Why Your Local Bowling Center May Be Closing Soon

Bowling centers are closing left and right.  Seems as if you hear daily about another bowling center closing.  In the S.F. bay area Palo Alto Bowl, Mel’s in Redwood City, Serra Bowl in Daly City and Cedar Lanes in Fresno have all closed recently.

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Mel’s in Redwood City is closed, but the sign remains

I grew up in Bloomfield, Connecticut, and learned to bowl at Earl Anthony’s Bloomfield Bowl  (shout out to Pat Bosco, the best bowling center manager I’ve ever known).  I won my first PBA regional title at Paramus Bowl, beating the likes of Petraglia and Roth.  I shot my first 300 at Fantasy Lanes in Upper Saddle River, NJ (my PBA 300 ring says “Fantasy” on it).  Guess what?  All are closed today and the properties redeveloped.

This is a tragedy to me.  But the reality is that a few basic facts explain this phenomenon.  Let’s start with a sign I saw recently at Sea Bowl in Pacifica, Ca.:

Weekend Rates:

Bowling: $29.00 per hour

Billiards: $14.00 per hour

Bowling’s revenue per square foot math doesn’t work.  Let’s talk real estate and revenue per square foot.  A bowling center building requires at least 1,000 square feet per lane, so that a 32-lane center would need at least 32,000 square feet to operate.  A billiard table takes up about 100 square feet.  According to the Sea Bowl sign above, the bowling lane would generate about 2.9 cents per square foot per hour, while the billiard table would generate about 14 cents per square foot per hour.  The billiard table nets nearly 5 times the revenue per square foot, and uses about 1/10th of the bowling lane’s footprint to earn its money for the center.

Also important is that the billiard capital investment is vastly less than bowling; have you priced pinsetters and scoring systems lately compared to even the nicest billiard table?  And, there is virtually no billiard table maintenance compared to the parts, supplies, lane machine, support staff and the many other costs involved with maintaining a bowling lane.  From a financial point of view, one is much better off in the billiards business.

Let’s look at it another way.  Say a 32-lane bowling center, between the lineage, snack bar, lounge, and other revenue such as vending machines generates $2 million per year, and uses 35,000 square feet of space.  That’s $57.14 of revenue per square foot per year.  Indeed, I’ve compared notes with several center managers and a very typical figure is $50 – $60 per square foot per year.  The best number I’ve ever heard was from Jim Carter in Winter Garden Florida (Don’s son and a fantastic person and manager), who proudly said he once earned $74 per square foot per year.

Now let’s talk about Pier One Imports.  Who?  They recently published a 3-year plan in which they announced a goal to increase yearly revenue from $200 to $225 per square foot.  That’s 4 times what a bowling center can generate in the same space!  These numbers vary by store of course (Macy’s take is $161 per square foot for example), and they have higher cost of good sold, but they all handily beat bowling’s earnings potential per square foot.

You can pick almost any business and the revenue per square foot is better than bowling’s.  Restaurants generally lose money at $150 per square foot, and some can net as high as $400 per square foot and up.

I recently toyed with the idea of opening a bowling center in a populated area of Massachusetts.  I found the perfect location – 40,000 square feet in an old Filene’s Basement location in Framingham, Mass.  There used to be three houses in Framingham – today there are none.  I contacted the landlord and was told that the lease would be about $1M per year, and there would have to be a 15-year minimum lease due to all the capital improvements I would have to make to the property.  Doing some quick math, if I opened a center making $2.5 million a year, I would spend 40% of my revenue on rent – a non-starter. The fact is, that location needs to generate in the $200 per square foot range (about $8M per year) to make the property pay.  No bowling center in the world can do that. So much for that idea!

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My perfect location in Framingham.  Too bad the rent is $1M a year.

Land value.  The revenue per square foot argument is just one problem.  The other is land value, and what else could be built on the property.  Let’s take Palo Alto Bowl.  It sat on a 3.62-acre site that is now under construction for a 4 story 167-room hotel and 26 condos and duplexes.  Let’s say each condo alone goes for $500,000.  That’s $13M right there – many, many years of a bowling center’s potential profits.

Real estate in Palo Alto is an extreme example, going for millions per acre.  But the same math can be applied to most any bowling center and the end result is that there are a lot more centers still operating where the revenue is too low, the rent is too high, the land is too valuable, or some combination of the above are conspiring to cause the center to close in the not-too-distant future.

