Despite the sense that it's the sort of thing best done in Wisconsin, bowling is a favorite pastime of many North County residents.
"It's fun," said Kenny Cook of Rancho Bernardo, celebrating his 27th birthday with three friends on a recent Thursday night at North County Lanes in San Marcos. Amid the rolling thunder of bowling balls and the exploding clatter of pins, Cook and his friends have found a place for camaraderie.
"Instead of going to parties, we come here," said Vince Rosete, 20, of Mira Mesa. "It's a lot of fun. For a while we were seeing if we could get our averages up. But lately, we've been seeing who can put the best spin on the ball."
Rosete demonstrated. Hefting a ball up, he took three steps, then launched it down the right edge of the lane. About two-thirds of the way down the floor, the ball spun neatly across to the left--and into the gutter. Rosete didn't seem to mind. It was a good spin, and he knew he would get another shot.
That second chance is part of the appeal of the sport, which has ancient origins. Archeologists found a set of stone balls and nine pins in the tomb of an Egyptian child buried in about 5200 B.C.
Although bowling today is basically the same 10-pin game played in 1842 in the eastern U.S., those returning to the game today after 10 or 20 years will notice some changes.
First off, the bowling industry has become image-conscious. It prefers the clean connotations of "bowling center" to the tawdry sound of "bowling alley." At most bowling centers, scores are now tallied automatically by computer, and displayed on monitors above each lane, freeing bowlers to concentrate on the game. As in golf, subtle changes in equipment have enhanced performance.
For instance, the best way to hit the most desirable spot--the pocket between the second and third pins--is with a left-curving hook, and now there are urethane bowling balls which make it easier to throw a hook. There are also several types of oils and urethane finishes that can be applied to the first part of the lane to make it more slick, a condition which can be used to a bowler's advantage.
"A bowler with power can crank the ball so it skids through the oil," said Ron Jay, secretary of the Palomar Bowling Assn. "Then it makes a rapid left turn, and it's devastating when it hits the pins."
The irony is that while technology seems to have yielded a trend toward higher scores, there are fewer people bowling all the time.
"Unfortunately, bowling is on a national decline," said Jay. Men members in the Palomar Bowling Assn. in the 1970s totaled about 6,000, he said. Today there are less than 5,000 men registered.
One factor is that some bowlers are participating in unsanctioned leagues. But a bigger problem is the rising cost of having fun. "The cost of bowling has gone up, and it's going to continue to go up," Jay said.
Jerry Mendenhall of the Avocado Women's Bowling Assn. agreed. The number of registered bowlers in area women's leagues has also dipped below 5,000 in recent years.
"I think it's very hard for parents to make ends meet," she said. "And the first thing that goes is entertainment."
Rates vary at different bowling centers throughout North County.
Bowlers can roll by the hour, from as low as $2 per lane per hour on weekdays, to as much as $14 per hour on Friday and Saturday nights. By the game, prices range from as low as 50 cents to as high as $2.75 per game. On the average, it costs about $2.25 to play a game in league play, and $2 per game in open play. About 15 years ago it was about 35 cents to 50 cents per game, said Jay.
Even at today's prices, many would say that bowling is still a bargain. In fact, the sport remains a strong attraction for budget-wise families. Bowling centers typically have a nursery where bowling parents can leave their very young children, and a video arcade for the older kids. Some bowling centers have inflatable plastic cushions that can be put in the gutters when children bowl. The cushions keep balls on the lane, guaranteeing that pins will fall, and cutting down on the frustration experienced by young bowlers.
Among the eight bowling centers in North County, there are leagues for virtually everyone. Most centers even have a Lousy Bowlers League.
There are men's, women's and youth leagues, and mixes of all three, and enough league schedules to accommodate every timetable. Leagues also cater to special interests. Participants in the Monday Night Football League at Mira Mesa Lanes receive a football jersey and compete in a playoff system patterned after the NFL's.
"Leagues are the bread and butter of the bowling industry," said Diane Elliot, marketing manager for Leisure Time Sports, which operates North County Lanes, and Carriage Lanes in Poway.
Leagues traditionally run for 35 weeks, from fall until spring, but there are also summer leagues. Leagues sanctioned by the American Bowling Congress offer certified record-keeping and official recognition.