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Michigan is the unofficial bowling capital of the US: What to know

One by one, they step up to the shining wooden lanes with ball in hand, tasked to knock down 10 pearly-white foes set 60 feet away, for a chance at $100,000.

Faces twisted in concentration and lips pressed, they silently calculate the steps to take, the swing of the arm and the flick of the wrist needed to curve the 16-pound ball no more than an inch too far to the left or right. They exhale with a puff of air, lunge forward, and release.

The crowd behind them watches intently, holding their breath in anticipation but buzzing with energy waiting to break loose. "Even as fans, we live and die with every shot," whispers Paul Gross, a retired WDIV-TV meteorologist who doubles as president of the Adcraft Mixed Bowling League, his eyes still on the competitor and the ball.

The ball thunders down the lane until it crashes into the pins, and when all 10 topple over, every single person in the room erupts.

To them, bowling is much more than a game, or even a sport; it's an entire world.

The bowling ball is ready to roll at Oak Lanes in Westland in 2016.
The bowling ball is ready to roll at Oak Lanes in Westland in 2016.

As the pin-striking sport has transformed from an outdated pastime into a fashionable multibillion-dollar business, in metro Detroit bowling defies its stereotype as an antiquated activity desperately hanging on. With over 200 bowling alleys statewide, Michigan stands out among an estimated 3,000 bowling centers across the country, attracting a countless yet record-breaking number of bowling enthusiasts spread across a greater age range than ever before.

The working-class sport

Early in the golden days of bowling, the game was established as a working-class sport: cheap enough for blue-collar adults to hurry on down to the local bowling center to buy a beer and throw a ball down a lane once or twice a week.

Its role as a working-class sport actually helped keep the game survive for so long; while the bowling business lulled with the fluctuations in the economy, at the end of the day, its affordability kept it alive.

As the game's popularity grew, so did the consistency of its players. Before and during the 1980s, about 10 million Americans participated in bowling leagues, said Tom Clark, commissioner of the Professional Bowlers Association.

But as the years passed, the bowling technology wasn't the only thing that got old. Bowling alleys tried a variety of ideas to stay fun and fresh to younger generations, often combining the facilities with other entertainment options like arcade games and legitimate food service that youngsters would normally search for elsewhere. Bowling alleys also began to outlaw smoking, helping to turn their facilities into more of a family-friendly place.

Now, where a million-or-so people around the country bowl in leagues, the number of people that bowl every once in a while, just to have fun, has jumped up to more like 70 million a year, said Clark.

And in a post-pandemic world, those numbers are only growing as people are still on the hunt for things to do and ways to get out of the house.

Vicki Ingham, the general manager of Thunderbowl Lanes in Allen Park, says she noticed a sizable number of new patrons when the coronavirus lockdown began to let up, motivated to try bowling because the activity allows them to get up and move around as opposed to just sitting at a bar or movie theater.

The outside of Thunderbowl Lanes in Allen Park in 2013.
The outside of Thunderbowl Lanes in Allen Park in 2013.

"I think people felt comfortable post-COVID that this was one thing they could do safely," said Ingham. "We were closed for 10 months in the bowling business here in Michigan. ... And then we had another three months after we reopened of no food or beverage service. We could sell bowling, but not the rest of it to go with it. So, anxious to get back open, we all had to find our own way, but we just maintained those customers that started coming in and feeling like they wanted to do something with their family. We definitely saw a lot of first-time people coming in with their kids and wanting to enjoy that, so it's maintained pretty good."

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But through the years, bowling has moved away from its former following of nostalgic baby boomers and Gen Xers. Now, over 6,000 Michigan kids participate in high school bowling, despite its place as a relatively new sport for high schools, said Ingram, encouraging teens to get involved and serious about the sport at younger ages than before for a shot — or a strike — at college scholarships.

Having become a multibillion-dollar industry made up of both amateurs and pros, bowling is — metaphorically and physically — on a roll.

The bowling capital of the country

While not an official title, Detroit is recognized by many big names in the business as the bowling capital of the U.S., particularly due to the city's industrial history.

"I believe that because of the auto plants way back when, the bowling business was really booming in the '50s, '60s and '70s. ... The bowling business was really built on those three shifts a day: if you worked midnights, you bowled at 8 a.m., and if you worked afternoons, you bowled late at night at 11 o'clock. That's the way the bowling business was built," said Ingham. "If you drive along any major road in Detroit ... you can see where they all were, even if they're something else now, and not far from them is a set of factories, or a Ford, a GM or Chrysler plant is not far away."

Detroit's blue-collar workers fixed a particular bowling legacy to the state, so even today, metro Detroit is home to at least two historic bowling alleys: Thunderbowl Lanes, the biggest privately-owned bowling alley in the country with 90 lanes and two-time host of the PBA World Championship; and Garden Bowl in Detroit, one of the oldest continuously operating bowling alleys in the U.S. that helped to cement Detroit's status as one of the country's leading bowling towns in the mid-20th century.

Bowlers enjoy the action at the Garden Bowl in 2007. Part of the Majestic complex in Midtown Detroit, it is one of the oldest continuously operating bowling alleys in the U.S.
Bowlers enjoy the action at the Garden Bowl in 2007. Part of the Majestic complex in Midtown Detroit, it is one of the oldest continuously operating bowling alleys in the U.S.

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Beyond metro Detroit, bowling's popularity in Michigan, along with much of the broader Midwest, stays solid as the local bowling alley provides a refuge from boredom during long and bitter-cold winter months.

Michigan even used to be the birthplace of bowling balls at a Brunswick Bowling Products factory up in Muskegon. The factory was built in 1906 and lasted about a century until 2006 when Brunswick moved its bowling ball manufacturing operations to Mexico. However, a corporate office with state-of-the-art research and development facilities still remains in Muskegon.

