Bowling alleys in Wichita and across the county are facing their darkest winter yet. They are not only trying to survive the pandemic, but they also have to rebuild a customer base that took decades to grow.
Cathy DeSocio is leading the charge in Kansas. She owns five bowling centers: Northrock Lanes, West Acres Bowling Center and The Alley in Wichita. She also owns The Alley entertainment centers in Hutchinson and Salina.
She has been involved in the sport and the bowling business her entire life.
“We’ve gone through recessions, you know, over this 60-year span that we have been in the industry," she said, "but I don’t think that it has ever been like this."
She’s in the Crum family, whose bowling roots go back to the 1950s and ’60s. Her grandfather built his first bowling center, Boulevard Bowl, at the corner of Harry and George Washington Blvd in southeast Wichita. Her father, John Crum, grew the family business over the years and was a Hall of Famer in the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America.
DeSocio and her husband, Frank, bought their first bowling center in 1993. They have been involved on the local, state and national levels of the bowling industry.
Now, DeSocio is trying to find a way, and lead other bowling proprietors, through one of the biggest upheavals in bowling since the Prohibition era in the 1920s when bowling alleys had to separate from saloons.
"Our business is down considerably," DeSocio said. "We’re doing everything we can to stay open, but also 100% keeping our employees and our customers as safe as humanly possible."
At Northrock Lanes, less than half of the center’s 48 lanes are in use on a recent Saturday afternoon. Bowlers of all ages are on the lanes rolling balls. Some are warming up for a casual tournament that’s about to start. A few families are celebrating birthdays with a game or two and spending time in the arcade.
No leagues are playing this day, so just getting bowlers through the door is a win.
Like most businesses, bowling alleys were forced to shut down last spring when the coronavirus started to spread. Reopening meant reimagining operations so bowling could continue in a safe way.
"We installed plexiglass. We have hand-washing stations. We have sanitizing procedures in place that are pretty stringent," DeSocio said.
The alleys have always used disinfectants on the house bowling balls and those infamous flat leather bowling shoes. Now the shared equipment and bowler areas closest to the lanes get extra attention.
"It makes us a little slower to turn over and get people out onto the lanes," DeSocio said. "But it’s very important we think to make sure that we’re giving them a sanitized space."
Social distancing in this 56,000-square-foot facility means every other lane is closed. Groups of bowlers space out in different sitting areas until it's their turn on the lane. Large groups are divided into small teams due to local restrictions on gathering sizes.
Because the bowling alleys offer food and beverages, they have an 11 p.m. curfew, like restaurants and bars. Northrock general manager Brent Bowers says navigating constantly changing pandemic rules is tough.
"Sometimes when we get the new update, whether it be from the city, the county, the state, the federal government, they very rarely talk about bowling center facilities. So we don’t know if we are an event venue. We don’t know if we’re a restaurant. We don’t know if we’re a fitness club," Bowers said.
Masks are mandated if a patron is not actively eating, drinking or on the lane for bowling. Bowling is exempted from some rules because it is an organized athletic activity.
Northrock is surviving because of its strong league base and tradition of hosting tournaments. Bowers says about 1,000 league bowlers are based at Northrock, a traditional bowling center. Due to the pandemic, the national governing bodies for competitive leagues changed some of the rules and regulations regarding what is certified league play.
Bowers says the first customers to return to lanes after the shutdown were league bowlers, the “regulars.” They were familiar with the building and felt safe with the new protocols. But the social camaraderie at the heart of bowling isn’t advised during a pandemic.
"So it’s really tough because you want to high five your friends and you want to hug and you want to say hi," Bowers said. "And you want to sit at a table and enjoy some nachos and talk about your week. And so there’s no question everybody’s doing that little bit differently now."
The high school bowling season starts soon, so that will bring more bowlers back to lanes under Kansas State High School Activities Association guidelines. Bowers says if all goes well, Northrock will host the state championship in early March, as it has for years.
"We’re hopeful that what we see in January and February is a somewhat normal high school bowling season," Bowers said. "There’s a number of senior bowlers that we think deserve it."
Bowers, a competitive bowler himself, says he worries less now about another possible shutdown. He’s optimistic the bowling alley will recover, even if it takes most of next year.
"If anything, when we come out of all this, I’m hopeful that folks will appreciate some things that maybe they didn’t realize they loved as much as they do. So bowling certainly is one of those things for a lot of people," Bowers said.
That’s the long-term challenge: getting everybody else back. Open play for the general public has dropped off dramatically. This year, there are also fewer — if any — bookings for holiday parties, corporate events and kid parties.
DeSocio says December is usually one of their busiest and biggest months for several of her bowling centers.
"Those things are just not happening right now. So that part of our business is off more than 50%. I feel like this 4th quarter is going to be the hardest for us,” she said.
DeSocio says pandemic-related restrictions on capacity and operating hours are having a devastating effect on businesses like hers, ones that sell experiences. She’s hopeful the COVID-19 vaccination will ease the community into a new version of normal, and help bowling’s comeback. Getting the public out in public can’t happen soon enough.
“If they want all of us to be here when this is over, they’re going to need to come out and support us now,” DeSocio said.