For many families, a trip to the bowling alley is an essential element of a fun Friday or Saturday night out. The same is true of teens and adults. Bowling is a fabulous hobby and sport, and bowling alleys have evolved to offer great entertainment options for casual bowlers and pros alike. If you have a passion for bowling and want to start a business that could be successful for years and decades to come, it might be time to consider starting a bowling alley.
Bowling alleys offer entertainment for the general population, and for more serious bowlers, they offer a chance to train and compete. These alleys typically consist of multiple lanes, but modern-day alleys can be so much more. It’s common for a bowling alley to not only offer bowling but also to feature food, alcohol, arcade games, and other forms of entertainment. Shoe rentals, food services, bowling leagues, and events like birthday parties are other common income streams for these businesses.
A bowling alley may adopt a specific business model. Some alleys specialize in providing a professional bowling environment and are designed to appeal to professionals with lanes and setups that follow competition regulations. Other alleys take a more liberal approach, focusing on the family entertainment value that bowling offers. Glow-in-the-dark bowling parties, fun decor, upbeat music, and kid-friendly setups all appeal to non-professional bowlers who are looking for entertainment.
According to IBIS World, the bowling centers industry experienced a 2.4% growth from 2015 to 2020. An increase in disposable income has driven more discretionary spending, resulting in increased demand for entertainment options, like bowling. Bowling alleys also shifted to offer various services, like the availability of arcades, to draw in consumers.
As of 2020, the bowling alley industry was a $4 billion industry. A total of 3,509 businesses employed 73,875 staff. While Bowlero Corporation and Lucky Strike Entertainment LLC are majority holders in the industry, plenty of independently and franchise owned and operated bowling alleys exist, too.
IBIS World predicts that the industry will continue to slowly grow in popularity from 2020 to 2025. Because the number of league bowlers is in decline, more bowling alleys will likely market toward the casual bowler out for entertainment than the professional bowler. This change will likely reduce the number of larger bowling centers, with the focus shifting to smaller local operations.
The bowling alley industry is shifting as it’s affected by multiple trends. Tourist Attractions & Parks reports that bowling alleys are increasingly expected to offer more varied experiences and activities. As a result, many alleys have started to offer full-service dining to enhance the experience and compete with other entertainment options.
Because the bowling sport culture has changed, bowling alleys need to adjust, too. While bowling used to be league-focused with less emphasis on casual entertainment, that has pivoted. Today, alleys need to appeal to a broad audience, including kids, single adults, and families.
Technology provides alleys with an opportunity to create unique experiences. Overhead monitors, tablet screens, individual lane entertainment systems, and more make bowling fun and entertaining for everyone, encouraging bowlers to get involved with each game.
Today’s bowling alleys need to appeal to a broad target market to maximize their profits. While professional bowlers may be a part of the alley’s target market, more casual bowlers seeking entertainment now make up a larger portion of your typical bowling alley’s customer base. Those casual bowlers may be kids, teens, families, and adults. An alley’s target market consists of people who are looking for entertainment, whether it’s a group of teens looking for a fun Friday night out or a parent looking for a great birthday party idea for their child.
Skills, experience, and education useful in running a bowling alley
Starting a bowling alley doesn’t require a business degree, but certain skills and experiences can give you an advantage in this industry.
Bowling experience. Experience within the industry, either as a bowler or by having worked in a bowling alley, can be advantageous since a business owner will have detailed knowledge about the game, alley operations, and more.
Customer service skills. Interacting with customers is a huge part of owning a bowling alley. A business owner with strong interpersonal skills can make meaningful connections to encourage customers to come back again.
Technical skills. Bowling alleys are full of mechanical equipment that can and often does break. An alley owner who has some basic technical skills may be able to troubleshoot or perform small repairs, saving on the expense of having a technician out to perform repairs. Whether you do it yourself or pay someone, be sure to have a plan in place as lanes that don’t operate can’t generate any income, and it’s critical to have them fully operational on the weekend.
Management experience. A business owner who has previously hired, trained and managed staff will be better prepared for some of the challenges of running a bowling alley than an owner who lacks management experience.
