AMF Hopes to Bowl over Ma & Pa Competition

Article excerpt

RICHMOND, Va. -- If a mention of bowling conjures up an image of a smoky room filled with paunchy guys in untucked shirts with team names sewn onto the backs, chances are you haven't bowled lately.

New alleys have glow-in-the-dark balls and pins for late-night bowling, kid-friendly bumpers that keep balls out of the gutters and monitors that play funky messages when bowlers roll a strike.

Even the lexicon has changed: The industry prefers bowling centers instead of bowling alleys. "It adds to the game to see accents like that. It's exciting," said Zenia Burnett, 22, who was playing with a group of friends at a Richmond bowling alley. One of the biggest forces behind the new image is Richmond-based AMF Bowling Worldwide -- also the biggest player in the industry with 322 bowling centers in the United States and 87 in 10 other countries. The company, which still only has about 5 percent of the approximately 6,800 centers in the United States, is aggressively expanding by buying up smaller chains. It also has big plans for international growth, where bowling is often almost unknown. AMF also is the world's largest supplier of bowling equipment -- everything from bowling balls to high-tech machines that pick up the pins after they have been toppled. The goal is to turn AMF into a global brand associated with bowling -- the same way that Kodak is associated with film, McDonald's with fast food and Kleenex with tissues, said Merrel Wreden, the company's vice president in charge of marketing. "It's an industry that's ripe for consolidation," said Sandy Hansell of Sandy Hansell & Associates, a consultant and broker for the bowling industry in Southfield, Mich. " Most of the centers are mom and pop operations, and many of them are getting ready to retire." In the past year, AMF bought 112 bowling centers in the United States and six in Britain. When AMF buys a bowling center, it spends an average of $300,000 to $400,000 to renovate it, Wreden said. Discolored lanes are torn out and aging equipment is replaced with state-of-the-art technology. Restaurants are given a face lift, and they are moving away from the traditional fare of tepid beer and hot dogs. Wreden said fast- food chains are an option. In many locations, billiard tables and video games are installed. While AMF's domestic growth potential is great, the market itself is not growing much. In the past, the industry depended on league bowlers, players who took the game seriously and committed to play regularly for a whole season. …