Future of bowling at risk
League bowling is in trouble. Southwest Michigan has seen at least nine bowling centers close and two of the remaining four have shortened hours of operation. Leagues that once filled houses every night of the week, some with double shifts, are no more. Junior leagues, once the feeder system for adult leagues, are very small in numbers as the United States Bowling Congress (USBC) and local proprietors try to reinvent the game.
Ray Steadmon, owner of Coloma Lanes wraps up the discussion in one word, “choices”. Steadmon has about 64 youth bowlers in his Saturday morning leagues. “We used to have 160-200 kids with two shifts. Its choices and options” explained Steadmon. The old standards of scouts, little league baseball, football and basketball still exist, but soccer has grown along with hockey. There’s year- round sports for boys and girls, not to mention travel teams, forcing parents with multiple children in different directions every night of the week.
Chad Murphy, executive director of the USBC, says approximately 15 percent of the USBC budget is spent in the youth area. “Fifteen percent may not be enough,” explained Murphy. “We’re trying to rebuild the structure. There’s been a long window of decline.”
Coloma High School is one of the few area teams to offer bowling as a varsity sport for boys and girls. The Comets compete against mostly Kalamazoo area teams although South Haven and Paw Paw also support varsity bowling.
Sharon Ball is coach of the boy’s team. Ball said four of her 10 bowlers came up through the junior leagues. “Recruiting for the team is usually word of mouth, sending E-mails out and talking to parents,” she explained. Several members of her team are in multiple sports including six in band. Last year Zack Heeter went to state as an individual and finished 23rd. Heeter also plays soccer.
On this particular day, with over 40 parents and supporters attending, Coloma was up against Kalamazoo Comstock at Kelley’s Bowl. Damien Gomez Jr., who came up through the junior program, shot individual games of 168 and 209 helping the Coloma boys to an 18-12 win.
Carley Burrell coaches the girls. The Comets are no stranger to the state finals, including Burrell, who won a state championship title while attending Coloma High School.
The girls beat Comstock 23-7 keeping their record perfect at 10-0. Morgan Hosbein shot a 356 individual two-game series. The first two games are in “Baker Format” where all five bowlers rotate frames. Bowler one bowls frames one and six, bowler two bowls frames two and seven and so on, then two head to head games are totaled in determining the winner.
Lakeshore High School athletic director Greg Younger says “bowling hasn’t been brought to us as an interest,” adding “it could begin like a club.” Younger said if interest was there someone would need to spearhead the program and then find an advisor. St. Joseph Athletic Director Kevin Guzzo reiterated similar remarks. “With Kelley’s so close, I would be open to that.” Guzzo said there would have to be some informational meetings.
Brenda Webster has been a mainstay among Southwest Michigan youth bowlers, coaching for over 30 years. At Coloma Lanes, leagues run about 26 weeks. “We know kids are involved in other Saturday sports so we allow them to pre-bowl if necessary.” Webster said the same goes for varsity bowlers. “Those kids are not allowed to bowl in junior leagues while bowling competitively in high school. They can bowl up until the season begins, and again when it ends.”
Several colleges offer bowling scholarships to high school graduates, but only a handful of four-year schools in Michigan. There are six two-year colleges in the state supporting bowling teams. Lake Michigan College formerly had a bowling team. A banner highlighting the women’s 1980 Region 12 Championship hangs in the Red Hawk gym. Will bowling make a comeback? “We’ve talked about it,” explained LMC athletic director Jason Cooper. “It’s all about funding. It could be one of the first sports we bring back.”
The USBC is trying to reshape itself through coaching, teaching and grass roots instructional programs. “We’re doing public relations work every day working with schools, family and the media,” Murphy said.
Ben Brose, Northeast Regional Director for USBC, said proprietors and associations can go onto bowl.com and search the youth section for all sorts of information including posters, brochures, letters and how to materials put out by the marketing department. Brose, who lives in Southwest Michigan, says his role is to educate and assist in training local associations.