Additionally, while maybe not as well-known now as the bowling-centric cult classic "The Big Lebowski," a TV game show, "Bowling For Dollars," gained some popularity in cities across the U.S. through the 1960s and 1970s. On the show, which aired locally with local people, contestants knocked down pins for $1 each, while spares and strikes earned $20 and two strikes in a row unleashed the couple-hundred-dollar jackpot.

Host Bob Allison, right, and contestant Laura Taylor at a "Bowling for Dollars" taping at Thunderbowl Lanes in Allen Park in 1970.
Host Bob Allison, right, and contestant Laura Taylor at a "Bowling for Dollars" taping at Thunderbowl Lanes in Allen Park in 1970.

But here in Detroit, filmed at Thunderbowl Lanes and hosted by veteran broadcaster Bob Allison, "Bowling For Dollars" awarded good bowlers with additional prizes: a spare earned dinner for two at a local restaurant, coupled with two large pizzas from Buddy's Pizza if that spare was a split, and a strike would let contestants pick from a pinboard for a prize from a local jeweler, the most extravagant item being a diamond ring.

The show fizzled in the late 1970s, but Detroit brought it back in 2013 as a short-lived revival for WADL-TV, making the Motor City the most recent city to air the show.

More: Detroit radio legend, 'Bowling for Dollars' host Bob Allison dies (freep.com)

The alley jockeys

Bowling runs in families like eye color: Usually, if one person bowls, their parents bowl, their spouse bowls, and their kids will bowl. Heck, maybe even their dog can push a ball down a lane.

"It's also a great family sport. There's not many sports you can do with your child or with your family your whole life," said Ingram. "If you're 90 and your kids are 70, you can still do this together."

Many of a bowler's best lifelong friends are from their bowling league after all the time spent on the lane chatting and joking over drinks and between bowling turns. While there's common yet unspoken bowling etiquette, like "Don't throw the ball if the person beside you is preparing to bowl," bowling groups develop their own language and other sets of rules that vary alley to alley or even league to league.

“With tennis, it’s too fast, and you’re on one side by yourself playing against somebody. In golf, you do play with like four people, but you play alone. In bowling, you’re all right out there together so you develop relationships with each person,” said Clark.

Bowling is more of a social sport than most people give it credit for, and doubly, it's an unusual sport in the sense that bowling fans are most often bowlers themselves, which you can't always say about other sports.

"Most of our fans bowl, whereas most football fans don’t play football,” said Clark.

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That's not to say that the pros aren't distinct in skill level from the average league players — fans still buy their favorite bowler's merchandise — but it allows even the relationship between pros and the fans to sit a lot closer than other sports.

At the 2024 PBA World Championship hosted at Thunderbowl Lanes, pro bowlers stood back with genuine smiles long after their losses to talk to fans, shake hands, and sign bowling merchandise. It ran like clockwork; bowlers would shrug off their loss, acknowledge the crowd, pack up their things and finally approach the people eagerly waiting with pen in hand.

EJ Tackett bowls during the final round against EJ Tackett at the 2024 Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) World Championship tournament on April 21, 2024, at Thunderbowl Lanes in Allen Park.
EJ Tackett bowls during the final round against EJ Tackett at the 2024 Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) World Championship tournament on April 21, 2024, at Thunderbowl Lanes in Allen Park.

“The fans usually gravitate toward individuals. They become familiar watching on television, then when we come to their city, they’re excited to meet those people," said Clark. "Then there are some people who are just fans of the game, and so they want to watch the pros to try to get better themselves because they figure they can learn from them, how to bowl better."

He continued: “For some reason, the people who are into bowling are really into it.”

The invisible enemy

To tens of millions of people, bowling is no more than throwing a ball down a lane, but to the pros, it takes a skillful amount of focus and a series of events going perfectly to strike down the pins in one go.

“For the pros, (the oil on the lane) ends up being the most important thing ... that oil dictates how the players will attack the lanes so they can have the best angle into the pins and strike as many times as possible," said Clark.

Machines dispense the oil in specific patterns named after (but not at all resembling) animals or bowling legends. For example, the oil pattern used on the first night of the 2024 PBA World Championship was called the Earl Anthony 43-foot pattern.

It's these oil patterns that end up mattering the most to the pros; knowing the oil patterns and adjusting to the microscopic changes invisible to the naked eye can be the difference between a $100,000 win or a loss.

“This whole strategic game is going on based on an invisible enemy, which is the oil,” said Clark. “You can watch bowling and not know that people are thinking about things that you can’t even see. Because, at the highest level, an inch is important. It’s extremely miniscule, the difference between being good and being great and being a PBA champion.”

Bowling balls belonging to the professional bowlers competing during the last day of the 2024 Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) World Championship tournament on April 21, 2024, at Thunderbowl Lanes in Allen Park.
Bowling balls belonging to the professional bowlers competing during the last day of the 2024 Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) World Championship tournament on April 21, 2024, at Thunderbowl Lanes in Allen Park.

But the game isn't over. Even with awareness of the oil, bowlers have to combine the weight of the ball and the force of the throw to create enough power and speed, while maintaining precision, to send the 10 white pins crashing.

“The series of skills that you have to have in order to compete at the highest level are some of the most demanding athletic maneuvers that someone could imagine. We’ve had incredible athletes from other sports come and try to take bowling seriously, wanting to become pros, and they cannot come close,” said Clark. “When you combine the mental and physical demands, it’s obviously a sport. It only gets a bad rap because so many people play it for fun.”

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan is the unofficial bowling capital of the US: What to know