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Bowling News USA - November 16, 2012 League Bowling Thriving in Las Vegas...

BY JOHN PRZYBYS
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
 

The rumbling of plastic and urethane spheres skittering across oiled wood. The clap of an enthusiastic high-five. The cheers of someone who, against all odds, has picked up a wicked split.

And, of course, the clink of beer bottles and ice cubes in glasses, because, really, wherever there is bowling, there must be cold beverages.

All across the valley, it's a symphony of sound heard daily by a corps of avid bowlers large enough to surprise anybody who doesn't regularly bowl themselves.

Take a recent Tuesday evening at the Gold Coast Bowling Center, where league bowlers are flinging away on all but two of the center's 70 lanes.

But don't ignore the metaphorical and practical importance of those two empty lanes. On this night, they serve as a sort of no-bowler's-land representative of both differing variations of bowling and the sport's universal appeal.

To the left: Members of the Tuesday Mixer league, which members will enthusiastically tell you is the most fun league in town and where picking up a spare may be as much a cause for celebration as rolling a 300 game.

To the right: Members of the Budweiser Invitational Scratch league, where some of the best bowlers in town compete for serious prize money and whose members include people who are no strangers to multiple 300 games.

But skill levels notwithstanding, the evening's goal is the same on both sides of the darkened alleys: Enjoying a night out with a few friends while participating in a sport anyone can enjoy.

According to the United States Bowling Congress - the body that certifies league play - about 71 million Americans bowled at least once in 2010, enough to make bowling the country's No. 1 participation sport.

During the 2010-2011 season, about 2.1 million USBC members bowled in 71,904 USBC-certified leagues across the U.S., the organization says.

In Las Vegas, according to the USBC, 16,117 certified bowlers bowled in 516 certified leagues during the 2011-12 season.

Bottom line: Bowling is big here.

In fact, says Mike Kaufman, bowling operations director for Coast Casinos, "I think that, without a doubt, Las Vegas is probably known for being the bowling capital of the world."

On the professional level, "Las Vegas has a long tradition of major events dating back to the early days of the Showboat," he says.

For example, the World Series of Bowling drew pro bowlers from around the world to the South Point over the past week, with the finals today.

"We probably have the best bowling facilities in the country in properties that are gorgeous. You don't find bowling centers like we have in this town in other places."

Then, there's the large population of league bowlers who play here, not all of whom even live here. Kaufman says Las Vegas' bowling centers regularly host leagues from California and other states that come here to bowl the final week of their seasons.

"The destination markets that we've been able to capture in Las Vegas is important not only to the bowling centers but to the properties," he adds. "That generates hotel room nights for us."

Finally, besides the pros, the league bowlers and bowling ball-packing tourists, Las Vegas is awash in alleys full of recreational bowlers who don't join leagues but who consider a few hours spent punishing pins time well spent.

Jerry Francomano, manager of bowling operations at Texas Station, says business there is pretty evenly divided between league and open bowlers.

"During the week, when kids are in school ... the leagues kind of dominate. On weekends - Friday night, Saturday and Sunday during the day - when it's more family time and kids are around and groups can get together, then it's open play."

However, like other activities that hinge upon the spending of discretionary income, bowling here took a hit during the past few recession-riddled years.

"When it first hit in '08 and '09, when we first started to feel the pinch, we lost a little bit of our league play," Francomano says. "But I'm glad to say it has been climbing every year."

This fall, for the first time since 2009, he says, "we've been over a thousand league participants."

William Benzenhafer, manager of the Southern Nevada USBC Association, says it wasn't necessarily a question of bowlers leaving the sport. Rather, he says, financial pressures forced some avid bowlers to become a bit less avid.

"Some of the people were bowling in multiple leagues and, because of the economy, they haven't actually quit bowling but ... dropped to one or two leagues," he says.

NEARLY 24/7 ACTIVITY

Another possible reason for bowling's popularity here: Unlike some other participant sports, it can be done nearly 24/7.

