The Demise of Bowling

Lanes closing. Leagues waning. HQ’s leaving. Has time finally passed by Milwaukee’s blue-collar pastime?

On a summer day more than a year ago at AMF South Park Lanes in South Milwaukee, dozens of red-and-white bowling pins stood silently at attention, perfectly set but waiting in vain for one of the bowling balls, which remained racked indefinitely near the 40 dusty, wooden lanes. Littering the floor just inside the alley’s glass front doors was a trail of abandoned party favors – metallic-colored streamers and drink cups – while outside, the blue neon sign displaying the name of the bowling alley’s bar, Sipp’ns, continued to glow.

The unexpected closure in June 2014 left many surprised bowlers scrambling to get into the suddenly locked alley to reclaim the bowling balls they had left behind.

Finally, in late spring – nearly a year after the alley had closed its doors for good – crews began removing the automatic pin-setting and ball-return equipment.

Meanwhile, at Highway 100 and Lapham Street in West Allis, the former AMF West Allis Lanes stands empty, its 48 lanes closed since May 2014. Bowling equipment was removed during the winter and, along the busy thoroughfare, a sign featuring a tumbling bowling pin and the AMF logo has been painted black.

Head west several miles, near the Waukesha County Expo Center, and you’ll find the empty shell of AMF Waukesha Lanes. Shuttered the same day as the South Milwaukee alley, it will be demolished to make way for a 215,000-square-foot industrial structure.

In just a two–month span, the Milwaukee area lost nearly 140 bowling lanes.

AMF is the world’s largest operator of bowling alleys, yet it’s still recovering from a 2012 bankruptcy filing. Its decision to shutter the trio of storied alleys further clouds memories of the Milwaukee area’s heyday as the country’s kegling capital, fueled at the time by the immense popularity of league bowling.

“It’s history lost. It’s like a piece of your heart has been ripped out,” laments Jeff Richgels, a member of the halls of fame of the United States Bowling Congress, the Wisconsin State Bowling Association and the Madison Bowling Association.

Richgels, who bowled on the Professional Bowlers Association tour and has won 30 regional titles, penned similar sentiments in his popular bowling blog, “It’s hard to convey in words the sadness at what has happened in Milwaukee and across the country with bowling’s decline,” he wrote in the aftermath of AMF’s decision. “So many great memories gone.”

It was the latest blow for bowling in a community still staggering from the gut punch delivered a few years ago: the United States Bowling Congress’ relocation of its aging headquarters from Greendale to Arlington, Texas. There, the always-bowler-centric USBC would share facilities with the Bowling Proprietor’s Association of America, which was beholden to owners and operators of bowling facilities, and already had its HQ in Texas. The move, officially begun in 2008 and completed in 2009, affected 200 employees and ended a relationship that dated back to 1907, when the USBC’s predecessor organization began operating here.

As word of the USBC’s planned move broke, a public outcry ensued. “Say it ain’t so,” legendary sportswriter Frank Deford told listeners on his regular National Public Radio segment. “I plead with the USBC to keep its sport in the city bowling made famous. After all, as Cracker Jack goes with baseball, as tailgating with football, so have bowling and beer and Milwaukee always gone together.”

And Milwaukee indeed fought to keep the USBC. Touting it as a $50 million business, the Milwaukee 7 regional economic development group offered new building sites in Milwaukee and Cudahy.

Even political adversaries like Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and then-Milwaukee County Exec Scott Walker joined forces in the cause, but it appears they never had a chance.

In the September 2010 edition of Windy City Bowling News, Bill Vint, who’d worked for USBC and its predecessors for some two decades, published an extensive insider’s chronicle of the USBC from 2007-2010. He detailed how the USBC’s move was orchestrated by Jeff Bojé, who’d ascended to the USBC presidency in August 2007 with an eye toward merging USBC and BPAA operations, a plan that may have been in the works as early as 2005. Bojé, as it happened, was the first bowling center owner to ever lead the USBC.

As it turned out, the move’s timing, in the face of an impending deep recession, couldn’t have been worse. Vint’s story detailed how the USBC, since its move, bled millions of dollars, went broke and slashed its workforce during Bojé’s three years as president. Meanwhile, a Wal-Mart sits on the site of the USBC’s former headquarters near Greendale’s Southridge Mall, a sad and inglorious symbol of Milwaukee’s fall from bowling grace.

Open Frames: Once cauldrons of bowling cacophony, former AMF alley in Waukesha is all but an empty shell. Photo by Erich Schroeder.
Open Frames: Once cauldrons of bowling cacophony, former AMF alley in Waukesha is all but an empty shell. Photo by Erich Schroeder.

