Tom Shannon, an avid bowler, threw his purple bowling ball down the lane. It landed with a thud—six feet beyond the foul line, then rolled slowly, dinging the seven pin.
“I need to warm up,” said Mr. Shannon, the president of Bowlmor AMF, the largest player in the $3.2 billion U.S. bowling market, with a 20% market share based on the number of lanes owned and operated.
Mr. Shannon acquired Bowlmor for $1.4 million nearly two decades ago when it was a single New York City bowling alley, and expanded the business through acquisitions, including AMF Bowling Worldwide, to more than 340 bowling alleys.
The chain, which tends to feature cocktails and canapés instead of leagues, generates roughly $575 million in annual revenue, according to the company. A substantial portion of that revenue comes from corporate parties and other special events.
The Bowlmor president’s challenge is getting people to pay between roughly $4 and $10 a game, depending on location, for a pastime that many see as a relic of midcentury Americana. Sales-per-square-foot at bowling alleys are among the lowest in the retail industry, running about $50 to $60, versus $200 or more at a typical department store, according to Robert Plaza, a senior research analyst with Key Private Bank.
Sixty million Americans bowled at least once this year, but many serious bowlers are taking up other sports, according to White Hutchinson, a leisure industry consulting firm. Today, there are only 4,666 certified bowling alleys in the U.S., down from roughly 11,000 in the 1960s, according to the United States Bowling Congress, the sport’s governing body.
In July, Mr. Shannon said he was forced to close the original Bowlmor alley after the owner of the New York City building where the 75-year-old venue was located saw a more promising future in luxury condos. The 49-year-old Bowlmor executive recently talked with The Wall Street Journal about how he hopes to keep the company out of the gutter. Edited excerpts:
WSJ: What’s your plan for keeping customers rolling through the doors?
Mr. Shannon: Everyone likes to bowl, or nearly everyone. The problem with bowling was that it was locked in the ’50s. I started thinking: ‘What if this was more like the places I like to go?’ The lounges that are hip and funky. Keep bowling fundamentally the same, but wrap it in a better aesthetic, invest in the food and beverage quality. And that is what we did.
The riskiest thing we ever did was our second project, in Bethesda, Md. We were taking a concept from the center of Manhattan to a quiet street in a sleepy suburban market. And it worked spectacularly well. That’s when we really knew we had something that could travel.
WSJ: It has been said that bowling is a recession-proof sport. Is that true?
Mr. Shannon: People go bowling during hard times. With corporations, it’s different.
In places like Silicon Valley, where we opened in Cupertino [Calif.] in the middle of 2007, bowling was really hot with a tremendous amount of corporate parties. But by 2008, business was 40% lower than the first year. [Corporations] canceled all of their events, which was perhaps the right thing for their business, but disastrous for ours.
WSJ: Most of the alleys you’ve acquired, including those bought recently from Brunswick Corp., have a more traditional focus on bowling, compared with Bowlmor’s. How are you going to market them?
Mr. Shannon: About six months ago, we embarked on a campaign to own Saturday night in the mind of the consumer. We’ve put a couple million dollars behind that in television advertising. Now, we’re able to spread that investment across a larger base.
WSJ: Has the rise of e-commerce and social media changed the industry?
Mr. Shannon: One of the benefits of bowling is that it can’t be replaced by the Internet.
In the late ’90s, our marketing plan was a couple of magazines and occasionally cable TV. Now it’s so much broader and requires a greater level of sophistication.
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Corrections & Amplifications
Bowlmor AMF generates roughly $575 million in annual revenue. An earlier version (Oct. 8) of the article incorrectly stated the bowling chain generated an estimated $378 million in annual revenue.