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Premiere bowling takes the sport beyond its blue-collar roots

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A man bowls at 300 New York beside a go-go dancer. (Photo by Lawrence Delevingne)

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A man bowls at 300 New York on a recent Friday night. (Photo by Lawrence Delevingne)

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A promotional picture of 300 New York. (Photo courtesy of 300 New York)

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A promotional picture of 300 New York. (Photo courtesy of 300 New York)

On a recent Friday night, Club 300 in New York City was jumping.

The disc jockey played the latest Jay-Z and Pharrell dance hits as orange, green and blue lights flashed from flat screens on the VIP lounge wall. Waitresses in tight black dresses weaved through young professionals, delivering $250 bottles of Grey Goose vodka to private tables. Go-go dancers in fishnet stockings and high-heel shoes danced on elevated platforms between the lanes. 10-pin lanes, that is.

It’s not how most people picture a bowling alley.

“We are a nightclub that just happens to have bowling lanes,” said Mark Ruffolo, assistant general manager at 300 New York, a “premier bowling center” at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan. “It’s not a bowling alley; it’s a venue.”

Premier bowling centers such as Club 300 are reshaping notions of the beer and smoke-filled alleys of generations past. Part cocktail lounge, part bistro and part nightclub, these stylish entertainment centers have opened in dozens of cities nationwide. National chains such as 300 and Lucky Strike and local establishments such as RedPin in Oklahoma City cater to a young, trendy clientele, resurrecting interest–-albeit casual–-in a sport that has lost status since its peak in the late 1970s.

“I grew up bowling in the country, where it was serious--old men with the name-tags on teams,” said Sarah Rosenfeld while playing a game with friends at 300. “It smelled musty, like the Big Lebowski,” the 23-year-old from Pennsylvania Dutch Country said. “This is like a club.”

Named after the score of a perfect bowling game, 300 has other locations in Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Long Island and San Jose. They are all big (60,000 square feet on average), upscale ($12 to $14 cocktails) and geared toward a young, hip crowd. “Strikingly different” is the chain’s slogan.

Like other trendy bowling lounges, 300 New York is expensive. Beers cost as much as $8, lanes are between $8 and $12 per hour, shoe rentals are $6 and a hamburger is $10. The VIP area, “Club 300,” has Cristal Champagne for $575 a bottle; Grey Goose is the cheapest option at $250.

The 35 or more premiere bowling centers that have opened during the last eight years represent less than 10 percent of approximately 5,500 American alleys, but they are an important source of expansion in an American industry that is worth $6 billion.

“It’s a niche market. They go after an upscale crowd,” said Sandy Hansell, a top bowling-alley broker and industry expert. “They cater to a 21- to 35-year-old, young party crowd that doesn’t mind spending the big bucks.”

Lucky Strike Lanes is the largest player in the upscale bowling market with 17 locations and at least one more planned. Lucky Strike Hollywood, the chain’s first location, opened in 2003.

Like all its “lounges,” Lucky Strike’s Washington, D.C., venue is known as much for its bar and dining as its bowling. Bouncers at the entrance turn away people in baggy clothing and sports jerseys; patrons eat warm Brie and toast appetizers; and the work of emerging artists is displayed on the walls.

“It’s really good socially,” said Mahsa Saeedpour, a 26-year-old from Arlington, Va. “You can bowl, but you can get cocktails and the food is not greasy bar food at all."

She added, "You can make a whole night out of it.”

Like Lucky Strike, RedPin Restaurant and Bowling Lounge in Oklahoma City styles itself as the area’s “newest upscale entertainment experience.” Opened in 2007, RedPin’s menu features grilled Ahi tuna salad and Black Angus hot dogs; drinks include pomegranate martinis and mojitos.

“It’s not at all like a traditional bowling alley,” said Jay Wolfe, RedPin’s general manager. “It’s a one-of-a-kind bar, lounge and restaurant.”

RedPin relies on casual bowlers, although Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights cater to league play on six of the venue’s 10 lanes.

For the past 27 years, league bowling has declined as casual bowling has increased. In 2006, 66 million people bowled at least once and 45 million people bowled twice, according to the U.S. Bowling Congress, the sport’s national governing body. In 1979-1980, roughly nine million people bowled at least once a week; today, 2.7 million do.

“The league part hasn’t happened yet,” said Mark Miller, a U.S. Bowling Congress spokesman, explaining that the casual bowlers who dominate upscale lounges have mostly not joined organized teams. “But it gets people in the door.”

According to Hansell, the bowling broker, “boutique bowling,” another name for the upscale trend, is not the only driver of the bowling industry renaissance. “Family entertainment centers” represent most new bowling venues, including national chains like Dave & Busters and Gameworks.

“The majority of newly constructed facilities combine bowling with a range of other recreational activities,” according to a 2008 industry overview written by Hansell’s company, Sandy Hansell & Associates. “Laser tag, go-karts, bumper cars, expanded video game arcades, climbing walls, redemption, glow miniature golf, and similar activities" create family entertainment centers.

While 300 fashions itself on a Friday and Saturday image, the chain does cater to other groups. On weekdays, companies hold functions and league bowlers come in at night. Weekend daytimes are dominated by children’s birthday parities.

Most premiere bowling centers, however, are more focused on the adult lounge atmosphere. A television commercial for 300 New York sums up the culture of the trend.

“It’s not an upscale club or a trendy bar or even a hot new bistro. It’s all that and more rolled into one incredible place,” the sexy female voice says over images of a young woman walking down a red carpet, through a chic bar and restaurant, and finally ditching her heels for a pair of red and black bowling shoes.

“Just don’t forget to bowl.”

E-mail: lpd2104@columbia.edu