Thursday, Oct. 12, 2000 | 9:08 a.m.
Whether it's at the quaint 16-lane Terrible's Town Casino and Bowl in Henderson or the 106-lane mega-center at the Showboat in Las Vegas, Southern Nevadans are being bowled over by a sport that is experiencing a 7-10 split in the rest of the country.
"The American Bowlers Congress had about five million members in the 1980s," Bob Hughes, executive director of the Southern Nevada Bowling Association, said. "It's down to 1.7 million now."
The ABC sanctions amateurs, primarily league and tournament players, while professionals are sanctioned by the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA).
About 25,000 people belong to amateur associations in Southern Nevada. Hughes' group, which represents men, has about 13,000 members -- making it the 10th- largest in the world. It's female counterpart, the Las Vegas Women's Bowling Association, has about 9,000 members. Other area cities also have their own associations, such as the Henderson Women's Bowling Association.
"People are starting to call us the bowling capital of the world," Hughes said. "We're the only area where it's really growing. Everywhere else it's losing. We are becoming the premier bowling center."
Nationally, membership has declined dramatically, but in Southern Nevada it has grown steadily over the years, discounting a minor setback in 1999.
"Last year we suffered our first loss ever. We declined by a few hundred," Hughes said.
He attributed the drop in membership to the death of some members and the lack of time or interest of others.
"We have quite a few senior bowlers, and several passed away," Hughes noted. "Others got involved in other things, and some first timers didn't have a positive experience and didn't return."
Hughes, confident the numbers will be up this year, attributes the growth phenomenon to several factors. The main is that among the 5,000 or so new residents moving to Clark County each month, a certain percentage of them are bound to be bowlers.
Another reason is economics -- while the cost of bowling rises in the rest of the country, it remains relatively inexpensive throughout the state. Most of the bowling centers in Las Vegas are associated with a major casino or, if not, they supplement their income with their own slot machines and are able to keep the price of bowling low.
Bowling costs in the $2-per-game range in Southern Nevada, while elsewhere it is in the $3-to-$6 range, according to Hughes.
"Free-standing bowling centers find it hard to make it," he said.
While bowling centers are being torn down in the rest of the country, replaced by more profitable enterprises, their numbers are increasing here.
"There are two new centers in town," Hughes said. "One at the Suncoast, which just opened, and another (to open in December) at Texas Station."
Anyone in Southern Nevada looking for a place to bowl doesn't have far to look. There are more than a dozen centers from Pahrump to Mesquite, offering around 500 lanes.
Nellis Air Force Base has a 16-lane center (though it isn't open to the public). North Las Vegas has the Silver Nugget (24 lanes). Boulder City has the Boulder Bowl (eight lanes). There is a 24-lane center in Pahrump, a 25-lane center in Mesquite and two centers in Henderson -- Sunset Lanes (which has 40 lanes) and Terrible's Town.
In Las Vegas there is the Showboat, one of the largest centers in the world; Sam's Town (56 lanes), the Orleans (70 lanes), Suncoast (64 lanes) and Gold Coast. The Orleans, Suncoast and Gold Coast are all Coast Resort properties. The new center at Texas Station will have 60 lanes, and Station Casinos recently bought the Santa Fe, which already has a 60-lane bowling center that is undergoing renovation.
"We plan to have cosmic bowling times ten," Bea Goodwin, Texas Station's bowling director, said.
Cosmic Bowling (introduced in this area by the Silver Nugget in 1996) has been around for about eight years. It is described as something like a rock concert: loud music, flashing lights, brilliant colors and fog are used to attract young people to bowling.
Cosmic Bowling has been available at the Gold Coast for about a year. "It's quite an event," Bob Prevost, the center's manager, said. "We've brought a concert into the bowling center."
The $1.1 million cosmic renovation targets the under-21-year-old crowd. "There's not much to do in this town if you're under 21," Prevost said.
