Bowling was a staple of Mid-Century recreational activity, and figured heavily into 1990s retro culture as depicted in films like King Pin (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), and in various episodes of The Simpsons. Priceonomics has an outstanding post about the days when “bowlers were rockstars.” Observe the literal money quote below.
The creation of the PBA in 1958 brought even more attention to the sport; by 1965, the PBA tour was televised on ABC Sports nationally, and had formidable sponsors in Coca-Cola and Ford Motors. A 1963 article in Sports Illustrated harped on the glamorous explosion of the bowling scene (2014 dollars have been added in brackets):
“This year the PBA will put on 38 tournaments and give away more than $1,050,000 [$7.9 million] in prize money. Of its 942 members, 65 are touring pros who compete in at least half of the tournaments. The minimum any one of them makes is $10,000 [$75,700] a year. Moreover, 15 of the bowlers are in the $30,000-a-year bracket [$227,200], and there are four or five, including Don Carter, the most famous name in bowling, and Harry Smith, who earn upward of $75,000 annually [$568,000].”
Harry Smith, the top bowler in 1963, made more money than MLB MVP Sandy Koufax and NFL MVP Y.A. Tittle combined.
The Atlantic, of all places, has a highly entertaining article comparing the dotcom and real estate bubbles to bowling.
Basically, the boom in bowling spurred massive investment in bowling centers which led to overcapacity in the industry. And around this time, blue-collar Americans began fleeing the cities for the suburbs, rendering many urban bowling centers obsolete. This also made land occupied by bowling centers in outer suburban areas more valuable for alternative users, like pharmacies and department stores, Sandy Hansell, a Michigan-based bowling center broker tells Quartz.
In the 1980s, the popularity of league bowling also began to wane, simply due to lifestyle changes. The number of league bowlers has reportedly declined by half since then.
By 2011 there were 5,860 bowling centers in the US, according to HighBeam, less than half the 1960s peak.
So what does all of this tell us? Basically, it’s difficult to predict the future, no matter what industry you’re in.
I’m not sure why the author felt compelled to use the bizarre term “bowling center” when he clearly meant “bowling alley”? But, this is The Atlantic, so “bowling center” must be a Newspeak approved term akin to “youths” or “white Hispanic”. On the plus side, they did lead with a really, really swell picture of the 37th President of the United States, Richard Milhous Nixon, bowling at the White House.