Reno's splashy stadium gives new meaning to pin money Bowling's Taj Mahal

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Reno, Nev. -- This ain't no bowling alley.

With 78 lanes and 1,500 seats, this is the National Bowling Stadium. That's right, stadium. The first in the world -- a $46 million glittering temple for America's bowling faithful.

It takes up a city block in downtown Reno. It's five stories high and 368,000 square feet of space -- slightly less than the Astrodome in Houston. There's a grandstand, press box, skyboxes, a lobby with marble floors and mirrored walls, a 1940s-style diner, and a 166-seat IMAX theater shaped like a bowling ball.

There are bigger bowling alleys in the world -- Showboat lanes in Las Vegas has 106 lanes, for instance -- but none is as lavish as this one. Reno, which takes bowlers seriously, spared no expense in building the Taj Mahal of bowling.

It is a monument to 100 years of organized league bowling in the United States -- a country where bowling alleys are as much a part of the fabric of community life as churches, PTA meetings and Fourth of July parades.

Last year Harvard professor Robert Putnam seized on the dwindling number of league bowlers as evidence that America's communal bonds are fraying badly. His paper, "Bowling Alone: Democracy in America at the End of the Twentieth Century," has been quoted by everyone from President Clinton to conservative columnist George Will.

Bowling has always been a cultural touchstone for Americans, especially blue-collar Americans. Fred Flintstone was a bowler. So was Ralph Kramden. Richard Nixon even built two lanes in the basement of the White House.

And though the number of league bowlers has fallen from 8 million to 5 million in the last 15 years, league night remains a fixture in many parts of the country.

The bowling stadium is their tenpin paradise.

"This is a showplace," says John Fantini, a bowling ball salesman who used to live in Baltimore. "Let's face it, it's unique. You have a setting that bowling has never had before. It's amazing. There's nothing like it in the world."

Entering the palace from Center Street, bowlers lug their bowling bags through an extra-wide revolving door. Once inside, they are greeted by a huge, brass bowling sculpture depicting Mom, Dad and the kids running helter-skelter toward the lanes, bowling shoes swinging wildly in the air.

An escalator ride up four floors delivers the bowlers to the stadium area, where security guards make sure that only bowlers and paying spectators (admission is $4) get inside the bowling area.

Here, the side and rear walls are covered in mirrored tiles and stripes of purple and red neon. A video scoreboard, 450 feet long, and 8 1/2 feet high, runs the entire width of the bowling stadium to keep score and provide instant replays.

From a control center on the fifth floor, technicians work furiously to ensure they are ready for each session of bowling. At the start of team play here, the National Anthem is played, with images of mountains, trees, sunsets, wild horses and the American flag flashing upon the long video screen.

The National Bowling Stadium opened last Friday with great fanfare. Marching bands and beauty queens assisted a bevy of Nevada politicians -- including Gov. Bob Miller and Sen. Richard Bryan -- in christening the place.

If you're wondering why the city of Reno decided to build a bowling stadium, you need only speak to Reg Pearson, who runs it for the city.

Seeing dollar signs

As he ticks off the numbers, you can almost see dollar signs spinning in his eyes like the spinning bars of a slot machine: 91,000 bowlers will compete here between now and July 1, each bringing a guest; 180,000 visitors, spending an average of $250 a day for five days, dumping $180 million into the Reno tourist economy.

"It would be nice to say it was built for the greater good of bowling," Mr. Pearson says. "But the truth is, it was built for one thing: To bring visitors to Reno."

So far, it appears to be working.

On Saturday, the American Bowling Congress (ABC) opened its annual tournament here with more fanfare -- speeches, music and a laser light show. Most league bowlers are members of the ABC and each year they hold a 156-day tournament that's open to any league bowler who is willing to pay $65 a person, plus travel and other expenses.

Many are.

Hal Kaminski, the tournament director, says more than 17,000 five-person teams, including 160 from Maryland, have already signed up to bowl at the bowling stadium between now and July 1. Bowlers roll nine games -- three for team, three for doubles and three for singles -- and up to $10,000 is paid for those with the highest scores.