Kaufman says The Orleans' bowling center hosts a league made up of shift workers and guys getting off work on the Strip that begins at midnight.

Competition among the large number of bowling centers across the valley - there were 17 USBC-certified centers here in 2011-2012 - also may help to make bowling a particularly affordable pastime here.

After midnight, "pretty much at every bowling center in town, you can bowl for a dollar a game," Kaufman says. At other times, prices seldom rise to much more than $2.50 or $3 per game and typically are less.

Also, Francomano says, "if you look at the average price of three games of bowling during league (play), that's two-and-a-half to three hours, so it's a pretty inexpensive form of entertainment."

Beyond such practicalities - beyond, even, the pleasure of the game itself - bowlers say they enjoy the social nature of the game. Kaufman notes that many leagues are formed around some sort of "commonality" among members.

For instance, he says, "we have leagues that are primarily open to Asian/Pacific Islanders, and we have (a) gay and lesbian league."

Las Vegas' largest bowling league? That would be the Sunday TNBA Mixed league at The Orleans bowling center, with 64 teams and 256 members, says Sharlene Walker, president of the Las Vegas Senate of TNBA Inc.

The National Bowling Association (TNBA) was created in 1939, when African-Americans weren't permitted to belong to the former American Bowling Congress, which then was league bowling's sanctioning body.

Today, Walker says, "we are an open association, and we have members of all races in our organization."

Last weekend, the Las Vegas Senate of TNBA hosted a regional tournament here that, Walker says, drew bowlers from 13 states.

Francomano says bowlers of literally any ability level can find a league that's perfect for them. Leagues here include leagues designed for good and not-so-good bowlers, junior leagues and senior leagues, leagues that are fairly competitive and leagues in which the priority is simply having a good time.

GOOD-TIME LEAGUE

Count the Tuesday Mixer league at the Gold Coast solidly among the latter.

"I have everybody from 18 years old all the way to 84," says Butch Lidgett, the league's secretary, who, on this evening, wears a Seussian hat in honor of Halloween and has made sure that every scorer's table is stocked with a bowl of candy.

"This is what I love about this league. I put it out there for them to have fun," Lidgett says. "That was my goal when I started (as secretary) 13 years ago."

Member Julia Melnar, who has been bowling since she was 6 years old, notes that, in the league, "there are people whose average is in the 80s and people with averages in the 230s."

Melnar bowls in four leagues, and says she enjoys bowling in the Tuesday league because "the mood is different. It's more of a good time."

Member Judy Gerencser loves meeting fellow bowlers from different walks of life. "You could have doctors and lawyers and truck drivers and mailmen. It's very cool."

"This is the best league in town," she adds, recalling that, when looking for a league to join, she asked around.

"Everybody said, 'You want to join this league. You want to go in Butch's league,' " she says. "Then I came here and asked three employees, and they said, 'Butch's league.'

"I got introduced to Butch and I said, 'I want to be in your league,' and I've been here ever since."

Lidgett says the league began with 18 teams and now has 44, all because of word of mouth. Members enjoy special events and giveaways, from pizza parties to pie giveaways at Thanksgiving, and Lidgett even has a waiting list of teams seeking to join.

Gary Gabriel, secretary of the Budweiser Invitational Scratch league, says the league has 120 members bowling on 24 teams. Unlike traditional leagues, no handicaps are used, and bowlers are competing for a $65,000 purse at the end of the season.

Does the high-caliber nature of the league make it different from a traditional league? "You try to concentrate more," Gabriel says.

"Yeah, it's a little more serious, but I can't say we don't try to have some kind of fun. It's just different because everyone on your team is kind of on the same caliber."

Brandon Allred says things do get "a little more competitive" in a scratch league.

But, he adds, "the cool thing about bowling is, there's something for every level."

(courtesy: LVRJ.com)


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November, 2012