Rolling downhill: Bowling alleys close in San Diego as leagues dry up, land values soar – The San Diego Union-Tribune

The San Diego region lost two bowling alleys during the COVID-19 pandemic and narrowly avoided losing a third, continuing the steady decline of a hobby so popular in the 1960s and 1970s that it helped define American civic life.

Roughly two-thirds of the nation’s bowling alleys have closed since the mid-60s, a trend industry leaders blame on everything from the advent of cable TV to younger generations avoiding firm commitments like joining a bowling league.

San Diego faces even greater challenges than most communities because the scarcity of land here makes sprawling bowling complexes appealing targets for developers planning ambitious projects.

“I think San Diego and California are facing different challenges from the rest of the country,” said Jim Decker, a Northern California bowling alley owner who serves as head of the Bowling Proprietors Association of America. “It’s all about real estate here. They get offers they can’t refuse.”

Bowling can’t generate nearly as much revenue per square foot as big box stores like Costco and Target, which are roughly the same size as some bowling alleys. And with housing costs continuing to surge, it almost always makes financial sense to replace a bowling alley with apartments or condos.

The 32-lane Poway Fun Bowl closed in summer 2020, after 42 years of operation, to make way for a large development that will include housing and retail shops. And the 40-lane Kearny Mesa Bowl permanently closed in spring after 45 years of operation, when the land underneath it was sold to a developer.

Missy Parkin practices at the Mira Mesa Lanes.

Missy Parkin practices at the Mira Mesa Lanes.

(Denis Poroy / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Both bowling alleys were forced to close temporarily during the early stages of the pandemic, potentially damaging their finances enough to accelerate decisions to sell to developers.

The 40-lane Vista Entertainment Center closed three years before the pandemic began, when that property was sold in 2017 to make way for a new Honda car dealership.

The owners of the 44-lane Mira Mesa Lanes decided in spring to permanently close — until Missy Parkin, a professional bowler and Orange County resident, offered to take over operations along with her husband, Drew.

If the Parkins hadn’t come to the rescue and the Mira Mesa Lanes had closed, the San Diego region would have lost four of its eight remaining traditional bowling alleys in just four years.

While San Diego has four bowling alleys still operating on local military bases and a small bowling alley on the campus of San Diego State, there are only five traditional alleys fully open to the public still operating.

They are Mira Mesa Lanes, the 68-lane Parkway Bowl in El Cajon, the 32-lane Surf Bowl in Oceanside, the 48-lane Bowlero in Chula Vista and the 40-lane Bowlero in San Marcos.

Drew and Missy Parkin at Mira Mesa Lanes.

Drew and Missy Parkin at Mira Mesa Lanes.

(Denis Poroy / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

That’s a far cry from the more than 15 bowling alleys operating locally in 1979, including the Ocean Beach Bowl, Clairemont Bowl, Palomar Lanes in Escondido, Tower Bowl on Broadway in downtown San Diego, Brunswick Bowlero in Lemon Grove and two in National City: Plaza Bowl and Town & Country Lanes.

The alley closures are a natural consequence of fewer people, especially young people, participating in bowling on a regular basis, said Donald Way, manager of the San Diego chapter of the U.S. Bowling Congress, which advocates for the industry.

“It’s been about a 6 percent decline per year every year for a few decades,” Way said. “Youth is where we’ve always gotten our bowlers from — if we can start them at 5, 6, 7 or 8 we can usually keep them. But young people are bowling less, and the older bowlers are dying off.”

But the trends are more complex than just fewer bowlers. Participation in league bowling has been sharply dropping for decades, while participation in less formal recreational bowling is on the rise.

League bowling typically requires a long-term commitment — sometimes as long as 36 weeks — to bowling with the same group of people once a week, at the same time every week.

“It seems like younger people don’t want to be committed to anything,” said Decker, the head of the bowling proprietors association. “More people are bowling than ever; they just don’t bowl in leagues.”

Industry leaders estimate nearly 70 million people — about one in five Americans — bowled at least one game during 2019, the year before the pandemic. They say that’s a record.

The problem is people are bowling less regularly than the league bowlers of the past, and their less predictable patterns create challenges for alley owners.

“We need the league bowling because it’s steady and reliable,” Way said. “The recreational bowling is more inconsistent, and that makes it harder to pay the bills.”

A sign of civic decline?

The national shift from league bowling to recreational bowling has sparked debate among sociologists, with some contending the shift is symbolic of a sharp decline in American civic life.

Fewer people are members of civic clubs like Rotary and Kiwanis, less people go to church, and many people prefer streaming movies at home and having food delivered to an old-fashioned night out of dinner and a movie.

In 2000 those concerns prompted Harvard professor Robert Putnam to write the book “Bowling Alone,” which essentially said that the trend away from bowling leagues is a warning sign that the bonds of our society are crumbling. With people working from home during the pandemic, concerns about people losing opportunities to connect with each other are more pronounced than ever.

Alexandra Hudson, who is writing a book about American civic renewal intended as a sort of rebuttal to “Bowling Alone,” said week that things are not as dire as some think.

“San Diego losing some bowling alleys is not emblematic of American civic decline,” Hudson said during a phone interview.

She said other indicators, such as the increased participation in softball leagues and the wild success of some GoFundme efforts, show that civic connections are alive and well. But, she agreed, the connections are taking different shape than the 1960s bowling leagues.

“There’s a lot of nuance and vibrancy,” she said. “People form loose connections, maybe coming together to solve one problem and then disbanding.”

There also are some reasons for optimism regarding the future of bowling in San Diego, said Way, the local bowling official. Despite the shift to recreational bowling, there are still lots of bowlers in the region, lanes owners say.

“It won’t disappear, but it will get to the point where the number of lanes meets the demand,” Way said.

The industry also has started to meet that demand in new ways. Several smaller bowling venues have located inside restaurants or other businesses in the region.

They include four-lane Break Point in Pacific Beach, eight-lane Urge Gastropub in San Marcos and two venues in downtown San Diego: six-lane East Village Tavern & Bowl and eight-lane Punchbowl Social. In addition, a 12-lane bowling alley opened in the Viejas Outlet Center in 2009.

A company called Lucky Strike also is opening entertainment centers across the country that include bowling as an activity. The company has one location in San Francisco, two in Los Angeles and one in Orange County.

Way said another reason for optimism is that the bowling alleys on local military bases are mostly shielded from the pressures of market forces and land scarcity.

They include 40-lane Leatherneck Lanes on Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, 40-lane Admiral Robinson Recreation Center on Naval Base San Diego, 24-lane Sea N Air Lanes on Coronado’s Naval Air Station North Island, and 12-lane MCRD Bowling at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.

The survival of Mira Mesa Lanes is another positive that local industry officials hope to build on.

Missy Parkin, the pro bowler who took over Mira Mesa Lanes with her husband, said her prime motivation in saving the 50-year-old business was that it has traditionally hosted most of San Diego’s youth bowling leagues.

“Those were something I really wanted to save,” she said last week. “So far we are bucking the trends. We are full of leagues every night except Saturday.”

Parkin, one of the top female bowlers in the world, said not enough people view bowling as a lifelong sport, like golf and tennis, that people can play against each other no matter what their age or ability.

“Bowling is different and unique and I hope it has a bright future in San Diego,” Parkin said.