Bowling keeps rolling along

October 29, 2006|By Jeff Seidel | Jeff Seidel,Special to The Sun

Zephan Blaxberg started bowling when he was 5 years old. He has worked constantly on his game since then, and now, 12 years later, the Pikesville High School senior has developed into a strong bowler who won four silver medals this summer at the Jewish Community Center Maccabi Games in Connecticut.

Blaxberg loves going to a local bowling alley and getting on the lanes. He's the kind of person the bowling industry lived off of for years in Baltimore County and around the country. But times have changed.

Bowling lost some of its popularity in the early 1990s as more children and adults found their way to different activities and didn't want to be bothered with being in leagues for nine months. But bowling centers in Baltimore County and elsewhere changed their marketing focus to people who weren't like Blaxberg - those who didn't often bowl in leagues.

That's a big reason bowling has become more popular in the past several years. More groups have found their way to bowling centers. It's not uncommon to see members of camps and day care centers and other parties with large numbers of people regularly bowling.

The youth group that Blaxberg is involved with has held nightlong parties at local bowling alleys. They'll show up about 9 p.m. and stay until the sun comes up. They have even brought in a band to play music while they bowl.

"More people started to get interested in bowling and liking it because they saw more people were doing it," Blaxberg said.

Kathleen Perry, president of Maryland Bowling Proprietors, said there's no question that life is getting better for Baltimore County bowling centers, thanks in large part to the changing marketing schemes.

"I've been involved in it for almost 28 years," Perry said. "I think Baltimore County is very much on an upswing. I think we can quickly say it's nationwide. League bowling may be down, but it's opened up the time slots, and there are bowling centers all over that cater to group functions."

Stacy Karten is an Owings Mills-based bowling consultant who has worked in the sport for nearly 30 years. He said that Maryland is in the top 50 percent of bowling markets in the United States - Michigan, California, Pennsylvania and New York are the top four states - and that Baltimore County does well.

The county hasn't seen a new bowling center open since Kings Point in Randallstown in 1990. But there's plenty of action in leagues throughout the county and even more with the non-league bowlers, who know they can find lanes and times that would have been filled in years past.

"More promotions are starting to be done with centers individually," Karten said. "Now maybe it'll ride the wave of the game enjoying a little more exposure ... and take advantage of what's happening in the market all around the country."

The market is benefiting from different types of exposure. ABC broadcast bowling for at least 35 years until the telecasts were discontinued in 1997. But the Professional Bowlers Association's new owners began to push hard on the marketing side and landed a TV deal with ESPN in 2001 that was later extended through 2007.

The network also shows women's bowling and bowling tournaments from years past on ESPN Classic. In addition, both Karten and Perry said bowling is finding its way into more advertisements, often for things that have nothing to do with the sport.

The bowling that people see on television is tenpins, but Baltimore County also draws from the duckpin market. Duckpin bowling (which uses smaller pins and balls) used to be popular in the Mid-Atlantic area, but it appears to be dying.

Karten said that only 65 duckpin centers remain in the United States, and 10 percent are in Baltimore County. Most bowling centers offer tenpin bowling, where in years past centers would offer both types.

Most children are learning the sport by bowling tenpin, a change from previous years. Terry Tingler is an Arbutus resident who has coached the sport for at least 25 years and serves as the president of the Central Maryland United States Bowling Congress Youth. She said that more children are bowling tenpins because they picked up the custom from their parents.

"We've had an increase in membership in the last couple of years," she said. "It was going down for a while, but now it's starting to grow again."

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