Sports: Bowled Over

How decreasing profits and interest result in a sport striking out.

If Hawai‘i’s bowling alleys continue to lose customers, they may be the next group added to the state’s endangered species list.

While there is a remote possibility that the bowling alleys could extend their leases, the reality is that doing so would be pointless from a business standpoint.

The historic Stadium Bowl-o-Drome on Isenberg Street closed in 1999, becoming the short-lived University Bowl-o-Drome. Now, three more O‘ahu bowling alleys plan to shut down when their leases expire over the next two years. Kalihi’s Kam Bowl is looking at June 30 as its last day in business, while Kahala’s Wai‘alae Bowl and Kailua’s Pali Lanes could close in February 2008 and October 2009, respectively.

The old Stadium Bowl-o-Drome, on Isenberg Street, has fallen into disrepair. photo: Rae Huo

With increasing rents, property taxes, and electricity and insurance bills, operating the lanes is costly.

“Profit-and-loss margin is important every month,” says Frank Yamamoto, the manager of Wai‘alae Bowl for the past 30 years. “I don’t need all these [financial] pressures. There’s a lot of people that tell me ‘What we gonna do?’ But these are the same people that don’t support us [by bowling].”

The 77-year-old Yamamoto has seen his rent rise from $9,000 per year in 1958 (about $62,000 in today’s dollars) to its current rate of $270,000. He says revenue gained from surrounding rental units, including a McDonald’s restaurant, has supplemented the bowling alley. Without that extra income, Yamamoto says, Wai‘alae Bowl would be in “dire financial straits.”

As operating costs at bowling alleys have risen, so have the prices of playing open rounds. Yamamoto says that a single round, which used to go for 25 cents, now runs $3.35. People are also spending on different activities. For example, video game enthusiasts used to flock to bowling alleys to play quarter-fed arcade games, especially in the 1990s, when Street Fighter II was popular, and earlier this decade, when Dance Dance Revolution was the rage. According to Yamamoto, Wai‘alae Bowl used to make 20 times what it does now on such amusement income. He ties the shift to home entertainment and video game systems, which kids would rather stay home and play endlessly, rather than feeding arcade machines with rolls of quarters.

You can still get in a round of bowling at one of the handful of bowling establishments left, but time is running out, as bowling alleys continue to head for the financial gutter.