In some cases, centers remain open because of rent deals they made long ago.  This was Serra Bowl’s situation.  In 1962 they signed a 50-year lease for $5,000 per month.  It expired in 2012.  I was there the Friday night before it closed, bowling pot games.  The place was packed, with hundreds of people having a great time.  It closed that Sunday.  The new rent would have been so high that keeping it open couldn’t even be discussed.

There is no other social activity like bowling.  When was the last time you saw a group of friends or family bowling who weren’t have a great time?  Bowling centers need to be treated more like parks – community-preserved spots that help provide a safe recreation location and to help maintain a community’s sense of itself.

Turn your local bowling center into a protected area, like a park.  The only way to save some bowling centers is to petition the town.  Ask about your local center and find out if it might close.  if so, go to the town hall and ask about your center’s zoning and if the center’s location is a candidate for redevelopment.  If the land is available for redevelopment, in almost all cases the financial incentive to redevelop that land into almost anything besides a bowling center will in fact cause the center to close, and perhaps in the not too distant future.  The town will be motivated because it will collect more taxes on higher real estate values and/or more revenue.  Tell the town no!

Please help preserve the sport we love.  Get involved to keep your local bowling center open!

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20 thoughts on “Why Your Local Bowling Center May Be Closing Soon

  1. Bruce…love the blog…brings back a lot of memories and as you know, I did not bowl at your level (only 3-4 regionals actually cashing in one!!). What about some of the Upper scale smaller places that are opening…there was a really cool one in Vail with like 8 lanes, HD tv, leather seating, actually real food….really nice. Seems those fit the argument you make…no way to make the big places go with 20-30 lanes…need to scale down to more deco and make it a night out (Jillian’s in BOS has 6-8 lanes in the Sam fashion)…guess league nights are over ;)….G

    • True, I didn’t touch on the FEC (Family Entertainment Center) concept. Most of these places have limited lanes and fill their square footage with other businesses that can make money, like food, drinks, and other recreation. They often don’t oil their lanes, don’t even want you to bring your own ball, and have no interest whatsoever in advancing the game. They are upscale however, because bowling can attract an upscale demographic – at the end of the day bowling is fun for all ages and income levels!

  2. Bruce H,

    I have rediscovered tennis. Still takes up a lot of room, however once you have a good racquet, the only only cost is for new tennis balls. Bowling is fun, however once you reach a certain level, the league schedule is just “too long.”

    All the best.

    BVC

  3. Great blog. So true what you write. I can’t imagine the revenue per square foot if you own a golf course ! At least the weather can’t stop you from bowling. Bowling is a very tough business to make $$ in now–don’t think there are too many 32 lanes centers grossing $2 million a year either–especially since the trend is towards .99 a game bowling to try and draw people in. Bill told me he talked to you this summer and says hi ! also.

    • Hi Barb,
      Great to hear from you – how are you doing? Yes, the business is brutal, as you and Bill can attest to from extensive personal experience! Just for context, a $2 game in 1975 is worth about $8.25 today – nobody can charge that. That’s why FECs sport fewer lanes and fill up the rest of the non-bowling real estate with lounge, restaurant. and other higher revenue entertainment. My fear is that competitive bowling, which needs larger houses to conduct tournaments in, will die out because there are no venues and fewer young competitors will be exposed to the sport. My son is 14 and wants nothing more than to bowl full time on tour – it breaks my heart.

      Say hi to Bill and I hope to see him at a Sr. stop next year.

      • Doing well Bruce. Yes I looked through some old flyers I had collected when we were building the bowling center back in 1988–and the off-time reduced rate then was $2.00–it’s half of that now or less. And even at that price no one is coming in. That tells me no matter how low the price is no one is interested. And if at $1 you are completely full with a waiting list it means the price is probably too low–but that never happens. You are correct on bowling center size for competitive bowling–never thought of that. Will tell Bill you said HI!

  4. . My husband and I own the Hudson Bowling Center In Hudson Wisconsin. We often hear of other Bowling Centers closing for good and its often an owner/ center we knew and quite possibly bowled at at some point. It is such hard news to hear, but only makes us more determined to make our place work.

