By Nick Spennato and Jillian Weynand
To the right of the shoe rental at the AMF East Meadow, the lanes are mostly empty, save for a single family bowling at the far end. To the left the alley is packed. 62 bowlers had entered the tournament, which is now down to the final round of six. Other bowlers wear slacks and custom jerseys, but Rafael Ongjoco sports cargo pants and a grey and black baseball T.
He’s bowling on a pattern named Alcatraz, meant to offer no assistance save for a single sliver of the lane, a thin chance of escape. There are high fives when bowlers overcome, even from the competition.
“It’s not like when you’re just bowling casually,” Rafael Ongjoco said. “It’s not supposed to help you. It makes it difficult to pick up your spares. It’s happening a lot today.”
Those 62 bowlers, including Ongjoco, are part of an increasingly rare breed.
Even as recreational bowling prospers, a six billion dollar industry with almost 70 million people bowling each year according to the United States Bowling Conference, bowling’s competitive side continues to decline. Between 1998 and 2013, the number of bowling alleys in the US dropped by about 26%.
“People who bowl league, our clientele, has gone from 10 million, 20 years ago, to two million today,” Steve Sanders, owner of Pinacle Events, the company promoting Sunday’s tournament and coordinates with over a quarter of Long Island’s bowlers,, said. “It’s become much more recreational, have a good time, take your girlfriend out on a date, hang out with the guys and drink beer.”
New York State is home to more bowling centers than any other state in the country, leading with 285 centers, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Bowling centers see more traffic in the fall and winter months, when league season is in its height.
Bowling leagues once had high stakes tournaments and lucrative endorsement deals, including the first million dollar endorsement by bowler Don Carter, those times have gone.
“Back in the 60s, league-wise, there was a lot of money involved,” Lester Bryant, who made it to the finals during the tournament and has been bowling for 40 years, said. “Not so much, now.”
While competitive bowling has been in decline across the nation, on Long Island, bowling’s fourth largest market, competitive bowling remains strong. There are over 31 bowling centers on Long Island distributed among 3 million residents in Nassau and Suffolk County. Across the Island there are 12,000 competitive bowlers, Sanders said.
Among the 31 bowling centers, Long Island is home to 390 competitive bowling leagues, according to League Secretary, an aggregator of bowling league statistics.
The declining numbers have caused the USBC to push for more youth, high school and college level bowling leagues, in the hopes that bowling youths will become bowling adults, Sanders said. That push continues on Long Island.
The Long Island Bowling Congress offers scholarships to young bowlers moving on to college as well as grants to help youth leagues thrive, and a majority of high schools offer bowling leagues as well. Nearly a quarter of the 44 bowling leagues at the AMF East Meadow, where sunday’s tournament was hosted are youth leagues.
Among the largest and most recognized youth bowling organizations is the Long Island Youth Bowling Tour (LIYBT), which has awarded over $400,000 in scholarships since their founding in 1993.
The LIYBT hosts over 200 youth bowlers at the height of their season, many of whom continue bowling as adults, some in the PBA and some scouted by the NCAA, Vito Genova, who took over as president of the LIYBT in 1998, said.
“Long Island is just a hot bed for bowling,” Genova said. “It brings out a number of the best bowlers into the world.”