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July 15, 2014

Why fewer people go bowling

WASHINGTON — Last week a bizarre political mini-scandal flared up and burned itself out within the span of 90 minutes. On Wednesday, TIME reported that the General Services Administration was soliciting bids to gut and renovate the White House bowling alley. The GSA called the alley's lanes "irreparable," noting that it had been 15 years since any maintenance had been done.

Once word of the request got out, it was time to cue the expected (and let's face it: not wholly unjustified) sniping from the GOP. Within 90 minutes of the initial TIME article's posting, the GSA solicitation disappeared without explanation. Crumbling infrastructure, a dead-on-arrival spending proposal, partisan warfare: just another day in Washington.

The gradual deterioration of the White House lanes mirrors a similar decline in the bowling industry nationwide, as Bloomberg Businessweek reported last week. The number of bowling centers in the U.S. has been trending downward for at least three decades. AMF Bowling, the world's largest bowling alley operator, has filed for bankruptcy twice since the turn of the millennium.

Like other industries facing tough economic times, America's bowling centers are trying to reinvent themselves. They're catering to more upscale clientele, adding in-house chefs, and branching out into other activities like laser tag and go-karts. Whether these gambits will pay off is a different question — "upscaling" has been a bowling industry trend since the early 2000s, but the decline the number of bowling centers has held incredibly steady since then — an unflinching downward line.

Geographically speaking, most of the nation's bowling centers are clustered around the Great Lakes and in the upper Midwest. The rust belt geography partially explains the difficulties faced by the industry in recent decades — manufacturing jobs have declined by about a third since 1986, mirroring the the drop in bowling centers over the same period.

Moreover, much of the nation's population growth in recent years has happened in the Sunbelt. But by and large, transplants to the region from northern states haven't taken their bowling league memberships with them. Bowling has always been a heavily seasonal pastime — interest peaks in the winter and ebbs in the summer. In warmer climes, there may simply be less incentive to spend an afternoon indoors on a warm, sunny day. Which raises an interesting question: Why aren't outdoor bowling alleys a thing?

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