Bowlmor AMF Corp.

Changing consumer expectations around bowling, one frame at a time
Written by: 
Matt Dodge
Produced by: 
Forrest Lancaster

Founded in 1997, Bowlmor AMF Corp. has spent almost 20 years elevating consumer expectations around bowling by offering a high-end product that transforms the sport from the dank, smoke-filled alleys of the past into clean, multifaceted entertainment destinations that integrate the latest trends and technology into the beloved pastime.

Bowlmor AMF (dba Bowlmor) began with a single bowling alley in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and today — following the acquisition of its two largest industry competitors — the company has grown into the world’s largest 10-pin bowling center operator, with more than than 330 locations across the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The ball got rolling at Bowlmor when CEO and founder Tom Shannon first wandered into the Greenwich Village facility for an event and saw an industry-changing opportunity lurking just behind the alley’s grimy interior.

Bowlmor AMF Corp.

Bowling alleys had long occupied a special place in the heart of the American consumer and Shannon saw the chance to capitalize on that nostalgia by offering a high-end, event-focused venue that would cater to a wider demographic. Shannon purchased the original Bowlmor Lanes in 1997 and quickly turned it into a test lab for upscale bowling.

“He redesigned the center with a more sophisticated, whimsical look with real high-end furnishings and attention to providing a high level of service, food, drink and event execution,” says Colie Edison, vice president of marketing at Bowlmor.

The experiment paid off and the Greenwich Village location soon became the country’s highest-grossing bowling alley as part of a meteoric rise that saw the alley’s revenues go from in the red to $10 million within four years. That sparked the growth of Bowlmor Lanes as a company and by the end of 1997, it had expanded to six top-tier markets across the country, including Miami, Orange County, California and Bethesda, Maryland.

In 2012, Bowlmor set out to strike down the competition with the acquisition of then industry-leading AMF Bowling Centers (AMF), which was just emerging from its second round of bankruptcy. Primarily a manufacturer of recreational sports equipment, AMF owned 500 alleys across North America. With just six alleys to his name, Shannon teamed up with a private equity firm and bought out AMF in 2013, adding 272 bowling centers to the Bowlmor brand. “The small fish acquired the shark; that’s Harvard Business School case study material,” says Edison.

The massive acquisition of AMF and resulting shark-status within the industry allowed the company to set its sights on perhaps the most recognizable name in all things 10-pin: Brunswick Bowling & Billiards, which owned 82 alleys across the U.S. and Canada. Bowlmor bought out the company’s bowling centers division in 2014 and soon found itself at the top of the market with a share 15 times larger than its nearest competitor.

A more perfect game

With a solid grip on the North American bowling center market, Bowlmor is now moving forward with a measured expansion strategy that will see the renovation of many of its new holdings. “The growth plan is centered on what we call a conversion strategy: we’ve identified the high-potential top bowling centers in the top markets that we can convert from traditional league houses into high-end luxury bowling centers under the new brand of Bowlero,” explains Edison.

In just the last years, eight of Bowlmor’s acquisitions have been converted into Bowlero-brand lanes at a cost of $58 million, with 50 more one the way in the next five years. The average conversion cost of $2 million typically includes new furniture, interior/exterior painting, new carpets, wall covering and an expanded offering of games and amenities. “The focus is on making them relevant for today’s consumer,” says Edison.

The Bowlero lanes include modern, industrial design, as well as signature food items such as a 5-pound, shareable hamburger, avocado hummus, local craft beer and gluten-free and healthier products all served from a kiosk constructed to resemble a food truck.

While Bowlmor is focused on growing the sport into a more inclusive activity, the company is cognizant of not alienating those who kept the pins falling all these years. “There are three markets we cater to: the retail or ‘open play’ bowlers who just walk in, the event/party-based clients and the league bowlers who bowl 35 weeks a year and expect well-oiled lanes and working equipment,” Edison says.

Bowlmor boasts over 300,000 league bowlers across its 300-plus lanes, so despite growth in the retail and event sectors, the serious competitor will long remain an important demographic to the company. “They’re very important to us and we want to give them an upgraded experience,” says Edison. “The game is the same, but we want to change the wrapper to make it more relevant and compelling for our consumers and guests.”

Changing lanes

Edison sees real potential in Bowlmor’s expansion into the events market, citing research that shows that inclusive, activity-based social entertainment like bowling is becoming increasingly popular over traditional “passive” entertainment like movies. “People like interacting with one another and a bowling alley is a great place to experience social entertainment,” Edison says.

The company is also focused on nurturing the next generation of bowlers who will keep the pins falling for years to come. “Right now the average person bowls 1.2 times a year,” she notes. “People love to go bowling but they just don’t think of it that often, so we have a lot of strategies in place to increase that frequency.”

Part of that strategy includes bringing a wider slate of entertainment offerings to Bowlmor’s lanes, including laser tag, video arcades and ropes courses. “We were the originals who developed the concept of upscale bowling and now we’re focused on adding additional amusements,” Edison says.

Bowlmor is also integrating new technologies into the traditional bowling experience, including smartphone-based apps that track scores, player rewards and other “linked gaming” applications. Such efforts will both make the game more relevant to younger customers while edging it away from its largely blue-collar history. “We’re focused on establishing Saturday nights as ‘Bowling Night in America,’” says Edison. “There are all these preconceived notions about bowling not being relevant, so we’re introducing it back into the pop culture again through smart marketing campaigns.”

While the company’s rapid growth speaks to the success of the high-end bowling center model, Bowlmor is still reaching to become synonymous with the concept of dynamic entertainment. “What we do is a lot of work, but at the end of the day we’re working to make people’s lives more fun,” Edison says.

With millennials driving the entertainment industry toward inclusive, active pursuits and the company’s strong grip on North America’s bowling infrastructure, Bowlmor AMF is hoping to strike it rich by putting a new spin on a beloved pastime.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Qubica AMF Worldwide LLC