The closing of the local AMF centers is symptomatic. The decline of league bowlers has been a nationwide trend for about three decades, a casualty of video games and the Internet, says Richgels.

The commitment associated with a traditional 36-week bowling league season also has led many bowlers to seek other recreational pastimes, he says, or to opt for open bowling instead.

While in his 20s, Richgels competed in bowling leagues several nights per week. A resident of Oregon, Wis., he would travel some 90 miles east to metro Milwaukee at least one night each week to compete. Now, at age 53, he has cut his league bowling commitment to just a single night, though he continues to bowl in tournaments.

Economic factors are at play, too. Still skittish from the Great Recession of 2008-09, bowlers aren’t as willing to part with their cash to compete in leagues. Combine bowling fees, dues, and food and drink money, and it’s not uncommon for a bowler to spend $30 or more during each league match. For bowlers who take to the lanes multiple times each week, the cost can be prohibitive.

The slump shows no signs of easing. In 2007, the year before the USBC’s move to Texas, the organization boasted some 2.6 million adult and youth members. By 2010, that total had fallen to 2.17 million, and the number dropped to 1.69 million for the 2013-14 bowling season, the latest figures available. USBC-certified leagues fell to 57,472 in 2013-14, compared with 71,904 in 2010.

Meanwhile, from 2010 to 2014, the number of USBC-certified bowling centers dipped from 5,160 to 4,666, about a third the number of alleys when compared to bowling’s popularity peak during the mid-1960s.

Blue-collar workers taking part in factory-sponsored leagues forged bowling’s golden age, says local bowling enthusiast Doug Schmidt, author of They Came to Bowl: How Milwaukee Became America’s Tenpin Capital.

“Factories then began to close and factory leagues began to diminish,” notes Schmidt, who also produces Ten Pin Journal, a local bowling-focused publication.

During Milwaukee’s bowling heyday, there were more than 100,000 regular league participants competing at more than 50 alleys, and even churches and taverns were known to have small alleys, says Kandy Birmingham, spokeswoman for the Greater Milwaukee Bowling Association. During the last bowling season, there were slightly more than 11,000 sanctioned bowlers and 29 bowling centers.

The association saw a decline of about 4 percent in its membership last season after a dip of 7 percent the previous year, says Birmingham, a 40-year league veteran.

The decline of league bowling has cut into the primary revenue stream for bowling center operators, says Yvonne Bennett, executive director of the Bowling Centers Association of Wisconsin.

“League bowling always has been the bread and butter for proprietors.”

The thunderous crash of bowling pins echoes through the alley at American Serb Hall on Milwaukee’s South Side. Veteran bowler Brian Kucaj, clad in a black Harley-Davidson T-shirt, blue jeans and white bowling shoes, preps for his turn during mixed-league action. Kucaj, 6-foot-1 with medium-length blond hair and a closely trimmed goatee, retrieves his 15-pound ball from the rack, blows on the fingers of his right hand, and adjusts a red and black hard plastic wrist brace that helps him maintain proper form.

After a glance at the scoreboard above the lane, he slowly begins his four-step approach, raises his right arm behind his back, then unleashes a hooking shot. His custom-made gold bowling ball makes contact in the pocket. Pins scatter like leaves in a storm. A strike. Kucaj gives a slight fist pump, then accepts congratulations from teammates.

Kucaj, now age 50, first picked up a bowling ball at age 7, starting at the South Side’s long-defunct Manitoba Lanes. An operations manager at a factory on Milwaukee’s North Side, the Bay View resident began bowling in junior leagues around age 10. His father, Bruce, and mother, Doris, were longtime regulars at area lanes.

He has come agonizingly close to bowling’s Holy Grail – a 300 game. He has recorded three games of 298 in league action over the years, and another in a practice round. He sported an impressive 195 average in league action at Serb Hall last season.

Kucaj, who used to bowl at the various AMF centers before finding a home at Serb Hall, lugs a specially made bag containing two bowling balls on this night. Lane conditions dictate his choice.

The alley is packed, harkening back to a time when bowling centers throughout the city bustled with league action. Operators invested more than $100,000 in these lanes five years ago for some much-needed upgrades. Bucking tradition, Serb Hall began offering leagues with 24-week seasons, considerably shorter than the longtime standard. The revamped format features four-person teams instead of the traditional five bowlers, making it less taxing for team captains to put together a squad each week.

“Bottom line, the majority of people are just out to have fun,” says Rich Barczynski, who served as bowling and bar manager at Serb Hall for six years before recently leaving for a similar post at the Root River Center in Franklin, which recently reopened after ceasing operations in July 2013. Barczynski previously spent 18 years managing the 16-lane Franklin facility.

