Staten Island Advance
by: Tracey Porpora
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. - Laurie McAuliffe, a former owner of the now-defunct Victory Lanes, remembers when the 10-lane Castleton Corners neighborhood bowling center bustled with patrons, most of whom were league kegglers, all vying to take home the championship trophy.
That was over 20 years ago, when there were seven Staten Island bowling establishments, each with packed lanes daily. Victory Lanes shut its doors in 2004 after the real estate on which the bowling alley sat became more valuable than the business itself.
"We had that 'Cheers' kind of bowling center with a lounge in the front," said Ms. McAuliffe, who noted that Victory first opened in 1938. She purchased it with partners and ran the business for 18 years. Today, she works as an event planner at Rab's Country Lanes in Dongan Hills, one of two bowling businesses left on the Island.
But there is a flicker of hope on the horizon for a sport that once dominated the borough -- and the country.
The trend toward "recreational bowling" is becoming more prevalent in the borough and in other parts of the nation.
"Today people are bowling more as a social thing," said Vinny D'Ambrosio, manager of Showplace Bowling Alley, a longtime Island kegglers' Mecca. "They are bowling with their wives and fiances ... Leagues are still a big part of our center. But what we're seeing is people bowling in less leagues. They'll bowl in one league instead of two."
Explaining the closure of Victory Lanes, Ms. McAuliffe said "[It]was a little bit of everything. Our second-shift league that started at 9:30 p.m. started to get light. The day leagues were getting light with the moms going back to work. The economy started to change, and people weren't bowling more than once per week," she said, adding, "Plus, our real estate was more valuable than the business, unfortunately. I'm still sad about it."
Victory Lanes is just one of thousands of bowling facility causalities across the country. "More people are going bowling than any other activity. But there are less league bowlers," said Frank Wilkinson, owner of Rab's Country Lanes.
"There are less people committed to bowling; this has been a 30-year trend," he continued. "This trend is equitable to the closing of bowling centers across the country. The league bowling participation numbers actually mirror the closing of bowling centers," Wilkinson said.
The decline, many bowling enthusiasts say, is due to two-family working households and the recession. Fewer people have time or money to join leagues, and instead see bowling as a recreational event reserved for an occasion.
"People have less time in their schedules for bowling. We used to put the kids to bed, then go bowling at 9:30 p.m.," said Ms. McAuliffe. "Two-parent working households put a glitch in this. Couples with young children only bowl once a month now," she said.
Many say bowling reached its heyday between the 1940s and 1960s, before most Americans had television, cable TV and computers. At that time, there were 11 bowling establishments in the borough, according to Donny Walters, organizer of the former Staten Island Bowling Club.
"Bowlers used to bowl three nights per week in both competitive and recreational leagues. But they can't afford it anymore," said Walters, who also runs the Staten Island Singles Classic and is involved with the Staten Island Bowling Hall of Fame.
Another reason for fewer bowling leagues is that there are many more options for recreation today than in the past.
"There are more distractions today. There are video games, and more," said Jim Episcopia, a bowler for 55 years and president of the Rab Wilkinson Memorial League and the Richmond County American Legion Bowling League for 30 years. "There are other things for people to do now rather than spend money," he observed.
Episcopia admits he's witnessed the number of teams in his league dwindle. The American Legion League once had 48 teams, and now has 10, he said.
"It's hard to bring in new people unless you get them from the youth programs," said Episcopia, who also is involved with the Senior Men's Action League.
IS THERE STILL INTEREST?
Some bowling enthusiasts say there is still much interest in bowling leagues in the borough.
"Rab's Country Lanes has one of the largest youth programs in the United States with over 750 registered youth bowlers competing in programs year-round," Wilkinson said.
One league that has 32 teams is the Thursday Night 9:30 Mixed, which includes bowlers mainly between the ages of 25 to 40, said Cathy Guarnieri, treasurer and secretary for the league.
She attributes some of her league's success to the night of the week on which they play. "A lot of people go out on Thursday nights," she said, adding, "On a Monday night, you don't want to be bowling until 11:30 p.m."
Replacing traditional bowling lanes are boutique centers like Lucky Strikes in Manhattan or Splitsville Luxury Lanes and Dinner Lounge, where bowling isn't the only activity offered under one roof.
"These bowling recreation centers use bowling as their anchor, but offer mini-golf, go-carts, and other attractions that make it not just a bowling center," said Wilkinson.
One organization trying to create these centers nationally is American Machine and Foundry (AMF), a failing company that operates 262 bowling centers in the country. AMF's recent bankruptcy has forced the company to try new ventures, such as "Xtreme bowling."
AMF has developed nine "300 Centers" that offer "a more sophisticated environment," including cozy sofas and chairs and high-end cuisine in a nightclub-like environment. The closest of these centers is located in Gaithersburg, Md.
"We promote bowling as a sport, entertainment and business," Brunswick President of Bowling Products Brent Perrier told the Bowling Writers' Association of America in 2010. "It's all three."
And it's making a comeback.