Bowling 2.0

About the only thing Bowling IQ in Sterling Heights has in common with a traditional bowling alley is the noise level. Heavy balls hit slick lanes and send pins crashing. The sound is familiar even if the surroundings aren't. For one, it's bright - a glass curtain wall at the front sends sunlight pouring in. It's also smoke-free. And huge. The space is open, scrupulously clean and furnished with brand new leather couches and coffee tables that wouldn't be out of place in an upscale bar.

Of course, that's because Bowling IQ isn't meant to be a bowling alley - or bowling center, as people in the industry prefer to call them. It's a training center for serious bowlers and more casual participants alike, as well as a demonstration center for the latest and greatest in equipment, furniture and technology from manufacturers. It offers team training camps, a summer clinic for league bowlers, and individual training for bowlers, coaches and pro shop owners, along with hosting parties and corporate events. It's not a place for weekly leagues or spur-of-the-moment friend outings.

TJ Yeip, a former professional bowler and certified US Bowling Congress coach, is Bowling IQ's education and training manager. He's not what you might think of as a bowling coach, either. He's young, slender, wears normal business casual polo shirts instead of polyester bowling shirts, and has the smooth, professional demeanor of a sales rep.

He also has a seemingly inexhaustible well of patience and an inviting way of explaining bowling concepts to even the most bowling-impaired client. How do I know this? Because I am the worst bowler ever. If there were trophies for awful, I would win them all. When you start your approach and people three lanes over run for cover, you know you're bad.

And yet, TJ Yeip gets me to roll the ball straight down the middle of the lane, knocking down seven pins and thus raising my lifetime point total to over 100. Yes, I say "point total". Not "average".

After setting me up with a ball and new, though still stunningly unstylish, rental shoes, he asks me to show him my approach. I mince up, stop, swing the ball and BAM, it hits the lane like a ton of bricks before rolling into the gutter. Same with the next try, and the next. He manages not to laugh or suggest a lifetime of bumper bowling.

"It's like a dance," he explains. Great, something else I'm bad at. "You swing the arm back on the third count and forward until count seven and release at the end."

After a few dry runs, with TJ walking next to me, swinging my arm so I can understand what he means, I'm handed live ammunition. Step step step swing step swing step release….and success! The ball ever so lightly makes contact with the lane, rolls down straight and true, and --crash!-- the satisfying, deafening, clatter of pins. I don't pick up the spare, but it's pretty much my first time hitting pins that doesn't involve blind luck or liquid confidence.

Most people training at Bowling IQ have a considerably higher, well, bowling IQ than I do. It's the largest bowling training facility in the Midwest, with eight lanes boasting a state of the art laminate, rather than wood, floor. Half are Brunswick lanes, half AMF, so that bowlers can be well versed in the features of both the major manufacturers' styles when they go to competitions. They also have a lane-oiling machine that can be programmed to replicate the eight most common oil patterns.

As the ball turns

This next evolution in bowling venues is the brainchild of HantzGroup Companies, which recently made headlines for trying to launch a large-scale urban farm in Detroit. HantzGroup also owns DiLaura Brothers, one of the largest distributors of bowling equipment to pro shops at bowling centers. Bowling IQ and DiLaura share the large Sterling Heights facility and stock Bowling IQ's large showroom.

"All the education and training we offer only benefits the industry as a whole," says Yeip. "We don't want to take away business from bowling centers."

That's a shot in the arm the industry could use. League participation, once the lifeblood of bowling centers, has been on a steady decline since the 1980s, and center owners have had to change to keep afloat, says Bart Burger, vice president of business development for the Bowling Proprietors Association of America, a trade group for bowling center owners.

"It absolutely shifts the business model in how we operate our facilities," Burger says. "If you are a casual bowler who comes out once a quarter versus a league bowler who comes 30 weeks straight, it's a lot more work to come out and find that casual customer."

There are some growth spots, and bowling remains the most common participation sport with over 70 million people bowling at least once a year. Bowling parties have become the top choice for kids' birthdays, and competitive bowling is growing among high school and college students. A typical Saturday at a bowling center, which once might have been crowded with beer-drinking, league-playing smokers, now might start off early with a senior league, progress into kids birthday parties during the afternoon, and move into "cosmic bowling" with louder music and a nightclub atmosphere to attract young adults later in the evening. Bright colors and smoke-free air are the order of the day.

Even in today's high-tech world, bowling remains relevant, Burger says. "I still think human nature has a need for social interaction and a time of gathering," he says. "Bowling centers are one of the last great gathering spaces."

Detroit was, at one point, a major hotbed of bowling activity and remains so to this day. The World Series of Bowling tournament was played at Allen Park's Thunderbowl Lanes in 2009, and the region has produced several pros and some top champions. Part of the mission of Bowling IQ is to maintain the region's prominence.

"We want to turn those new bowlers into league bowlers," Yeip says. "Detroit was the bowling capital of the world…let's keep it that way!"

Amy Kuras is a Metro Detroit freelance writer. She writes about schools, parenting and a host of other topics besides bowling. Her previous article was Beer's Better Half.