Ralph Cramden Might Not Recognize the New Bowling Center

Times Staff Writer

What do young executives do for fun after a hard day's work? They go bowling, of course.

Well, at least they do in a barrage of 61 recently aired television commercials sponsored by the National Bowling Council, an industry group.

The $3-million Bowling in the USA campaign--the most expensive bowling promotion ever--shows young men and women living it up at their sleek neighborhood bowling alley. Awash in a cascade of red, white and blue balloons, the commercial's characters leap, yell and laugh as they bowl the night away. It's this clean-cut--and decidely upscale--image that bowling boosters hope will attract people into the nation's approximately 8,000 bowling alleys.

The ads also reflect bowling's ongoing campaign to shed its blue-collar image and sign up the growing numbers of white-collar workers and suburban families.

Recent promotions point with pride to the upcoming Olympic Games in Seoul, where bowling makes its debut as an exhibition sport. Makers of bowling shoes and balls have updated styles and added bright colors to appeal to the younger crowd and women.

Some bowling alleys now have computer-controlled scoring machines; others have added ribbons of neon, skylights and color schemes of mauve and aqua.

The 21 California bowling alleys owned by Active West Bowling and Recreation Centers will soon ban smoking in certain sections. "It's not the dark smelly place that they used to be in the '50s and '60s," said David A. Spiegel, chief of operations at Active West. "The demographics of bowlers today are quite a bit different today. There are more families. It's not the Ralph Cramden look."

In the push for respectability, even the term "bowling alley" has fallen out of favor. "We don't call them bowling alleys," said Adrian Sakowicz, spokesman for Brunswick Recreation Centers, which operates about 130 bowling alleys--uh--centers. "We have been trying to get away from that image. We call them family recreation centers. They're extremely clean."

The image building comes as the industry begins to rebound after a long decline that began in the early 1970s--a decline that reflected changes in life style and shortsightedness among alley operators. "The bowling industry did not do a good job with marketing and did not keep up with the times," said Spiegel. "They were not modernizing. They were taking the money and putting it into their pockets."

Despite the neglect, bowling has managed to retain a large following. About 12 million Americans bowl at least once a week, according to industry statistics. Sales--from customer fees and equipment--have remained steady at about $5 billion annually, according to Bowlers Journal.

Bowling is suddenly chi-chi in many quarters. At the Little Tokyo Bowl in downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood actors and executives are said to play until 4 in the morning on some Saturdays. In one scene from the movie "Fatal Attraction," the attorney played by Michael Douglas bowls up a storm with his high-powered friends.

For the most part, bowling has been associated with blue-collar workers not Hollywood movie makers, say bowling experts. Brought to America by German immigrants, bowling has its roots in the inner city and working-class neighborhoods, particularly in the Northeast and upper Midwest. Bowling leagues were an important part of social life for factory workers.

But changes in the inner cities, the decline of blue-collar industries and rising land values have forced many small urban bowling alleys to close. The number of alleys has fallen to about 7,800 from a peak of nearly 11,000 in the early 1960s, according to industry figures.

New centers have opened in outlying suburbs where real estate is usually less expensive and young families plentiful. "It has become a suburban sport," said Mort Luby, publisher of Bowlers Journal. "Who lives in the suburbs? The boomers. The yuppies."

Changing demographics and life styles have triggered changes in bowling leagues. With fewer company bowling leagues, many of the 8 million league bowlers find themselves on teams made up of players who can bowl only at a certain time or day. "It's attractive to young people because of a change in life style," said Joe Schoenberg, marketing vice president at the National Bowling Council. "People don't want to make commitments. Their friends are somewhere else. They don't have commitments to the company store after 5 p.m."

Bowling officials have set their sights on keeping younger players from defecting to baseball, football or tennis. Video games are shoehorned into bowling centers, some of which turn into discos--Rock, Roll and Bowl nights--on weekends to attract teens.

To attract children and their parents, more and more bowling alleys have begun offering games such as bumper bowl, where the gutters on either side of the lane are filled with plastic tubes that prevent gutter balls.

Bowlers, who spend approximately $100 million a year on equipment, have found new versions of familiar products. Bowling balls with shimmering pearl-like surfaces have been introduced for women players. Children will also find a line of lightweight bowling balls, brightly colored and covered with images of dinosaurs or King Kong.

In recent years, many bowling shoes have come to resemble regular street or athletic shoes. A pair of leather bowling shoes fetches $85 and up. (However, most bowling centers still rent the older style bowling shoes, figuring that their odd appearance cuts down on theft.)

"With the yuppie-type bowler, they want something that looks fashionable," said Barry Asher, who owns an Anaheim bowling goods store. Barry, who was inducted into the Pro Bowlers Hall of Fame, notes that looks are more important than price to some. "If that yuppie likes the looks of a $100 bowling ball, he's going to buy it."

Banking Competition Gets More Colorful

Some customers at the Bank of America branch in Bixby Knolls neighborhood of Long Beach might think they have walked into a supermarket or auto dealer. Inside, banners overhead scream about the manager's weekly special. Outside, orange and green letters painted on the bank's plate glass windows advertise auto loans.

The signs and banners are becoming a common sight at B of A branches as the bank--along with its competitors--has become more aggressive. "You need to attract attention," said Bixby Knolls branch manager Armando Acosta. "Gone are the days that we used to sit in the lobby and wait for people to come inside."

Californians should start seeing more such promotions as competition heats up. "The institutions are using every device they can to attract attention and invite more business," said Robert Heady, publisher of Bank Advertiser, a trade publication.

"California institutions run some of the most low-key promotions in the country," said Heady. "They have become addicted to depicting mountains, trees and oceans in their print ads as well as on their checks. That tends to let California outfits get away with not aggressively promoting rates and yields."

Making All Those TV Ads Keeps Cal Busy

Not too many Southern Californians have gone without seeing a television commercial featuring car dealer Cal Worthington and his dog--or hippopotamus--Spot. There's a good reason for that: Worthington is one of the leading auto dealer advertisers on television.

In fact, Worthington's Los Angeles dealership spent more on television commercials--$1.9 million--during the first half of 1988 than any other auto dealer nationwide, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising, which tracks spending on television advertising. Furthermore, the Worthington dealership in Houston ranked No. 3 with $1.3 million in advertising; Cal Worthington in Seattle ranked No. 9 with $866,700, and Cal Worthington Sacramento came in at No. 13 with $759,100.

Every three weeks, Worthington makes a swing through his dealerships to make a batch of 10 commercials. "I shoot enough commercials to last for three weeks," said Worthington. "I kind of got it down pat--I've been doing it for 40 years."

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