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Bowling's Future Pinned to Families


He's only 16, but Robert Dillard has already bowled 300. That ought to keep him coming back to the lanes.

Dillard, of La Habra Heights, says he was hooked after one bowling experience, but, he admits, few his age share his enthusiasm.

"Some of my friends started with me but don't bowl anymore," Dillard said. "They ask me why I still do it. It's a game anyone can play. You don't have to be physically fit to do it. I like the competition; it's not only between you and another guy, but you and yourself. Bowling is such a mental game, anyway."

That endorsement should sound sweet to bowling center operators, who have been presiding over lanes that aren't as crowded as they used to be. The sport is struggling to regain its popularity in Orange County and throughout the country.

The drop-off has been remarkable in the county. In 1978 there were about 30,000 men, 42,000 women and 10,000 children in at least one sanctioned league, according to the Orange County Bowling Assn. Today, the association says the numbers have dropped to 11,510 men, 8,316 women and 1,227 children.

And there has been a decline every year since 1981.

The trend forced many smaller 12- to 20-lane bowling centers out of business in the 1980s.

There are 35 bowling centers from La Habra to Mission Viejo. The largest is Regal Lanes in Orange, with 72 lanes; the Naval Weapons Station in Seal Beach has the smallest with four.

"It is a rapid decline," said Troy Cole, association director. "But bowling is still one of cheapest recreations around. I'm optimistic it will survive. I've been bowling since 1939, and will bowl until I can't pick that [ball] up anymore."

David Osborn, part owner of Fountain Bowl in Fountain Valley and president of the Orange County Bowling Council, would love to find a solution that brings bowlers back.

"Bowling has always gone through peaks and valleys," Osborn said. "People are still bowling but not as frequently, so we're doing more types of things to attract them."

Most bowling center managers and owners say they need to bring kids back to the sport in larger numbers.

"We have to build a core audience with the kids," said Pat Needham, who organizes the youth leagues at Sequoia Lanes in Buena Park. "If we don't, in another 20 years there might not be any bowling centers around. The kids are the future."

Bart Rainone, part-owner of the Concourse Recreation Center in Anaheim, which has 40 lanes, also believes kids and families are the sport's future. Two of the best lures, Rainone said, are bumper lanes and bowling parties.

Bumper lanes means the gutters on each side of the lane are walled off so the ball--no matter how its thrown, pushed or rolled--will always travel down the lane and knock over at least one pin. This is perfect for young children who do not yet have the strength to control the ball, Rainone said.


"With bumper lanes, I can start kids bowling at 4-5 years of age before they're hooked on soccer. They can see success instead of having to wait until they're older."

Parties, from birthdays to company gatherings, have become an industry staple, but few county centers handle the amount of business Concourse does.

Assistant general manager and party coordinator Kent Kinoshita said when Concourse was built seven years ago, the owners "wanted to get out of the smoky, dark atmosphere" that surrounded bowling centers, and decided they would push the parties angle.

Nick Sherg, a Yorba Linda financier, is sold on the idea. His two children have had five parties at Concourse the past three years.

"They make you and your family very comfortable," Sherg said.

Another attraction the Westminster and Saddleback bowling centers are experimenting with are video monitors that not only show the scores in color but use comical computer graphics.

For example, a steam roller flattens several pins, indicating a spare, while a missed spare can be depicted by a pin scampering into a living room, jumping from a couch onto a table and covering itself with a lampshade as the ball comes in looking for it.

Doreen Keenan, a day manager at Westminster, isn't sure serious bowlers are all that enamored by the videos, "but the kids love them. If a bowler does not want the video images after every turn, they are turned off and only the score appears."

Will all or any of this work in the long run?

Colette Lumpkin, a 38-year-old self-described bowling addict from Huntington Beach, believes so.

"I don't think kids understand how much fun it is," Lumpkin said. "But once you try it, the game gets in your blood and doesn't leave."

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