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Bowling continues to strike fancies

| Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Ben Miller, 4, of Hopewell, bowls with his family at Latitude 40 in Robinson on Saturday, January 4, 2014.

Brent Brown said he wouldn't refer to one of the entertainment facilities his company runs as a bowling center.

At the same time, he also wouldn't open a location that didn't include bowling.

“(Bowling) is one of the entertainment options that really started us in looking to put together this concept,” said Brown, CEO of Latitude Global, which operates Latitude 40 in Robinson. “Bowling is the most widely participated sport in the world. People don't realize that because in a lot of cities, bowling is more traditional bowling and a lot of centers are what we call old-school bowling.”

Latitude 40, a restaurant that includes a movie theater, sports theater, stage and game room in addition to bowling lanes, is part of a growing trend. Where many facilities once offered only bowling, more nationwide are becoming full-fledged entertainment zones.

“People as consumers were looking for more options and more things to do,” said Bart Burger, vice president for business development at the Bowling Proprietors Association of America, an Arlington, Texas, trade group that says it represents most of the 5,000 bowling centers in America.

“With the new model that we're seeing today, it includes bowling as an anchor, but there's a focus on increased food and beverage (and) other forms of entertainment and recreation like laser tag, game rooms and rock-climbing walls.”

The number of bowling centers in America has decreased, Burger said. Many centers are moving from suburbs to more highly populated areas, he added.

Bowling remains a stable form of recreation. Burger said the number of yearly participants generally hovers around 70 million, making it the largest participation sport in North America.

But the audience itself is skewing younger.

“We certainly see a movement of youth, (such as) youths holding birthday parties,” Burger said. “The largest destination for birthday parties is a bowling center. ... In high school sports, bowling is the fastest-growing sport in high school now.”

Local bowling centers are following the shift toward youths by adding entertainment options. Within the past five years, Legacy Lanes in Baldwin Borough added a laser tag center and arcade.

“The laser tag is a big hit with the children, with the teenagers (and) with 20-somethings,” manager Jamie Scott said, and the arcade helps to bring in patrons.

“For our birthday parties, typically you get your bowling and your laser tag, and you get to hang out in the arcade. The kids really seem to enjoy it,” Scott said.

Other bowling centers, noticing the shift toward a younger audience, offer promotional nights to draw in young adults. While events such as cosmic bowling — a long-popular activity — still are around, promotions now include reduced prices and entertainment.

Arsenal Bowling Lanes in Lawrenceville offers nightly entertainment including an '80s night on Thursdays, DJs, karaoke and more, plus food and drink specials throughout the week.

“They seem to work really well,” manager Matt Mihalko said. “On Wednesdays when we have bands, a lot of bands love coming here and being able to play on the lanes.”

Some bowling leagues are declining in popularity. While Scott and Mihalko said leagues at their centers are unaffected, Don Cantley, one of the owners at Sports Haven in Bridgeville, said he has noticed a drop-off in participants.

“I've never had openings before, and I have openings now,” he said. “Open play's pretty much the same, but it's the leagues where we've backed off. I've got three open nights out of seven.”

As trends change, bowling centers will do the same, but those in the industry expect bowling to continue to thrive.

In addition to Latitude 40, Latitude Global operates facilities in Indianapolis and Jacksonville, Fla., and is planning five more centers. Expect those new Latitude locations to include bowling, Brown said.

“There are very few activities you can do together (as a family) where it's interactive and everybody has a great time,” Brown said. “Bowling hits it. It's a very important component of what we do.”

Doug Gulasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-388-5830 or via email at dgulasy@tribweb.com.

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