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The Sky Is Falling! The Sky Is Falling!

By Jim Goodwin - Stars & Strikes Newsmagazine

Chicken Little had nothing on the bowling blogosphere.

When Brunswick announced recently that it was selling its BRC bowling center business to BowlmorAMF for $270 million, and has intention to sell its bowling products division by year end, the news and possible implications rippled across the industry like a meteor hitting New York. Industry blogs went viral. What's next? Is Ford buying GM? Is Cosco buying Walmart? Bowling without Brunswick? OMG!

Few people would argue with the fact that Brunswick is bowling's #1 and most iconic brand. The company has been in business since 1845; in the bowling products business since 1890; and in the bowling center operations business since the mid 1960's. And given the recent history of AMF, most might have predicted not long ago that any such sale might be in the opposite direction.

More than a few eyebrows were raised only a few months ago when small chain operator Tom Shannon, principle owner of a few New York centers called Bowlmor, announced he was rescuing AMF from chapter 11 bankruptcy... and with the ink barely dry on that contract he is now adding the 85 Brunswick Recreation Centers (BRC) to his rapidly growing bowling empire... aggressive to say the least. If finalized, the chain will be 343 centers strong.

The news that one company is buying another is really not news at all. These types of transactions happen in every industry every day. The news in this case is the two brands involved, AMF and Brunswick. Competitors, and many would say even rivals for more than a half century; virtually nobody saw this coming until the rumors surfaced during Bowl Expo in June.

And frankly, AMF has had its share of bad publicity in recent years, with two bankruptcies and more than a few bad internet stories about centers being mismanaged; and some of that negative publicity has continued under Shannon's leadership, although most are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt with the hope that he could eventually restore AMF centers to some former glory, and with hard work, a fair profit.

Perhaps even more shocking than the sale of the BRC chain was the announcement by Brunswick CEO Dustan McCoy that the Brunswick board of directors had voted to also sell its Bowling Products Division by the end of this year. Initially, it sounded like Brunswick had decided to completely divest itself of bowling; but a letter sent out a few days after the first announcement from Brunswick Bowling Products President Brent Perrier cleared up a few questions.

"In terms of closing our doors," said Perrier, "nothing could be further from the truth. Our business is strong and profitable. Our situation is not the case of an underperforming division being sold, but rather the potential transfer of a successful and vital business that is the most recognized and respected brand in the bowling industry."

Still, and it is natural, employees and thousands of others with Brunswick affiliations are nervous. It appears that their world is about to be turned upside down. For some, it may be like moving to a new country... the culture and way of life is very different. Businesses, especially rival businesses, have cultures too, and sometimes they are as opposite as political parties. Bowlers are loyal to the brands they choose and proprietors are loyal to the companies and sales people they are comfortable with when it comes to buying capital equipment, pins, pinsetter parts, etc. In the automotive world, there are Ford people, and there are Chevrolet people. In bowling, there are Brunswick people and AMF people.

When a major brand disappears from an industry, it has a ripple effect... the entire industry changes, and if Brunswick leaves bowling, the implications are far reaching not just in the USA, but globally. The products will still be there for decades, but the new culture and new business philosophy may take a while to sink in.

A few months ago, I wrote a column entitled 'How Bowling Died'. A few short sighted people thought it was just negative thinking and laughed it off. Others emailed and said it was the best thing they ever read, because unlike the first group, they understood that the column was a warning about what could happen to bowling if leaders in bowling don’t find a way to work together. With this Brunswick announcement, I wonder if anyone is laughing now?

Any way you slice it, bowling is and has been in decline for a long time. We have lost millions of league bowlers, once healthy centers have closed, the women's pro tour shuttered its doors more than a decade ago, and the PBA Tour survives only by making major changes that have been tough on players and fans. Bowling media, ball companies, and others are hanging on by a thread. Smart proprietors continue to make a good living, but they are working harder and are more challenged than ever before.

We keep hearing that while league bowling is rapidly disappearing, open play is still healthy. Some say it is increasing, but a recent National Sports & Fitness Industry Association poll appeared in the Wall Street Journal saying that bowlers ages 18-34 have dropped from 20 million in 2009 to 15.5 million at the end of 2013.

Is this cause for alarm? It is if you are trying to attract new sponsors. Imagine you are the PBA or Strike Ten Entertainment trying to sign new sponsors in a climate where a key demographic is declining and where bowling's top brand may be leaving the industry. Normally, this is where we offer a few suggestions for solving these challenges; but this time, we are going to need more time to think about it. Honestly, we can't see the light at the end of the tunnel right now... but that does not mean we will stop looking for it.

Article was posted with permission from Stars & Strikes, America's Bowling Newsmagazine.
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