scores as soon as the 10th frame closes. But what does it mean for bowling that its most devoted players are seeing their longtime haunts turned into neon-filled, glitter-splattered nightclubs?
IN HIS 2000 BOOK Bowling Alone, political scientist (and, apparently, bowling aficionado) Robert D. Putnam noted that Americans engage less in social communities than they once did, leading to decreased participation in all sports—except one. Putnam noted the surprising fact that in 2000, bowling—bowling—was one of the most popular sports in America.
Sixteen years later, more Americans than ever are bowling, but fewer are participating in league play. During the 1980s, according to Bowling Alone, the number of casual players grew by 10 percent, while the number of regular players fell by more than 40 percent. That shift took a big chunk out of alleys’ profits—while league bowling still exists, it often does so in alleys that are poorly maintained and struggling to stay in business.
“Traditional centers try to rely on leagues for about 70 percent of their bowling revenue,” says Bob Farmer, the general manager of SE Powell’s AMF Pro 300 Lanes. After picking up the sport at 15, Farmer’s been a bowler for more than 40 years, and his stomping grounds at AMF are definitely traditional, offering 36 lanes and league play seven days a week.
“You know, there was a time that bowling kinda looked like it was leveling off,” Farmer says. “But in the last two years, we’ve actually seen growth in our leagues.” That’s great for Farmer’s alley, but the news is bittersweet: The increased business at AMF is a result of two other Portland alleys failing. “Hollywood Lanes closed,” Farmer says, referring to the former alley that’s now a location for the Orchard Supply Hardware chain, “and Interstate Lanes closed. With both of these lanes closing, the leagues had to find somewhere else to go.”
Bryan Smith is a member of one of the leagues forced to find a new home. “I started bowling really early on, because of my father,” Smith says. “He was a professional on the senior tour, and managed an alley just north of Pittsburgh. Any time of the day, I could walk in and see it packed with league players.” But as an adult in Portland, Smith has watched interest in league bowling decline. “Nowadays,” he says, “players are more casual.”
That hasn’t dampened Smith’s enthusiasm: From September through April, he bowls with the PDX Pride Bowling League, which is made up of adults from Portland’s LGBTQ community. “There are about 30 teams,” Smith says, then smirks. “I’m on a team of six, and we’re called Reactive Balls.” Other team names include Stiff Competition, BILFs, the Glory Holey Rollers, and the Cucumber Kamikazes.
“The hope is to get better, sure, but also just to blow off steam during the week,” Smith says. During the active season, the league meets every week at AMF, with players tracking their scores from game to game, month to month, year to year. That’s the kind of thing that doesn’t happen at Portland’s more popular alleys.
BOWLING... IN THE FUTURE!
PORTLAND'S TWO MOST POPULAR alleys are near the city center, and they don’t offer league play. At Punch Bowl Social, inside Pioneer Place, it’s a matter of space. A Denver-based chain with six locations across the country, Punch Bowl built its Portland spot with only 12 lanes, intending its bowling alley for casual use. Meanwhile, in Inner Southeast, Grand Central Restaurant & Bowling Lounge faces a different issue when it comes to hosting leagues.
“The problem we’ve found,” says Grand Central General Manager Willie Krause, “is if I have a bowling league that’s every Monday night from 5 to 7 pm, and Grimm calls me and says, 'Hey, we want to come buy out your building on Monday night,’ well, then I’m stuck, and I don’t get to have those corporate events... and those are hard to pass up.”
What’s also hard to pass up is profit from hungry and thirsty customers. It’s not happenstance that bowling isn’t the focus of the city’s two most popular bowling centers—the sport isn’t mentioned at all in Punch Bowl Social’s name, and it comes after “restaurant” at Grand Central, which in 2008 was revamped from an old-school alley into a slick, TV-filled incarnation by Portland bar-and-restaurant company Concept Entertainment.
“When you look at the food and beverage part of it,” says AMF’s Farmer, “I would say the open bowlers probably spend more than the typical league bowler.”
In other words, the sport is just another thing to do with friends—after the chicken Caesar salad, before skee-ball, and between arcade games. “They want an experience,” Farmer says. “A lot of the younger [players]—you know, mid 20s to early 30s—find bowling is a great way to go out with friends [and] couples and just connect.”
THE LEAGUES ABIDE
SO MAYBE BOWLING isn’t necessarily becoming less social as league play declines—it’s just that the nature of that social activity is changing. Places like Punch Bowl and Grand Central are popular because they offer dark lounge settings, corporate events, and are more welcoming to people who’re just looking to hang out. But is there a way for bowling alleys to accommodate these casual players as well as longtime league players? A new alley in Portland is hoping to strike that balance.
“We opened just two weeks ago. It’s gone really well. We’re kind of a hybrid,” says Tom Burke, owner of KingPins at 3550 SE 92nd. KingPins is in the former location of AMF 20th Century Lanes, which closed in July 2015. Burke and his business partner, Jon Tang, own another alley in Beaverton, Sunset Lanes. “We would anticipate, based on our other location, that the league play will be about 40 percent of our total bowling revenue,” says Burke. “So not a majority, but still a significant part of our business.”
In addition to hosting leagues seven days a week, KingPins is outfitted with a 4,000-square-foot room full of arcade video games, plus an eight-lane bowling lounge designed specifically for casual play, which is tied to a sports bar. As far as the alley where leagues play, Burke installed an upscale food and beverage operation, complete with servers catering to each lane.“With all those things,” he says, “while we still do league play, we’ve built a facility that encourages the casual guest just as well as the league player.”
That means that while Portland has four bowling alleys, KingPins joins only one other in offering league play: AMF, Farmer’s reliable old spot that hosts Smith’s PDX Pride Bowling League. AMF is also home to the hard-rocking, long-running Portland Metal Bowling League, as well as games run by Recess Time Sports Leagues, the company behind Portland’s adult kickball, dodgeball, and ping-pong leagues.
But all of Portland’s bowling alleys will continue to face increasing competition for entertainment dollars and real estate—which means they’ll all have to look to casual players to stay in business. Bowling is no longer synonymous with middle-aged guys in matching shirts, fastidiously counting pins as they shatter, get raked up, and set again.
Still, what’s new isn’t necessarily worse—it’s just, you know, new. As long as Portland’s alleys can balance the needs of longtime regulars and more casual players, those alleys—and their leagues—will abide. Let’s just hope the old-school bowlers can get used to hearing a tone of ironic detachment whenever someone says, “Fuck it, dude. Let’s go bowling.”