When bowling was introduced to the United States in the 19th century, it quickly became associated with camaraderie, recreation, and competition, especially among men. Movies such as The Big Lebowski (1998), Dreamer (1979), and Spare Me (1992) portray bowling alleys filled with copious amounts of beer, greasy food, and thick shrouds of cigarette smoke. Though the basic rules of the game are the same as ever, bowling alleys have a much different image today than they did only a couple decades ago. Now, adolescents haphazardly send ten pound balls crashing on the floor where mustachioed men once threw with calculated precision in hopes of leading their team to victory; pizza, candy, and pop are consumed where people once congregated for beer, smokes, and leisure; and the patrons are most likely there to celebrate a preteen birthday rather than the end of a long workday.
So what gives? Bowling alleys still routinely sell alcohol, house billiard tables, operate late, and primarily function as a venue for bowling. Undoubtedly, much of the change in the game’s nature can be credited to smoking bans enacted state-by-state in the mid 90’s through the early 2000’s. Since California enacted a statewide smoking ban in 1995, other states quickly followed suit. Today, Alabama, Alaska, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, West Virginia, and Wyoming are the only remaining states without a ban on smoking. Many restaurant owners welcomed the smoking bans as they came, no longer feeling obligated to cater to 20% of the population at the expense of the other 80%, finding in it the opportunity to revamp their image and push for a more lucrative family friendly dining environment. Bowling alleys, on the other hand, encompass a smoker-intensive clientele.
“It was an unfair playing field,” remembers Ted Hoffman, owner of Earl Anthony’s Dublin Bowl. “We lost about 35 bowlers, customers who couldn’t smoke while relaxing.” But when one door closed, another opened – “What we started to see was more families. I’m not saying we didn’t have them before but a lot of new families and people who wouldn’t bring their kids before because they didn’t want them around smoking.”
Sure, the new family friendly theme served to palliate the initial loss of the smoking demographic, but when routine bowlers who participate in regular bowling clubs are swapped for families who bring their kids in for occasional weekend outings and birthday parties, dramatic consequences are imminent. The kids may look back fondly at their birthday at the bowling alley one day, but they aren’t likely to become serious bowlers for the experience. Meanwhile, alleys’ former patrons are helpless to do anything but wistfully remember the game as they once knew it. Incidentally, the number of bowling alleys in the United States has dropped from nearly 5500 in 1998 to roughly 4000 in 2012, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.