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BOWLING ALLEYS ROLL WITH THE CHANGES

When Joseph W. Recckio Sr. looks out his living room window he can only see "W-L-I-N-G" on a nearby sign that's been his life for 53 years.

The neon "bowling" sign hasn't cast its soft red glow on South Park Avenue in 25 years, but Recckio's 18-lane, family-owned alley continues to chug along at a time when the $4 billion-a-year bowling industry struggles to reinvent itself.

Recckio lives above the racket of urethane spheres crashing into wooden pins in a second-floor flat over the alleys that was once a dorm for skid row bums. They earned a dime a game as pin stickers. Decent drinking money back in the 1940s.

How times change.

"We lost a lot of industry in this area over the years, and it hurt bowling. Blue collar was our base," Recckio said.

Although one in five Americans reported that they bowl at least once a year, bowling is a troubled industry, even in Buffalo, where the bowling ball has meant as much here to generations of residents as the race car has to Indianapolis.

Nationally, the number of sanctioned league bowlers has dropped 25 percent in just five years. The number of bowling centers has fallen 14 percent since 1987.

In regions like Buffalo, the decline of blue-collar industries, heightened competition for people's leisure time and -- most recently -- new countywide smoking restrictions, have chipped away at business.

Many family-owned "houses" (as bowling centers are called in the industry) have closed over the past 20 years, including Arrow Lanes, Roc-Mar, Peace Bridge Lanes and the Connecticut Lanes, all in Buffalo.

The survivors made changes, trying to create demand among younger bowlers through direct marketing and high-tech amenities. Some of the changes sifted down to smaller alleys like Recckio's Lanes, where three generations of ideas converge.

Recckio, 77, continues to have a hand in day-to-day operations, while his daughter-in-law, Tammy, focuses on the marketing and administrative mission. Even her children are involved. Bobby, 15, is the house ambassador and chief cook and bottle washer for the center's teen night and moonlight bowling.

In bowling centers nationally, marketing experts hatch new schemes for trying to ignite the bowling spirit of that younger generation. They transformed dingy alleys into "techno-entertainment" meccas with glow-in-the-dark pins, fog machines and idiot-proof automatic scoring systems. Many centers have installed pop-up bumper rails, turning lanes into havens for children.

And some nationally owned centers are using slick merchandising tie-ins, cashing in on icons like Michael Jordan, Hulk Hogan and Randy "Macho Man" Savage.

"The industry is changing dramatically in Buffalo and all around the country," said Sandy Hansell, a Michigan-based consultant who brokers the sale of bowling alleys.

Since the late 1980s, the industry has been trying to alter its rough-edged image.

"We've made some strides, but we have a long way to go. We need to shatter the image that this is all about pot-bellied, beer-guzzling bowlers gathering in dark, dirty alleys," she said.

Operators of local bowling centers estimated that on any given week, 65 to 70 percent of all lanes are empty, compared with 20 years ago, when morning, mid-day and late-night leagues produced more than double the current business.

League bowling has plummeted over the past 20 years as changing lifestyles spur many people to avoid the commitment of having to be in the same place every week for up to eight months. Cable television, the home computer, two-wage-earner families with little time, have all combined to take chunks out of "bowling night."

Glenn Voelker, owner of a second-generation Voelker's Bowling Lanes on Elmwood Avenue, estimated that league bowling is down by 40 percent since 1983. The only bright spot: Open bowling has become a more robust profit maker for Voelker's and other lanes.

Still, there's not much demand for lanes in the morning and afternoons.

"We feel like vampires, sometimes. About 80 percent of our business is done at night, after 5 o'clock," he noted.

Voelker's parents, Edward and Frances, built the bowling alley in 1941 and it has been family-run ever since. James Caramazza works for the guys with the deepest pockets. He manages Airport Lanes on Genesee Street, one of seven local bowling centers purchased last year by AMF Inc.

The Richmond, Va., company operates 538 centers around the world and is also a leading manufacturer and marketer of bowling equipment and products. Over the past 2 1/2 years, the company purchased more than 250 centers.

Caramazza agreed that the fall of heavy industry in Buffalo hurt many local bowling centers.

"We've especially seen a decline in bowlers between the ages of 25 and 45. Maybe it's because we have so many two-income families these days. People just don't have enough time."

That's why AMF aggressively courts youth and family bowlers. Its Michael Jordan Family Bowling League even gives young bowlers a ball that resembles a shiny basketball.

The company has spent millions promoting that league and its World Championship Wrestling bowling league. Players in the latter league get a shirt embroidered with their favorite wrestler's name and logo.

AMF and other centers lure young people into lanes on Fridays and Saturdays by adding music, ultraviolet lights, fog machines and glow-in-the-dark pins. AMF calls it "Ultimate Bowling" and Caramazza said it has been a success.

"It's been increasing business in some houses by up to 25 percent. On some nights, you have lines of 16-year-olds waiting to get in," he said.

Small guy suffers

The Recckio family doesn't have AMF's deep pockets or broad marketing reach. They won't install high-tech scoring machines any time soon -- not when it costs up to $150,000.

And the mere thought of the Recckio's signing endorsement deals with basketball or wrestling superstars would be as realistic as bowling three perfect games in a row.

But their marketing mission has changed too, albeit on a more modest scale.

Tammy Recckio, a mother of four, said there is a greater focus on promoting the business as a family-based entertainment center. Recckio's has been marketing its youth leagues, family leagues and moonlight bowling. In the warmer weather, it even sets up a volleyball court outside.

Steven Ryan, president of the industry's national marketing arm, said he thinks strides are being made, noting that 28 percent of all preteens bowled in the previous year.

"Proprietors have been aggressively courting the younger bowlers, and not just with technology. Many centers have special activities, and some are even offering free instruction," he said.

Voelker's has been pleased with the community response to its junior league program. On Saturday mornings, bowlers from age five to 17 fill all 32 lanes.

Assistant Manager Lori Alley said a growing number of families are also coming in, renting lanes for two hours at a time.

New funding helps

The industry has found some luck as the lending climate for bowling centers has improved dramatically over the past five years. The industry's stature in the banking arena improved in 1996 when Goldman, Sachs and Company, a high-profile Wall Street investment banking firm, bought AMF for $1.3 billion.

AMF has since launched one of the most ambitious marketing blitzes in bowling history. Hansell thinks even AMF's competitors will share the spoils.

"It's going to have a positive effect on all centers because it draws more attention to bowling," he said.

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