Can Bowling Be Saved?

True believers are trying to renew the culture and sport of bowling in Knoxville before it gutters out

Billy Majors was 15 when it happened, and the memory still stings: He was cut from the Fulton High School bowling team. "They told me I wasn't good enough," he says. "I about died. You don't know how devastated I was."

Majors carried his wounded pride over to a junior league at Fountain Lanes off Broadway, and within a month, under the tutelage of an older guy named Todd Wilson, he'd done it: rolled his first 300 game, 12 strikes in a row, only the third 300 ever thrown at the bowling alley.

Thus began Major's love affair with league bowling, which he's carried with him through 54 perfect games and 33 years, up to this day. Majors, who's 48 and a DJ at Cotton Eyed Joe and on WIVK known to most as "Boy Bill," owns seven different bowling balls and belongs to five once-a-week leagues, every now and then traveling to an out-of-town tournament.

But he's a die-hard—the exception, not the rule.

Because the booming middle class bowl-a-rama days—the stuff of Flintstones episodes—are over in this area, and in the United States, never to return. It's not that people don't still disco down to bowl with colorful lights and loud music on late nights at Family Bowl, or take a date out for a game and snarky remarks about the shoes at the University of Tennessee's Down Under facility in the University Center; they do. Open bowling, as it's known, is still pretty popular, though it did take a hit in this area, particularly when the ban on smoking in public places took effect in 2007 and made bowling alleys a little less appealing to the cigarette-and-strikes set. (Some 10-15 percent less appealing since 2006, according to local Strike and Spare owner Larry Schmittou).

But it's the leagues that are fading so fast they're flirting with oblivion. Nationally, according to a poignant, if a bit overdramatic, video made by ball manufacturer Hammer to preface the national "Save Bowling" campaign it kicked off on Dec. 1, three of four league-sanctioned bowlers have quit in the past 30 years. Knoxville, too, has seen leagues decline. Folks no longer seem drawn to the two-nights-a-week lifestyle with the little towels and the neon pink balls and the urgent quest for the highest score, the smoothest roll, the magic moment when the ball finds the sweet spot and the electronic scorer lights up with one word: Strrrike!!!

Not that we're expecting the heyday of the '60s and '70s to ever return, Laverne and Shirley-style leagues, everyone decked out in matching shirts and white socks, waiting lists for teams to sub in, every lane occupied. Leagues have strayed too far from that, so far that now bowling for some is purely nostalgia, a source of vintage clothing and neon signs, something you turn to once a year more in the spirit of historic re-enactment than the feverish competitive spirit that could keep a 100-member league and as many groupies in high mettle for an entire season.

League bowling around here is going, going—but not gone, not yet. Because there are still fervent believers who want the retro sport to be a significant current enterprise, to share the joy and the accomplishment of league play. Their strategy is not well-honed, but their aim is true: to preserve bowling for now, and into the next generation.

Strikes Against Knox Bowling

Smoky Mountain USBC (United States Bowling Congress) manager Polly Maples states it distinctly: "Our numbers are down, way down. We've lost 500 or 600 members just in the past three or four years."

The SMUSBC currently has 1,800 league members on the roster—men, women, and youth from Knoxville, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville. When Maples started bowling in 1974, there were more like 10,000 certified, dues-paying league members in the same vicinity.

Across the U.S., about 10 million people bowled in the '70s; that number has bottomed out at 3 million today. Schmittou, who bought all three commercial bowling alleys in Knoxville in 2004 (Family Bowl in West Knoxville, Strike and Spare off Western Avenue, and Fountain Lanes on Broadway) estimates that bowling, both league and open, has declined roughly 10 to 15 percent since 2007-2008.

Why the plunge in numbers? One glaring culprit is economic, particularly in the past 48 months or so. League bowling costs around $15 a week in these parts, which covers lanes and bowling center expenses and a prize fund. While some of the money comes back to a team of four, depending on how well they roll in a session that usually lasts 24-36 weeks in the colder months, or eight weeks in the summer, the lousy bowlers don't get much of a prize. While some companies still sponsor bowling leagues, including 14 teams in the traveling league that rotates among local centers, most bowlers are paying out of their own pocket.

And most of them are the proverbial "middle class—if there still even is a middle class," says Maples. Area bowling does draw from a diverse demographic base—walk into any alley on league night and you'll see blacks, whites, Latinos, seniors, and, if it's youth-league night, kids of all ages. There are the lawyers and doctors in the group, notes Maples, but for the most part, local bowlers have middle- and working-class wallets slenderized by the recession.

Wendy Cox, general manager for both Strike and Spare and Fountain Lanes, has seen the formula close up. "The economy has really hurt the past couple years. I guess when it comes to putting food on the table or bowling, you have to choose."

Other negatives are piling on. There's not a visible bowling standout for people, especially kids, to emulate—no bowling in the Olympics, no big bowling personalities to inspire bowling versions of Tiger Woods or Mia Hamm, no prominent sponsorships that keep NASCAR speeding along.

And there are just so many other things people can do. "They don't find bowling in there any more. And some don't like the length of league play. They're looking for things to do that don't take 30 weeks," says Maples.

There are multitudes more activities clamoring for a kid's attention than in the days when Boy Bill walked along the sidewalk to Fountain Lanes with his bowling shoes and ball in a vinyl bowling bag from Wal-Mart, too. "Children... I couldn't keep up with kids these days. They've got basketball and guitar lessons. It's hard to get them and their parents interested in bowling," says Maples.

Knox County in particular has another burden to bear with the younger set: no public school teams since the one at West High School disbanded in 2009. Sevierville High School has a school-sponsored team, as does Heritage High School in Maryville. So do local private high schools, including Webb and Catholic, which use Strike and Spare on Western as their home base.

