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Archie Ingersoll, Published March 30 2014

Short on strikes: Participation in league bowling far from 1970s heyday

FARGO - Finding Kathy Pausch on a Thursday night is simple. She’ll be the slender woman with glasses and blond bangs by the lanes at The Bowler in south Fargo, chatting with her teammates. When it’s her turn, she’ll grab a ball, take a few steps and roll a strike with ease.

Pausch and her friends play in a women’s league that runs through the winter and lasts 28 weeks. There was a time when bowling on a team like hers was commonplace, but now many people aren’t willing to make the commitment.

“It’s hard for parents to take time off for themselves,” she said, pointing out that the cost of paying for a baby sitter and maybe a couple of cocktails at the bowling alley can add up.

Pausch, 62, knows this even though she doesn’t have kids.

“That’s why I get to bowl,” she said, smiling.

Pausch started bowling in Fargo leagues in the ’70s, a time when the sport was peaking in popularity. League play has since dropped off nationwide, but bowling participation among adults is still No. 1 compared with other activities such as golf, fishing and tennis. More than 51 million adults and 19 million kids, ages 6 to 17, bowled at least once in 2012, according to a national survey by Experian Marketing Services.

“It seems like bowling is coming back a little bit,” said Lonnie Thielbar, co-owner of Sunset Lanes in Moorhead, “especially the open play” – an industry term for customers coming off the street to bowl.

In Fargo, the glory days of bowling stretched into the early ’80s. That’s when Thielbar was in high school and had just started working at Sunset Lanes. He recalls that the alley had 1,200 league bowlers and a waiting list that was five or six teams deep. These days, Sunset Lanes has 350 to 400 league members, he said.

Charley Jones, owner of Red River Lanes in Fargo, offered similar recollections. “In the ’70s and ’80s, we had people coming out of our ears that wanted to bowl, and each bowling center was full,” said Jones, who’s also president of the North Dakota Bowling Proprietors Association.

Back then, league play started at 6:30 and 9 p.m. Now, local bowling alleys are only able to fill one timeslot per night.

“I think everybody in the state is struggling a little bit with the league play,” Jones, 62, said. “They don’t have enough league bowlers.”

The decline of bowling leagues was significant enough to catch the attention of Robert Putnam, a Harvard University professor of public policy. In his 2000 book, “Bowling Alone,” he spotlighted the trend as a sign that Americans had become disengaged from their communities.

Jones said league numbers in Fargo began shrinking in the late ’80s as technology crept further into American life. “We started getting new gizmos to play with,” he said. “There were more opportunities for kids to do other things.”

The growth of youth sports, like soccer and ice hockey, has created competition for bowling, Thielbar said. To attract younger bowlers, many alleys offer cosmic bowling and discounts to kids.

In the summer, Stars and Strikes in West Fargo gives every child a free game of bowling each day and charges 50 cents per game after that, said Julie Welles, who bought the eight-lane alley with her husband in 2006.

“The kids bring their families,” Welles said. “I have a great support system with my parents and my kids.”

Through deals on open bowling and ads in school newsletters, Stars and Strikes has bolstered its youth league, which has 80 members, Welles said.

The Experian survey found that 2012 was the fifth consecutive year that bowling participation grew. A share of the increase came through more interest from women and children. From 2007 to 2012, the number of women bowling rose every year while participation among ages 6 to 12 also went up, including a 5.3 percent bump in 2012.

Despite these gains, bowling is still far from its 1970s heyday. Jones, owner of Red River Lanes, remembers that in 1976, when he joined the state’s bowling board, North Dakota boasted 103 bowling alleys. Now there are about 40, he said.

The Fargo-Moorhead area manages to support six bowling centers, a number that, according to Thielbar, has stayed the same for at least three decades. By comparison, the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks and Bismarck-Mandan areas each have two bowling alleys.

James Tandeski, general manager at The Bowler in Fargo, said he knows of a couple of bowling centers in the metro area that are seeing business lag, but his establishment’s numbers are steady.

“We’re doing just fine,” he said. “We’re full every weekend.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Archie Ingersoll at (701) 451-5734