In the mid-1990s, it was popular to blame the decline of Western Civilization on a decline in . . . organized bowling. A much-cited essay by Robert D. Putnam, a professor at Harvard University, linked falling participation by Americans in their civic institutions to falling participation by Americans in bowling leagues. “Bowling Alone” – the title of the essay – became a cause for national concern.
Not to worry – at least not about bowling. Today bowling in the United States is a $4 billion industry, boasting nearly 7,000 10-pin bowling centers, more than 132,000 lanes, and 54 million customers each year. In 1996, Goldman, Sachs & Co. bought AMF Bowling Inc., the largest owner and operator of bowling centers in the world, for $1.37 billion. Since then, AMF has been on a roll – adding 200 bowling centers to its operations (the company now has more than 500 centers worldwide), boosting revenues to $714 million in 1997 (a 30% increase over 1996), and launching an ambitious initiative to reinvent the experience of bowling.
Rock ‘N’ Bowl!
It’s Friday night at AMF’s Hanover Lanes in Mechanicsville, Virginia, two miles from the company’s Richmond headquarters. Tonight, as on every Friday and Saturday night, the spotless 56-lane entertainment complex has been transformed into a pulsating nightclub for the teen rave set: A techno beat blares from the loudspeakers, fog machines spew out a dense mist, and everything from the pins to the balls glows under black light. “We’re creating a new experience for bowlers of all ages and abilities,” says Ron Wood, 34, AMF product manager. “We’re breaking the mold, leveraging technology and expertise to breathe new life into a stagnant industry.”
Starting in 1997 and working in collaboration with Design Continuum, an industrial-design firm based in West Newton, Massachusetts, AMF set out to learn how people really bowl. Three five-person Design Continuum teams fanned out across the globe to watch bowlers at play. The teams took 14 days to visit 32 bowling centers in nine countries. “It wasn’t enough just to think, read, or talk about bowling,” says Mike Arney, 37, a principal in industrial design at Design Continuum. “We had to experience it in action, to see how people actually bowled.”
Life in the Fast Lane
“We wanted to develop equipment that complements what people do in a bowling center – which is not just bowling,” says Wood. According to the Design Continuum study, people socialize, eat, and drink at bowling alleys – and when bowling in groups, they most definitely don’t sit down. At every center that the teams visited, people stood while they were waiting their turn to bowl, often leaning uncomfortably against scoring consoles and ball returns.
AMF’s solution was to install matching sets of bar-height tables and stools behind the front row of chairs near the scoring consoles. The stools allow bowlers to sit down but still be high enough to watch the action. And the convenient tables encourage bowlers to eat and drink while they bowl – an important nod to the concessions operations that constitute as much as 25% of overall revenues at most centers.
Ten Pins, Thousands of Choices
Another design continuum finding: not all bowling centers are created equal. In fact, they come in many varieties – each with its own architectural idiosyncrasies. So AMF created flexible designs to suit the inflexible buildings that house bowling alleys. “We had to design as few components as possible and to be able to configure them in as many ways as possible,” says David Chastain, 46, a principal in engineering at Design Continuum. “It was like trying to put together a giant 3-D jigsaw puzzle.”
The Options system, AMF’s new line of furniture, comprises 20 segments and can form more than 4,000 configurations. The system offers various types of tables and stools, cup and ashtray components, even a lower ball-return rack to house the extra balls that league bowlers often bring with them.
Worldwide, bowling is striking it rich. in Europe and Asia, the emergence of young, upscale players has created a booming market: 70% of AMF’s customers are overseas. Global customers have been snapping up AMF’s new equipment: Between March and May of 1998, AMF shipped more than 600 lanes to such countries as China, India, and Australia. Wood expects the market to stay strong – and the company to keep refining its product. “Hanover Lanes is our learning center,” Wood says. “From what we’ve learned there – and will continue to learn – we’ll be able to shape the bowling experience in other centers. We want people to know what they’ll be getting when they walk into any AMF bowling center.”
Lisa Chadderdon is a staff writer at Fast Company.