The captains of the bowling industry are hoping the bowling stadium will infuse new energy into league bowling -- a sport some think is dying.

"People today are not as committed as they used to be with their time," says Mark R. Miller, an official with the bowling congress. "Americans today are not apt to join groups, they're not apt to volunteer, or to join a league. . . . Joining a league is really a six-month commitment."

Millions of bowlers

Though the number of league bowlers has fallen dramatically, bowling as a pastime remains extremely popular. About 79 million Americans bowl at least once a year, according to a survey by the National Bowling Council. A similar survey by the National Sporting Goods Association found that 41 million people bowl at least twice a year.

Bowling in one form or another has been part of American life since the first colonists arrived from England. Washington Irving mentions bowling in Rip Van Winkle, which was published in 1819. But the rules of tenpin bowling -- a 60-foot lane, 41 inches wide, with 10 pins and a ball no greater than 16 pounds or 27 inches around -- were not standardized until the bowling congress was founded in 1895.

Since then, bowling has had its ups and downs in popularity. The sport's heyday was in the 1950s and '60s after automatic pinsetters appeared.

One reason bowling doesn't get the press or publicity of other sports, Mr. Miller says, is because, "It's such a part of American society, that it's just taken for granted. Everybody does it -- every age group, every occupation. It's just part of America."

Struggling to score

Gary Jacobson didn't waste any time checking out the bowling stadium. The 47-year-old accounting supervisor drove from Atchison, Kan., to Reno with his wife, Jackie, son, Darren, and his brother, Larry and his sister-in-law, Marylin. He brought three bowling balls, bowling shoes, a red adjustable wristband, and hopes of winning some money.

But the 202-average league bowler struggled somewhat in his first three games, hitting scores of 166, 192 and 220.

And like most bowlers, Mr. Jacobson had an explanation: The lanes.

"It's slicker than what we're throwing on back home," said Mr. Jacobson, referring to the amount of oil on the lanes.

"It wasn't a bad shot," he concedes. "It was just getting used to throwing it."

Like farmers, bowlers say it's either too wet or too dry.

"Needs more oil," groused John Moreland, a 46-year-old Californian, after he completed three games. "I couldn't get it across the lane. It was just dry on the right side. The lefthanders were having a field day."

While the bowlers work at knocking down pins, family and friends can watch from seating just behind the lanes. A computer there promises food and beverages delivered with the touch of a button -- but that feature isn't working yet.

Also, each lane has its own video camera and bowlers can get a souvenir copy of themselves and their teammates bowling for as little as $25 or as much as $45.

Off the lanes, the bowling stadium offers plenty of diversions for bowling fanatics. There's Bowlervision, for instance: a special bowling lane set up to fine-tune your bowling game.

How well do you bowl?

Equipped with video cameras and special sensors, Bowlervision records your delivery, and measures where the ball went, and at what speed. A computer then spits out the information -- even charts it on a graph if you want.

Bowlervision is all the rage in Japan, explains Ben Gary, a field training instructor for Brunswick Bowling, which makes the unit. One day, it may be in every bowling alley in the United States, he says.

Then there's Larry Bagwell, an unemployed computer programmer from Fort Worth, Texas, who is hawking "Steel Fingers," a device he invented that straps to a bowler's fingers to add strength and support. It sells for $12.95.

"I'm either going to go broke or get rich," Mr. Bagwell says with a smile.

There's lots of other stuff for sale at the bowling stadium's 11,000-square-foot pro shop: high-tech bowling balls with names like Nitro and Buzzsaw, bowling shoes, towels, shirts, bowling baby clothes and wristbands.

So far, no one from the Baltimore area has made the pilgrimage to the bowling stadium, but many are signed up to go, including Brian Bever, a Harford County resident who carries a 215 league average.

"I've seen pictures," Mr. Bever says. "But I'm just anxious to get out there and see it."

' It's worth a look.

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