He said Cosmic Bowling has increased business by 50 percent on Fridays and Saturdays, the two nights it is offered.
Texas Station is aggressively pursuing bowlers. Cosmic Bowling will be available on weekends. Midweek it will offer a service industry night, for workers who get off of work late. Other activities will be used to attract the general public, as opposed to league and tournament players.
"League bowling is on the decline," Goodwin said. "People used to bowl 32 to 36 weeks in a row in league play. Now they don't have time to do that. There is other competition for their time and their dollars.
"Leagues used to be 90 percent of the business. Here at Texas Station, we expect 70 percent to be nonleague. At Santa Fe, 70 percent will be league and tournament play. The two properties complement each other."
Because bowling centers are getting more customers, so are people who sell bowling supplies and give lessons.
Gary Higashi, owner of the Excellence Pro Shop in Las Vegas, said his business has increased between 20 and 25 percent in the past couple of years because the thousands of people moving to the valley each month are "looking for something to do other than gamble."
Higashi moved to Las Vegas 10 years ago from Seattle to manage Arizona Charlie's bowling center.
"Two years later they closed and I decided I wanted to work for myself," he said.
Higashi said bowling is something most people can do practically from the cradle to the grave, which is another reason for an increase in the numbers -- the population is aging and people are staying healthier longer. They want an activity suitable for them.
"Three weeks ago a gentlemen drove down from Cedar City, Utah, to do some business with me," Higashi said. "He is 90 years old and his wife is 78. They still have a great time bowling."
Higashi is concerned about the national trend of declining interest in the sport and criticizes the national organizations that are supposed to promote bowling for not doing a better job.
"They've got to look at how to build their base," he said. "The term 'bowling alley' is a bad term. It has a negative connotation. We have bowling centers -- nice and clean, nicely lit and computerized. We need to get the image back to where we belong. It is a clean, family sport.
"We need the media to give us a chance. Most bowling movies paint us as beer-drinking, loud-mouth, cigar-smoking idiots. We're not. Studies have shown bowlers are the most intelligent athletes, but not much credit is given for that."
The Gold Coast is doing its part to keep bowling alive, offering something for everybody. It has a pro shop with an instructor, a video arcade, a snack bar, a cocktail lounge and a league program for everyone -- competitive scratch leagues, mixed adult programs and one of the largest junior leagues in town. It even offers "bumper bowling" for the little ones.
Mike Foreman, a 52 year-old dealer at Bellagio, doesn't need gimmicks to get him into a bowling center. He took up the sport at age 11, when the Showboat opened two blocks from his home, and has become one of the top amateurs in the country.
On Sept. 26 in a team tournament near New Orleans, Foreman and his Sunset Lanes teammates won the 2000 American Bowling Congress/Brunswick World Team Challenge Grand Championship -- one of the most prestigious titles in the amateur bowling world.
Foreman, Tim Schwerdtfeger, Rick Benard, Paul Enright and Paul Renteria topped a field of 16 of the nation's top bowling teams to win $12,000 in prize money.
Although he helped win a team championship, Foreman more often plays in singles competitions. He believes he is one of about 20 people in Las Vegas who make a nice second income from tournaments, some of which offer prizes in excess of $100,000.
So far this year he has won $40,000. Last year he won more than $30,000. And because he doesn't belong to the PBA, he is considered to be an amateur.
"I'm a professional amateur," he said.
While some bowl for love and money, most do it just for fun. Foreman said many retirees are moving to Southern Nevada because of the abundance of bowling. "There are a lot of senior leagues here, especially in the summer when it's too hot to golf."
Foreman played in leagues until he was about 16, then decided the seasons were too long.
"In league play, you have to go down to the center every week for 28 to 32 weeks," Foreman said. "It's like a job. You have to be there every week. Your teammates rely on you.
"With a tournament, it's over and done with in a week or two."
Which leaves him more time to bowl.