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Ralph Cramden Might Not Recognize the New Bowling Center

August 30, 1988|JESUS SANCHEZ | Times Staff Writer

What do young executives do for fun after a hard day's work? They go bowling, of course.

Well, at least they do in a barrage of 61 recently aired television commercials sponsored by the National Bowling Council, an industry group.

The $3-million Bowling in the USA campaign--the most expensive bowling promotion ever--shows young men and women living it up at their sleek neighborhood bowling alley. Awash in a cascade of red, white and blue balloons, the commercial's characters leap, yell and laugh as they bowl the night away. It's this clean-cut--and decidely upscale--image that bowling boosters hope will attract people into the nation's approximately 8,000 bowling alleys.

The ads also reflect bowling's ongoing campaign to shed its blue-collar image and sign up the growing numbers of white-collar workers and suburban families.

Recent promotions point with pride to the upcoming Olympic Games in Seoul, where bowling makes its debut as an exhibition sport. Makers of bowling shoes and balls have updated styles and added bright colors to appeal to the younger crowd and women.

Some bowling alleys now have computer-controlled scoring machines; others have added ribbons of neon, skylights and color schemes of mauve and aqua.

The 21 California bowling alleys owned by Active West Bowling and Recreation Centers will soon ban smoking in certain sections. "It's not the dark smelly place that they used to be in the '50s and '60s," said David A. Spiegel, chief of operations at Active West. "The demographics of bowlers today are quite a bit different today. There are more families. It's not the Ralph Cramden look."

In the push for respectability, even the term "bowling alley" has fallen out of favor. "We don't call them bowling alleys," said Adrian Sakowicz, spokesman for Brunswick Recreation Centers, which operates about 130 bowling alleys--uh--centers. "We have been trying to get away from that image. We call them family recreation centers. They're extremely clean."

The image building comes as the industry begins to rebound after a long decline that began in the early 1970s--a decline that reflected changes in life style and shortsightedness among alley operators. "The bowling industry did not do a good job with marketing and did not keep up with the times," said Spiegel. "They were not modernizing. They were taking the money and putting it into their pockets."

Despite the neglect, bowling has managed to retain a large following. About 12 million Americans bowl at least once a week, according to industry statistics. Sales--from customer fees and equipment--have remained steady at about $5 billion annually, according to Bowlers Journal.

Bowling is suddenly chi-chi in many quarters. At the Little Tokyo Bowl in downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood actors and executives are said to play until 4 in the morning on some Saturdays. In one scene from the movie "Fatal Attraction," the attorney played by Michael Douglas bowls up a storm with his high-powered friends.

For the most part, bowling has been associated with blue-collar workers not Hollywood movie makers, say bowling experts. Brought to America by German immigrants, bowling has its roots in the inner city and working-class neighborhoods, particularly in the Northeast and upper Midwest. Bowling leagues were an important part of social life for factory workers.

But changes in the inner cities, the decline of blue-collar industries and rising land values have forced many small urban bowling alleys to close. The number of alleys has fallen to about 7,800 from a peak of nearly 11,000 in the early 1960s, according to industry figures.

New centers have opened in outlying suburbs where real estate is usually less expensive and young families plentiful. "It has become a suburban sport," said Mort Luby, publisher of Bowlers Journal. "Who lives in the suburbs? The boomers. The yuppies."

Changing demographics and life styles have triggered changes in bowling leagues. With fewer company bowling leagues, many of the 8 million league bowlers find themselves on teams made up of players who can bowl only at a certain time or day. "It's attractive to young people because of a change in life style," said Joe Schoenberg, marketing vice president at the National Bowling Council. "People don't want to make commitments. Their friends are somewhere else. They don't have commitments to the company store after 5 p.m."

Bowling officials have set their sights on keeping younger players from defecting to baseball, football or tennis. Video games are shoehorned into bowling centers, some of which turn into discos--Rock, Roll and Bowl nights--on weekends to attract teens.

To attract children and their parents, more and more bowling alleys have begun offering games such as bumper bowl, where the gutters on either side of the lane are filled with plastic tubes that prevent gutter balls.

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