    Our Junior Bowling Program is a big hit and we are so excited to see so many young kids showing up early on Saturday mornings to learn …. Many of them have joined our adult leagues when they became old enough… It is fun to see them progress…

  5. And then there’s just bad business. The bowling alley in Oakhurst, CA, is closing this month. The new owners are building a Grocery Outlet – right next to a Von’s and across the street from a Ralph’s. Sierra is the only house north of Fresno and it’s not even a large building on high priced acreage – it’s just that the owners don’t want to manage a bowling alley. They said they’d build another one, higher up on the property…but that makes even LESS sense. Sometimes I hate capitalism…

  6. How about 30 lanes with only 10 per floor?? Takes up less land. Or 30 lanes on one floor with other operations on other floors? Laser tag, pool tables, pub… Or maybe indoor facilities to host other sports like basketball or even roller skating? BMX! ^_^ (When I was younger I was fascinated by bike racing. What has happened to that?)

  7. Obviously economics are a huge factor for why bowling is failing. But having bowled at very competitive levels my whole life as MANY of my friends (several PBA members) also quit long ago. My stock answer to people who ask why I gave it up is that it got too easy ! once they started conditioning lanes for high scores, and then went to synthetics, that was it. What it took myself and my partners years to learn, not to mention the intricacies of not only each “house” but every lane, rack differences, angles to avoid or exploit etc., that art was lost and so was our advantage bowling tournaments or pot games. Proof of that was seen many times over when the pba tour came to the bay area, we had many pros come here and leave shaking their heads as the locals would beat them.

    • I have to agree – I’m averaging 252 at Auburn lanes in Mass. and shot 300 – 836 last week. I don’t even feel like I did anything!

      However, even with this there is a deeper issue in that the recreational aspect of the sport is in jeopardy as well. It simply doesn’t pay to run a bowling center. The only apparent exception to this rule is BowlMor, who is pretty much hated by better players because he is trying to run centers at a profit, which means canceling or moving leagues, shorter hours, higher prices, etc.

      My son loves to bowl, it’s all he lives for. It breaks my heart to see him set his dreams on a sport that might not even see him become an adult.

      • thanks for the response, I was that kid in the late 60s early 70s, a true savant, all I wanted to do was go on the tour, lots of backers and friends encouraged me. from 18 to 20 I was all but unbeatable (1969ish thru the early 70s) We had three tour stops in the bay area and they would all come thru here for pot games and I definitely won my share, lots of pros from this area back then. At 21, 22 I basically quit bowling, moving and quitting completely for 2 years in the mid 70s. Upon my return to the bay area I started up again, and within 6 weeks had 6 300s, and set some local records in tournaments, I can tell you that I was NOT the bowler that I was when I was younger. Once I discovered the changes in the game (conditioning, etc.) it was kind of a joke. I quit again in the 80s’ , didn’t touch a ball for several years and was asked to bowl in a tournament with a friend that had several past PBA champions in the field and I won ? that year I bowled in my last league, NEVER practiced or bought new balls,e tc. and averaged 222, the highest I had ever averaged in a league That was it for me. Plus tournaments dried up and definitely pot games.

      • I hear you, and its a shame you never realized your dream. I am contemplating a post on “Guys Who Should be on Tour But There is No Tour” and get people to comment.

        But I fear the USBC can never reign this monster in – they have demonstrated amazing incompetence over the years.

  8. Hi Bruce-
    No one likes going into a game where they always lose; especially with such a low score. Imagine playing the NY Jets every week and you’re gonna lose 100 to zero; the same applies to many who can’t get above 100 pins, such as my four kids. How encouraged are they to return to a bowling alley and tell their friends they rolled a 73, and here in East Hampton it was $55 per hour, you read right, fifty-five dollars per hour!

  9. The story fails to talk about a major company who has been closing centers left and right. BowlMor/AMF has been shutting down a lot of centers across the USA. Most had leagues or tournaments set to start during the summer. Some of the closings come with less then a 20 day warning. We have had 5 centers that closed here in the last 6 years. 3 were AMF owned that closed. 2 of the buildings had everything taken out of it. Out of those 2, one was reopened as a center with new everything and the other was torn down. The other one was saved and reopened with everything still in it. We have 10 to 12 centers here. All but one is doing well.

  10. I grew up in a family where my dad bowled 2 leagues a week and my parents bowled 1 and sometimes 2 mixed leagues a week also….In these economic times my same family could never afford to bowl 4 league nights a week…The junior leagues are now practically non – existent…When I was a junior that 32 lane house had 3 FULL houses of jr leagues on saturday mornings and also there was Sunday traveling leagues everywhere….Bowling needs to take a page from the drug pushers on the street..hook em young for next to nothing and they will do it for a lifetime….Offer junoir leagues for next to nothing….Biggest problem there now is the internet, facebook etc….Kids dont leave the home anymore….Sad to see the times have changed and that hasnt been the least friendly to the bowling industry..

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