"Bowling offers opportunities for kids who aren't suitable for others sports—you don't have to be big, fast, or strong," says Webb's Frank Daniel, who coaches both a girls and boys team and has bowled himself off and on for 40 years. "It requires technique, and it's something you can do until you're 100 years old if you like."

Like other Webb sports teams, the kids are school-sponsored, except for equipment they'd like to own themselves.This year, one member of each team qualified for the state individual tournament. High school bowling is "blossoming" across the northeast, west, and midwest, says Daniel, "but it's slow around here. We'd love if Knox County schools would jump in."

So far, no go, adds Cox. "We've made repeated attempts, but always the superintendent or the administrator won't even hear of it." says Cox. Is it any wonder the Youth Associate page of the Tennessee Bowling Association is riddled with records from Memphis kids, with nary a mention of East Tennessee? This is a far cry from the collective vision—pipe dream or no—that got a boost from the eight-month, 48-lane, 61,000-bowler American Bowling Congress championship that swept into Knoxville in 2003. And then swept back out again, leaving some nice lumber for Habitat for Humanity behind, but without firing up Knoxville league play.

Out of the Gutters?

It's probably no surprise that the same people who have the focus and stamina to spend hour after hour working on a curve or contemplating lane oil-to-ball velocity are not going to slink off and let league bowling die out. The most visible is ball manufacturer Hammer's "Save Bowling" enterprise, but the approach may not have much impact here: They seem to plan largely to try to institute an approach nationwide to equalize scores regardless of each alley's lane conditions. That way, no matter how outmoded a facility, its league bowlers could play on an even stats field with players across the nation.

While we wish them all the best in this endeavor, that's not the sort of thing that's going to bring cash-strapped blue-collar workers down to the Fountain Lanes 36 Monday mornings in the cold months. No, opines Maples, "The reality is it comes down to us, to what we can do on the local level."

And they're trying, everything from a bowling rewards program at Family Bowl that doesn't affect leagues per se but can sure bring the cost of practice down, to Strike and Spare alleys trying to entice with awards like bowling towels and screen-print logo jackets for certain league accomplishments, and some increased league publicity through shopper and small paper ads and such.

The most organized effort in the area focuses on the most critical group, albeit in the long term: SMUSBC president Carlenea Strader has set a committee on trying to work with the Boys and Girls Club of East Tennessee to encourage younger bowlers.

One big drawing card that Maples thinks will actually be more effective because of the straitened economy: college scholarships.

"Students can get college fully paid with a bowling scholarship," she says. "Particularly on the girl's side, with Title IX—bowling is an open sport for girls that helps colleges grant scholarships in accordance with Title IX."

Vanderbilt has a big women's bowling program; the team won Division I nationals in 2010. The University of Tennessee, which has no issues with filling those Title IX women's sports scholarships, does not, but lots of smaller colleges nationwide do.

Working towards college scholarships and similarly complicated issues, like the length of leagues and the sheer weekly cost, will take some reckoning, and some time. Meanwhile, Schmittou estimates local leagues are losing 1-2 percent each year.

And if the leagues dwindle away to nothing?

"That would be horrible," says Cox. "League bowling is a huge part of an alley's revenue, the only guaranteed income." In other words, disappearing leagues could take recreational bowling and buddy bumper birthday parties out with them.

More than that, though, local bowling just feels like it deserves a better fate. "Bowling is one of the oldest sports, if not the oldest," says Cox. "Way back when, I guess people started throwing rocks... it's been around forever. I cannot imagine not being able to go and bowl in a league."

For Majors, the irreplaceable value is the camaraderie, the sharing of knowledge from strike master to strike master—and the humor. He started bowling at age 7, so long ago "we didn't even have bumpers, just gutter-to-gutter lanes, no matter how little you were," he says. "The good bowlers would come down on a Saturday a.m. and help us. They were people you looked up to. We would watch them bowl at night, and hope we might one day bowl like they did."

Now Majors is the great bowler, but he says he's happy just to hang out with fellow bowlers. "I always shake hands with them and wish them well. We have a lot of great bowlers around here."

League bowling just becomes part of the fabric of your life, says Cox, who picked up the sport at 29 and is now 41. She vividly recalls her first and only 299 on Sept. 11, 2000, "that very day. I remember we were all so upset and shaken, and I was thinking we would not be bowling that night, but we did."

Her daughter Megan McRae rolled the family's first 300 last year when she was 18. "Two days before Christmas," says Cox.

That's the kind of accomplishment that makes league bowling mean something, that might keep it alive, keep its fans fighting for it, says Maples. She started bowling herself in 1974, the year she got married. "My husband was bowling before that, and we went bowling for one of our first dates. I thought it was a stupid sport, then somehow I got into it."

Yesterday, Maples watched a 62-year-old woman throw a 300. "It was her first, and exciting to watch, just like every 300 I've seen in 37 years. It's always exciting, bowling."

SIDEBAR:

Secret Bowling History

In 1859 or so, a Peter R. Knott was operating a "bowling saloon" on Market Square. It may have been the first organized sport not involving animals ever to be played in Knoxville.

By the late 1800s, there were bowling alleys in the basements of some downtown hotels, like the Imperial at Gay and Clinch. Christmas Day was a traditional day for an all-day bowling tournament with prizes, most of which had something to do with tobacco, but sometimes it was a bottle of Mumm's, or, in 1905, a 22-pound pig for "the most graceful bowler."

The guy behind it all was an apparently charismatic bowler named Frank Bundschu, who organized the Knoxville Bowling Club, which was so popular that by 1906 they put a cap on its membership at 225. After holding its tournaments at Chilhowee Park for a while, the club headquarters settled in on Linden Avenue on the east side, where the KBC operated a building with three lanes. (Jack Neely)