Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Merrily we bowl along

The sport's more popular than ever. Dude. Seriously? Well, no . . . not seriously

Helen Anders

V.A. Thompson has just rolled a gutter ball, but his friend Matt Dailey hasn't noticed. Dailey is staring at the beer on his scorecard.

"Go get some napkins," he tells Thompson, who does. As Dailey sops up the beer, Thompson picks up a 10-pound ball.

"Hey, didn't you bowl already?" Dailey asks.

"I missed," Thompson says — and rolls a second gutter ball.

Dailey, 22, and Thompson, 27, are the new face of bowling. They don't bowl often. On a Thursday night after taking in a movie at an Alamo Drafthouse, they've wound up at nearby Highball, which opened this month and where the atmosphere is more bar than bowling alley. It's so dark that it's hard for Dailey and Thompson to see the arrows on the lanes — assuming they're even aiming at them.

"I haven't picked up a bowling ball in probably five years," Dailey says.

Thompson agrees: "I'm just here to have a beer and check it out."

Occasional bowlers are primarily responsible for the increasing popularity of bowling throughout the U.S., according to the United States Bowling Congress, which has its headquarters in Texas now. It moved last fall from Milwaukee to Arlington, where bowling folks hope to raise their profile by snuggling up to the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers.

More than 49 million Americans ages 7 and older bowled at least twice a year in 2008, compared with 43.5 million in 2007. That means about one of every six people picked up a ball and rolled it (or hurled it or bounced it) down a bowling lane.

The total number of bowlers rises to 68 million if you include everyone 6 and older who bowls only once a year.

Most bowlers, according to Bowling Congress spokesman Mark Miller, fit one of two categories: young adults like Thompson and Dailey who like the bar-and-bowling concept, or families who pack places like Main Event Entertainment on U.S. 183 , which also offers activities like laser tag and rock-climbing and becomes a maelstrom of careening kids on weekends.

In a way, bowling has come full circle. The Bowling Congress' Web site says the sport might have started in Egypt as early as 3200 B.C. , noting that in the 1930s, British anthropologist Sir Flinders Petrie discovered objects in an Egyptian child's grave that appeared "to be used for a crude form of bowling."

A crude form of bowling. That's what most of us are practicing right now.

League bowling — meeting once a week for competitive bowling a la Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi in "The Big Lebowski" — is down, with only 3 million Americans participating, compared with a high of 19 million in the '70s.

League bowling, as "Lebowski" illustrates, is serious business.

"This is a league game," Goodman famously steams at Bridges when Austinite Jimmie Dale Gilmore's toe goes over the line. "This determines who enters the next round robin. Am I wrong? Am I wrong?"

The problem for leagues, Miller says, is that in these crazy-busy times, with so many activities competing for attention, people "are just not into that kind of commitment anymore." Fall-winter leagues, he points out, run 34 to 36 weeks. Teammates don't like it if you don't show up.

League bowlers are nothing if not committed. A typical Wednesday morning finds Jim Vargas, 78, limping into Westgate Lanes on William Cannon Drive.

"I think I pulled a muscle," he says, "bowling. But I'm still going to do it today."

Vargas bowls with the Wednesday Seniors league. Today, his VFW Post 3377 is up against the Keggers, a team that includes Delores "Dee" Nelson, who just turned 89 and is a World War II veteran.

"I used to have a 189 average," she says after leaving a lone pin standing at the end of a frame. "But now I have a bad shoulder and a bad back, so I bowl in the 120s. I love it. It's good exercise."

"We've got people here who are 50 to 90 or 91," says league president Jim Ramsey, 78, explaining the allure as "being around people, as much as anything."

Westgate has 18 leagues, including four children's leagues, and general manager Barney Kuznieski — who's from Chicago's South Side and has been bowling since he was 12 — says there probably wouldn't be as many if it weren't for the fact that Austin is so horrifically hot.

"We have such hot weather that people want to do something inside," he says.

Westgate is an old-style bowling center (nobody calls them alleys anymore) that offers 40 lanes of bowling, a room of arcade games and good cheeseburgers, barbecue and beer, as opposed to Highball, which has eight bowling lanes, a 120-seat bar, a music venue and karaoke booths. Highball's menu include lamb tips, chicken salad finger sandwiches and salads.

Kuznieski is keenly aware that most league bowlers are of a certain age, and he's working on luring young bowlers with special rates and a scholarship program where they can earn points by bowling.

"Bowling is a lifetime sport," he says. "You can continue to do it forever."

handers@statesman.com; 912-2590