The cozy 12-lane alley at Serb Hall hosts league play seven days per week. During this past year’s peak bowling season, Barczynski could be found at the center at all hours, nearly every day, sometimes surveying the action from a seat at the bar.

“The bigger houses aren’t as intimate,” he says.

Classic rock blares over the conversations among bowlers during Serb Hall’s Wednesday-night mixed league. At one point, the action comes to a virtual halt when a large order of pizza, garlic bread and chicken wings is delivered. A portion of league fees goes toward food, another move designed to create a more social feel to the league.

Kucaj and 47-year-old brother Jeff, also an avid league bowler, used to compete in leagues at some of the bigger centers before growing tired of what Jeff Kucaj described as a cutthroat, ultra-competitive scene. He saw little socializing between teams, because bowlers wouldn’t dare be seen fraternizing with the enemy as they battled for league supremacy.

“It was horrible. It was a cold, bland atmosphere,” Jeff Kucaj says.

The onetime abundance of large centers, however, bolstered Milwaukee’s reputation as the country’s bowling epicenter. So when Virginia-based AMF decided to suddenly close its local centers, the bowling community was stunned. The South Milwaukee alley had been open for more than half a century, and the Waukesha location hosted a Professional Bowlers Association event in 2013.

“I love bowling, but I don’t see it resurging,” says South Milwaukee Mayor Erik Brooks. The vacant AMF alley in his city sits hidden far down a long, potholed driveway off busy Chicago Avenue, presenting a challenge for any developer seeking to open a retail business there. And for the foreseeable future, Brooks acknowledges, the site is likely to remain dormant.

Today, only AMF’s Wauwatosa and South Side centers remain in operation. And it’s almost certain that none of the shuttered facilities will ever be used for bowling again.

Open Frames: Once cauldrons of bowling cacophony, former AMF alley in South Milwaukee is all but an empty shell. Photo by Erich Schroeder.
Former AMF alley in South Milwaukee. Photo by Erich Schroeder.

The bowling roots of AMF, once known as American Machine and Foundry, date to the 1940s. Its technological advancements, including automated pin-setters, revolutionized the game. AMF even bought Harley-Davidson in 1969, a much-criticized ownership tenure that lasted until a management buyout in 1981, a move widely believed to have saved the motorcycle company from financial ruin.

AMF’s bowling operations filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2001 and again in 2012. A year later, AMF merged with Strike Holdings LLC to form a new company, Bowlmor AMF. In its most recent bankruptcy filing, the company bemoaned a 36 percent decline in league memberships since 1998. AMF operated 262 bowling centers at the time of the filing; the number now stands at 240.

For some of the larger bowling centers, the real estate often is worth more for other purposes, putting pressure on owners to sell. “It’s not always a lack of business,” says Hall of Famer Richgels.

A Walgreens drug store along a bustling strip of North Port Washington Road in Glendale, in the shadow of the Bayshore Town Center, is crowded on a recent weekday morning. Customers rush to pick up prescriptions, greeting cards and other items. But a little more than a decade ago, the property housed the popular 24-lane Echo Bowl.

After turning down multiple offers from the drug store giant, Echo Bowl’s owner, Don Hildebrand, finally agreed to sell the property in 2004.

“I still loved it,” Hildebrand recalls, adding that Echo once had 1,700 league bowlers per week.

But, it turns out, Hildebrand couldn’t stay away from bowling. Today, he serves as manager for the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin State Bowling Association. He isn’t about to sound the death knell for bowling, despite the dramatically declining league numbers.

Last year’s state tournament, run by Hildebrand’s association, attracted nearly 10,000 of the state’s 51,000 sanctioned bowlers, which he finds encouraging.

“There are people out there who still really enjoy the sport and the league atmosphere,” he says.

New Wave vs. Old School: Bowling proprietors seem to be taking the sport in one of two directions: glitzy, club-like atmospheres, such as Pinstrikes at Bayshore Town Center. Photo courtesy of Bay Shore Town Center.
New Wave vs. Old School: Bowling proprietors seem to be taking the sport in one of two directions: glitzy, club-like atmospheres, such as Pinstrikes at Bayshore Town Center. Photo courtesy of Bay Shore Town Center.

Some industry observers insist that recreational bowlers are now more fickle and desire a more unique experience on the lanes. In turn, places like Pinstrikes, located in the iPic entertainment center at Bayshore Town Center in Glendale, have cropped up. It features 11 bowling lanes, a 65-foot high-definition video wall, lane-side waitstaff service and VIP areas, in contrast to the dark, cigarette smoke-filled alleys of yesteryear.

