Drive by just about any bowling alley in the Lake Country area on a late Sunday morning or early Sunday afternoon and you'll see few, if any, cars in the parking lot. There's a good chance that some of the bowling centers won't even be open.
But turn back the clock to the mid 1960's through the 1980's and the same bowling establishments were packed with open bowlers. League bowlers out practicing, families having some fun spending time together or a bunch of buddies bowling some pot games, trying to take a few bucks from each other.
On just about every Sunday morning and Sunday afternoon in the 60's at Bill Perrigo's Yacht Club Lanes (later called Lakeview Lanes) in Pewaukee, there were so many people wanting to bowl that they had regular waiting lists of over an hour, with as many as 20 to 25 names on that list. The 12-lane center was constantly filled with bowlers of all ages. Other centers in the area had similar scenarios.
At the same time, league bowlers packed houses, whether it be in Pewaukee, Oconomowoc, Waukesha or Mukwonago. Not only were all the first shifts full (Monday through Friday) but just about every center was at near capacity for their second shifts.
Those were the glory days of the once proud sport of bowling. While it's still the No. 1 participation sport in the country, evidenced by the fact that 69 million people bowled at least once a year during 2012, bowling numbers keep falling in drastic fashion every year. It's been that way for more than a dozen years as there are almost 50% bowlers now nationally than there were in 1995.
"The sport of bowling is still healthy, but our numbers at the United States Bowling Congress are nothing like they were in the 1970's, 80's and 90's," said a USBC official who didn't offer his name. "A lot of things have played into the fact that fewer people are bowling. There's a lot more competition for the entertainment dollar. Other things also have played into it. The industry probably got overbuilt when things were good. But bowling is still a very popular sport around the country."
Centers have disappeared
While bowling numbers are way down nationally, that's also the case locally. Twelve centers from Pewaukee, Oconomowoc, Okauchee, Waukesha and Mukwonago have closed in the last 20 or so years. Alleys that have closed in the area are Lakeview Lanes and Shore Bowl in Pewaukee, Okauchee Bowl, Main Lanes, Enters and Classic Lanes in Oconomowoc, Radtke's Recreation in Ashippun, Leeshore Lanes in Mukwonago and in Waukesha Totem Bowl, Atlantis Bowl, the Elks Club and AMF Waukesha Lanes, which just closed on Sunday.
That number is going to go to 13 after the end of the upcoming 2014-15 season when Hartbrook Lanes in Hartland is scheduled to close. Waukesha State Bank has purchased the building and will build a bank on the same site.
When Fran Peters and one partner built Hartbrook Lanes in the late 1970's, the center was one of the busiest and most successful in the state. Originally, Hartbrook had 16 lanes and they quickly expanded to 24 lanes. The center was full all the time, first and second shifts.
In the 1980's, Hartbrook had one of the highest number of junior bowlers in the state every Saturday morning, with as many as 224 juniors bowling 24 weeks for many years. They had two shifts with 24 teams on each shift. Hartbrook also did a landslide business on Saturday and Sunday nights with couples leagues.
Last year the Hartbrook junior program had 56 bowlers. Years ago on Monday nights Hartbrook had 192 bowlers for a 33-week season. The past few years they have had 36, 42 or 48 bowlers each night. They had no leagues last year on Wednesday night.
Several teams have already left Hartbrook Lanes to go to Sussex Bowl. Those teams want to make sure they have a first-shift spot for the 2015-16 season. Others are making plans to go to Mapleway Bowl in Oconomowoc or to one of the centers in Waukesha.
"The industry has gone through a lot changes over the years and a lot of bowlers have left the sport," said Stephen Hoehnen, the manager at Sussex Bowl the last six years. "What we do here is to try and come up with something different to keep the interest there. It's a challenge. But with Hartbrook closing, we've already got a lot of calls from bowlers looking for spots."
Fracaro's Lanes in Waukesha, believed to be the oldest family-owned bowling alley in the state, has done very well since opening in 1939. They had eight alleys then and expanded to 16 lanes in 1945. It's been the most popular center in Waukesha for years. Three generations of Fracaro's have owned the center.
"Our leagues have held together pretty well, considering the direction the sport has been going," said co-owner Mike Hansen, who is a partner with his brother Jason. "The biggest change has been open bowling. It's pretty much disappeared. The only days that we're very busy with open bowlers is New Year's Eve and when the kids are off of school in the winter. Our twice a month couples leagues do well. But second shifts are rare at every bowling alley.
Another family owned center is Jay's Lanes in Mukwonago. Built and owned by Jerry Jay almost 40 years ago, the popular business is now run and owned by his son Jeff. The center is doing well and actually had two spring leagues this year.
Only Mapleway is left
While the bowling business in Oconomowoc is down about 85 percent from the busy years in the 1970s and 80s, the eight-lane Mapleway Bowl on the west side of town is flourishing.
At one time Classic Lanes (24 lanes), Okauchee Bowl (eight), Main Lanes (four), Enters (four) and Radtke's (four) were in competition with Mapleway. With 84 percent of the competition gone, Mapleway's business is obviously doing well.
So, what has been the biggest reason why bowling is struggling in the local area these days? It's not just one thing, it's many combined.
The cost to bowl has gone up significantly and certainly the tougher drinking and driving laws have affected the sport. The no-smoking ban also has taken away some bowlers from each center. And there's just a lot more things to do for parents and families these days, whether it be the explosion of youth sports, school activities or today's high-tech world of computers.
"I doubt if the sport ever comes back to where it once was," Hoehnen said. "Everybody bowled back in the day, one, two or three nights a week. Now a lot of those guys bowl just once, if at all. Like I said before, I have to keep coming up with something different to keep the interest. Hopefully that works."
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