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STRIKE UP THE MUSIC : If You Haven't Bowled Lately, It's Time to Get Back in the Groove

February 25, 1993|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

It's after midnight on a rainy Friday at the Westbrook Bowl. Hay bales are stacked outside the door; inside, country music is blasting, and employees are dressed in Western duds.

General manager Max Epps has taught bowling in Europe and Japan and has 30 perfect games to his credit ("I've been lucky a few times," he says with a smile), but tonight the game is secondary. In his denim shirt and tin marshal's badge, Epps is busy trying to get customers to join him in a line dance.

Most of the customers on hand, alas, seem more interested in bowling than dancing. But the week before, Epps said, when rain wasn't keeping the crowd down, one line dance stretched across all 40 lanes. Country music and dancing weren't the only added attractions that week: One lane was open for folks who wanted to try knocking the pins down with a frozen turkey.

Welcome to bowling's new look. "Kick-n-bowl," the newest promotion at Westbrook, is the fast-growing country equivalent (sponsored by country music station KIK-FM) to the "rock-n-bowl" nights that have caught on at alleys across the county. As bowling centers cope with a continuing slide in league bowling, their old staple, they're trying hard to come up with new ways of bringing customers in.

In addition to rock and country music nights, there are casino nights, during which bowlers knock down colored pins in hopes of winning cash prizes, random-draw mixed doubles tournaments, "no tap" contests (in which nine pins down counts as a strike), hourly bowling rates, keno, karaoke, two-for-one nights, smoke-free nights and "coffee club" tournaments.

For a time, Kona Lanes in Costa Mesa even advertised "nude bowling" on its marquee, but it turns out that was just the gag name for a new league. It's not as far-fetched as it sounds, though: An alley in Lake Elsinore used to have a real nude bowling league.

"The entire game of bowling has changed a lot," Epps says. "We used to just open the doors, and people came in."

Now, bowling centers are having to work harder to attract business. The effort seems to be paying off, especially as teens who once shunned the game as unhip are rediscovering the sport, largely through the popularity of rock-n-bowl nights.

"A few years ago, bowling wasn't cool," says Butch Maxwell, owner of Westminster Bowling Supplies. "Now, it's an accepted thing to do again. It goes back and forth all the time."

The decline in league bowling is fueling all the emphasis on special promotions. In the 1970s, Epps says, a typical bowling center might have derived 85% of its business from league play. In 1986 to 1987, the figure dropped to about 65%; now, at Westbrook, just 54% of business comes from bowling leagues.

The Orange County Women's Bowling Assn., which sanctions women's bowling leagues at centers throughout the county, has a membership of 14,470. That's down from more than 40,000 in 1986, according to association secretary Marge Miyoda. Figures for men's and mixed leagues have taken a similar tumble in recent years.

"(The number of) sanctioned league bowlers has gone down every year for the last eight years," Maxwell says. While many centers once had two shifts of league bowling on weeknights, from 6 to 9 and then from 9 to midnight, most of the league play is now concentrated in the earlier shift.

Theories explaining the decline vary. Some say the heavy bowlers of a decade ago have had to cut back under increasing job and family pressures. "I've been a bowler for a whole bunch of years. It was not uncommon for me to bowl four or five nights a week" in years past, Maxwell says. He said that he and other bowlers have cut it down to one or two nights a week.

Miyoda and others say that much of the traditionally blue-collar bowling crowd has moved out of the county in recent years, in search of lower housing costs. In the late '80s, in fact, there was a boom in bowling center construction from Riverside to Moreno Valley.

In Orange County during this time, not only was league bowling declining, but bowling centers were closing down with disturbing frequency. Maxwell says he can remember at least a dozen that have closed in the last decade, most recently Champions in Garden Grove, which shut down last year after some 40 years in the business. Many sit on land that has skyrocketed in value since their opening; when long-term leases expire, they opt to close the doors rather than pay dramatically higher rents.

Meanwhile, only one new bowling center has opened in Orange County in recent years, the Concourse in Anaheim. Another has reportedly been built in Rancho Santa Margarita but has not yet opened.

Bowling center operators have tried a variety of ways of coping with the drop in league bowling. One has been to offer shorter league schedules of 10 to 12 weeks, rather than the traditional 32 to 36 weeks for winter bowling leagues.

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