At Castle Lanes in Racine, amenities include HD TVs positioned above the 24 lanes, free Wi-Fi access, iPod hookups, padded benches and a spacious bar. The highly unusual décor is that of a northern Wisconsin lodge. The alley’s slogan is “Visit the wild side of bowling.”

Other places, like Beloit Lanes on the Southwest Side or Bay View Bowl, may not offer glitzy, club-like settings, but still attract bowlers with their intimate, boutique approaches.

They are signs that, despite league bowling’s struggles, the sport is far from dead as a pastime, says USBC spokesman Terry Bigham. But he knows well how it’s changing. “We’re seeing more recreational bowlers,” he says, and notes how USBC determined that about 69 million people bowled at least once last year, a near-record number.

Still Rolling: At places like Bay View Bowl, they heed the advice of ESPN PBA announcer Mike Jakubowski, enjoying it for what it is rather than pining for “what once was.” Photo by Erich Schroeder.
Still Rolling: At places like Bay View Bowl, they heed the advice of ESPN PBA announcer Mike Jakubowski, enjoying it for what it is rather than pining for “what once was.” Photo by Erich Schroeder.

There’s an effort to grow youth programs. College and high school bowling programs also are on the rise and, after a 12-year hiatus, the Professional Women’s Bowling Association relaunched this summer with a 10-tournament schedule, boosted by a three-year financial commitment from the USBC and the BPAA. The NCAA made bowling a championship sport for women a decade ago.

Even so, just as with men, the number of sanctioned female bowlers in Wisconsin continues to rapidly decline. During the recently completed 2014-15 league season, there were 25,000 sanctioned league bowlers in the state, a 7 percent decline from the prior season, according to the Wisconsin Women’s Bowling Association.

As recently as 2000, the number of sanctioned female bowlers in the state topped 75,000 and, during bowling’s peak, often exceeded 100,000, says Pat Tebon, manager for the Green Bay-based association. “Women have more things on their plate these days, and their kids are always first,” she says. “Years ago, kids didn’t have as many activities and many bowling centers offered free baby-sitting.”

Although girls and young women often get exposed to bowling through youth and high school programs, there still aren’t enough colleges offering bowling as a sport to keep them committed, or even interested, Tebon insists.

“Once they get out of the habit of going to the bowling center, they don’t usually come back once they start families,” says Tebon, who bowled in leagues for more than 35 years – and once carried a peak average of 197 – before being sidelined by health problems.

Still, Wisconsin has more women bowlers, per capita, than any other state, and a quarter of the state’s sanctioned bowlers opted to take part in the state tournament this year.

League bowling in Wisconsin may be a far cry from what it once was, but the state is still viewed, from a national perspective, as a major center for bowling. “It’s a very competitive bowling scene,”

Bigham says. “Anyone will tell you that.”

As evidence, Bigham points to the Professional Bowlers Association USBC Masters tournament. It’s one of the PBA’s four “majors,” and was held in early February at the Ashwaubenon Bowling Alley near Green Bay. The finals were broadcast live on ESPN to a national audience of more than 3.5 million viewers, a 62 percent jump over the prior year’s telecast.

ABC televised the Pro Bowlers Tour starting in 1961, but stopped doing so in 1997, citing the overall decline in the sport. ESPN has been handling PBA television coverage since 2002. The USBC Masters brought many of the world’s top bowlers to Wisconsin, says Mike Jakubowski, a West Allis native and current Oak Creek resident who handles play-by-play duties for ESPN’s PBA Tour coverage.

Jakubowski’s name and voice may sound familiar to Marquette University basketball fans, who hear him handle PA duties at home games. He sports a neatly coiffed shock of salt-and-pepper hair, has bowled a 300 game, and admits that interest in bowling has waned over the last generation or so. But he also says it’s time to stop viewing everything through the prism of “what once was.”

“Bowling is still at the heart of Americana,” the 50-year-old Jakubowski says. “We get 16 to 20 weeks on a major sports network, so we’re still holding our own. But we’ve had to adapt how we do business.”

Jakubowski has adapted, too. When he turned 50, the lifelong amateur decided to take a shot at the pros. He signed up for an event on the PBA 50, the professional senior’s tour, wanting the experience of preparing for and competing in a professional bowling tournament. And in April’s Pasco County Florida Open, the official standings had him finishing 113th out of 116 entrants, nowhere near the money.

But there was a different reward. As part of his preparation for the tourney, Jakubowski competed in a Wednesday-night league at Alpine Lanes in Muskego last season and sported a 207 average.

“I hadn’t participated in leagues for a few years due to my schedule,” he says. “It was great to once again have a weekly appointment to throw the ball.”

The man who’s spent so much time lately watching others bowl had found his own way back to the lanes.

‘The Demise of Bowling’ appears in the October 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. Buy a copy online.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.