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An ever-increasing amount of ‘Bowling Alone’
What fall bowling leagues have to say about American culture.
Debbie Alvarez came back to the bowling world to serve as league coordinator at Bremerton Lanes this year with a simple motto in mind: Make it fun.
“We just want to go back to fun,” she said. “A lot of these leagues now, all the bowlers are all out for the money, and the more the prize fund is, that’s where they want to bowl. But, you know what, that’s not what bowling was designed for. It was designed for the camaraderie — and just coming out and having a good time.”
Things have certainly changed since her bowling days, she says.
Like many you’d expect to find working a desk at the alley, Alvarez started bowling at a young age. She’s been bowling for nearly as long as she can remember. She started leagues when she was 8. It was something handed down from her parents — both of whom were bowlers. Her dad, who coached juniors at the time, encouraged her to sign up for a kids’ league in their hometown on Whidbey Island.
“I started bowling then... and just continued on,” Alvarez said. “And you know what, it’s just that challenge of getting better. But my husband says, my problem with not getting better is that I don’t care because I just want to have fun.”
He bowls a 215, while her average is 150. But with the new appointment as league coordinator, Alvarez says for the first time in four or five years, she’ll be back bowling for keeps as part the Thursday Night Tavern League.
Leagues like it are starting up across the county this fall — at Bremerton Lanes, All Star Lanes in Silverdale and Hi-Joy Bowl in Port Orchard.
Regardless of whether or not a bowler is in it strictly for the prize money, financial factors are almost immediately at play.
Alvarez pays $15 per week, and at the end of the season, the top-four teams take home prize money garnered from all those weekly admission fees, she said.
With 26 teams, five players per team at $15 each, playing for 35 weeks — minus $10 a week per bowler for lineage fees and another small fee for the league secretary — that totals more than $10,000 in prize money and a near $50,000 net for the lanes.
At Silverdale’s All Star Lanes this year — for the first time in 30 some years — they didn’t garner enough teams for one of its perennial draft leagues, a money league similar to Bremerton Lanes’ Tavern League, which general manager Jim Manohan said will take its financial toll on the lanes.
“Think about it,” he said, “that’s guaranteed income for 35 weeks, gone.”
Having also bowled since a young age, Manohan, who’s now in his 40s, agrees with Alvarez that things at the lanes have changed.
“It used to be the leagues were your dominant force in the bowling business,” Manohan said. “Pretty much now it’s down to a 50/50 split — 50 percent leagues and 50 percent open bowl.”
That split is reflected in All Star’s near 50/50 split of hours open for league play versus open bowling — a split which also illuminates another slowly occuring rift between generations of bowlers.
Manohan says he doesn’t see the same direct turnover from youth leagues to adult leagues that he went through as a youth. The average adult league bowler, he said, is in their mid-40s. While at the other end of the spectrum, kids show up en masse for weekly “Rock and Bowl” nights, while youth leagues, under 21, account for only 1/10th of the more than 1,000 league bowlers at All Star this year, Manohan said — another number which is also down.
“When I first started, it was nothing for us to have something like 1,600 bowlers in a night,” he said, noting the disparity in league attendance this year versus that of the late 80s and early 90s. “You’d have first shift and second shift almost every night... now that second shift doesn’t come around often.”
While the United States Bowling Congress’ Nationals, which Manohan and a group of friends annually attend, still draws its fair share of competitors, the All-Star Lanes general manager points to the somewhat obscure generational rift and the current economic climate as possible contributors to the decline in popularity of bowling leagues in the early 21st century.
In the waning years of the 20th century, political scientist and Harvard professor Robert Putnam published an article on the topic in the Journal of Democracy titled “Bowling Alone,” which turned into a behemoth of a novel on “The Collapse and Revival of American Community” in the year 2000.
The main theme of the article and the ensuing book was that the country had seen a dramatic increase in bowlers over the past decade and a half, but a decrease in bowling leagues over the same period of time.
The analogy served as an entrance to Putnam’s argument that many traditional civic, social and fraternal organizations had undergone massive declines in membership in the last half of the 20th century, which had decreased the country’s overall “social capital” — a sociological concept referring to connections within and between social networks.
“I think that it’s changed a lot since I grew up,” Alvarez brought the concept back to the bowling alley. “The younger kids, kids I call them, 20-to 30-somethings, they struggle to pay in the beginning... you know it’s $15 a week, and the they don’t really get anything out of it, or you know, they don’t feel like it. They do get a lot out of it, but just getting them to realize and to commit.”
For more on Fall Bowling Leagues contact the league coordinator at the lanes nearest you:
1011 Bethel Ave.
540 Bruenn Ave.
All Star Lanes
10710 Silverdale Way