It was a major story and it slipped right past the media.
Last week, Lake Forest, Ill.-based Brunswick Corp. announced that it was selling its 85 bowling centers in the U.S and Canada to Bowlmor AMF.
Incredibly, the news that Bowlmor AMF – already the biggest bowling chain in the U.S. – was getting much bigger generally received the silent treatment from major media players. Some newspapers carried short stories about the sale, but the transaction was pretty much ignored nationwide.
The Los Angeles Times, my former newspaper, for instance, didn’t print a word about the sale.
So what made this acquisition a major event?
What this event signified is that Bowlmor AMF had apparently found the secret of reversing the tide of bowling’s downturn.
Tom Shannon, Bowlmor AMF's CEO, chairman and president, basically said bowling centers needed to upgrade and spiff up its product to compete for the customer dollar.
That formula worked for Shannon when he was chief executive of Bowlmor, an upscale chain of six bowling centers. Then Bowlmor bought the bowling centers of behemoth AMF Bowling Worldwide, Inc. a year ago, and his formula got tested on a much larger scale.
The fact that Bowlmor was able to purchase Brunswick’s properties for $270 million is testimony to the fact that its methods of embracing an entertainment-oriented experience with a higher-end atmosphere is working.
“It’s been a very successful first year,” Shannon said. “If we were not successful, we wouldn’t have raised the money for the [Brunswick] acquisition. It’s a big deal. It’s the sort of thing that only a financially healthy company could do.”
True to his word, Shannon has plowed back considerable money into the AMF properties to make them more attractive to customers.
Shannon said his company invested $35 million into AMF’s bowling centers the past fiscal year and has plans to invest another $45 million in the coming year.
The Bowlmor CEO illustrated his point by saying customers don’t go to a “shabby Starbucks,” and he doesn’t plan to have any shabby bowling centers among his properties. He said the bowling centers that will survive are the ones that receive investments to improve their product.
“Bowling alleys have to be nicer to attract a new customer and retain their customer base,” he said.
So that’s what bowlers can expect in the future: more attractive Bowlmor AMF centers with improvements in many areas that will make the bowling experience more enjoyable. And no doubt this trend will be adopted by competing bowling houses – if they want to survive.
As for leagues, Shannon said those aren’t going away at his properties. In fact, he said Bowlmor AMF is “completely committed” to them.
It’s been reported that from the 1960s to the early 1980s, league bowling amounted to close to 80% of every bowling center’s business in the U.S. By 2012, that figure had fallen to 21%.
“Whether league bowling is declining, there will be bowling leagues 50 years from now,” Shannon said. “They’ll be here for a very long time.”