It is no secret that the biggest problem facing the sport of bowling, and consequently, the bowling industry, has been and remains, declining USBC membership. USBC members are league bowlers. League bowlers are the backbone of our sport and the center of our bowling consumer product market. USBC membership has been declining for over 20 years. Finally, at long last, membership levels have reached the point where the long term consequences of the decline are felt everywhere. In fact, membership has finally declined to low enough levels that the discussion of the problem has finally turned from placing blame for the problem to a committed search for realistic solutions and a plan for survival.
The following is a description of one of the first real plans…
Earlier this year, staff from USBC’s membership development team completed a study of first year league bowlers. That study revealed that every year, 400,000 Americans become first year league bowlers. Frankly, compared to other sports, 400,000 “newbies” is a HUGE number! Other sports would kill to have such numbers. That’s the good news. The bad news is that 63% of those first year league bowlers drop out of the sport after the first year. That’s 250,000 drop-outs and that is a tragedy.
In studying this dynamic, USBC staffers uncovered a simple reality. Many of those first year league bowlers dropped out of the sport after the first year because they failed to get better as bowlers during the course of the season. Because they failed to improve, they got frustrated, embarrassed and tired of the problem. They concluded that they could do something better with their time…something other than bowling. They left our sport.
Drilling down into the problem even further, USBC staffers discovered that the root cause of the “lack of improvement” problem was 2- fold:
• Many of those first year league bowlers were using inadequate equipment…house balls and rental shoes, rather than their own equipment custom fitted by a qualified pro shop.
• An absence of qualified coaching to help those first year league bowlers improve their game.
Upon discovering the above, USBC staffers began developing a plan to address those two problems and address them aggressively. On the equipment side, they came to bowling ball manufacturers with a request to sell a ball with some performance potential to first year league bowlers on a direct basis. This request was a lot easier said than done. The manufacturers (Brunswick, Storm, Global 900 and ourselves) were interested in specifics, not generalities. Those specifics were provided. We also wanted to make sure that pro shops understood that this program was not the start of a movement to replace them as our primary source of retail sales and service; that the program was, in fact, an investment on all of our parts into the future of our sport. In fact, executed properly, this program should lead to more new customers for pro shops for years to come.
The manufacturers also insisted that no plan go forward without a specific and aggressive coaching component in place. After all, having the best equipment in the world can’t help those first time bowlers if those bowlers don’t know how to use it. This meant that USBC Coaching and its new leader, Carolyn Dorin-Ballard had to become involved and involved in a hurry. Being a former Ebonite staffer from PWBA days, we felt pretty confident that the program would be in place by the time the entire initiative was launched. We know how determined that lady can be; so determined, in fact, that “program” has turned into “programs”. This should all prove to be quite interesting in the months to come.
All of the above was announced to the world in mid-August. Support has been surprisingly enthusiastic, though some complaints have been voiced from the wholesale component of our distribution system (a result of what we consider to be short-sighted self interest on the part of some distributors). Even there, most of those complaints have been shouted down by their more forward-thinking brethren.
Many people are obviously keeping their fingers crossed that this new USBC initiative, with its massive industry support, will work. The proof of the pudding will be in seeing retention numbers rise over the next couple of years. If they do, we may be on to something. We will have all learned a valuable new lesson in our industry as well. That lesson…how to work together.
“DRIVEN TO REMAIN THE WORLD’S BEST BOWLING COMPANY.”