Creativity. Some of the most successful bowling alley businesses have unique themes or offerings, like special event nights or food offerings that consumers won’t find at other bowling alleys. Creativity is important in initially designing the bowling alley and creating offers that will appeal to customers.
Startup costs to open a bowling alley are significant, with construction being the largest expense. According to Home Advisor, commercial bowling alley construction begins at $45,000 per each lane. That figure includes expenses like installing new equipment and chairs. It doesn’t include the cost of the building or land purchase. Alternatively, renovating an existing bowling alley can be a less expensive option.
Bowling.com estimates that for a new location, expect to $90,000 – $110,000 per lane, including land, building, and equipment, and $50,000 – $65,000 per lane if renovating an existing bowling center.
Common startup costs for a bowling alley include:
- Building construction or renovation costs
- Ball-return machines
- Bowling lanes – $18,000 (used) – $40,000 (new) per lane
- Supplies like pins, bowling balls, shoes, etc.
- Inventory, primarily food
- Furniture including chairs and counters
Steps to Starting a Bowling Alley
Step 1: Write a Business plan
After coming up with the idea, the next step in starting your business should be to write a bowling alley business plan. The business plan is an excellent tool to help focus on the important aspects of the business, including the target market, competitors, promotions, projecting income and expenses, and more.
Not only will a bank require you to have a business plan, but multiple studies have shown that a business plan helps increase the odds of starting a successful business.
Step 2: Form a Business Entity
A business entity, sometimes called a business structure or legal entity refers to how a business is legally organized to operate. There are four primary business entities to choose from, which include the sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation, and Limited Liability Company (LLC). Each type of entity has its own pros and cons, such as liability exposure, costs, and administrative requirements.
Related: Comparison of Business Entities
Step 3: Name the Business
Finding the perfect name for a business can be challenging. Not only does the name have to resonate with your customers, but it also has to be available to use.
Step 4: Select your Location
Many factors will affect the rent or mortgage costs of a bowling alley, including the condition of the venue, location, size, and amenities. Bowling alleys tend to benefit from being located in a high-visibility area, and when combined with the large size of a bowling alley, the property cost can be significant.
Locating close to other entertainment sources such as malls and movie theaters or on a heavily trafficked road can help bring in customers.
Related: Choosing a business location
Step 5: Apply for Business Licenses and Permits
A bowling alley business owner will need to obtain certain business licenses and permits. These permits and licenses can vary based on the state and town where the business is located.
Licenses that may be unique to a bowling alley is a liquor license and food handling permit, as food and alcohol can provide a lot of additional revenue for a center.
Some of the common local, state, and federal registrations most businesses need include a sales tax permit, Employer Identification Number, and Occupancy Permit.
Step 6: Find Financing
Coming up with a good business idea and having the skills to run it are one thing, but getting the funding to start a bowling alley is another. Funding to start a bowling alley business can be difficult due to the high start-up costs. In order to get a business loan, the borrower(s) will need to have good credit and be able to invest 15-25% of their money towards the total start-up costs.
Step 7: Open a Business Bank Account
Keeping your business and personal finances in separate business bank and credit card accounts makes it easier to track the business’s income and expenses.
Step 8: Get your Marketing Plan in Place
Marketing won’t just help build up an initial customer base but also help bring in new customers to grow the business. Common marketing techniques for bowling alleys include being active on social media platforms, print advertising, radio advertising, online advertising, and more. Alleys may also have success by establishing a loyalty rewards program to encourage customers to return again and again. Marketing costs vary depending on the type of activity and the volume of marketing.
Step 9: Get Insurance
A bowling alley business needs several types of insurance for full coverage:
- General liability insurance protects the business if customers are ever injured on the property, such as slipping or falling. This policy can help to cover expenses like medical bills or legal fees.
- Commercial property insurance can help to cover the cost of the business’ equipment and building if they’re damaged or destroyed by an event like a fire.
- Worker’s compensation insurance protects the business and covers legal and medical bills if an employee is ever hurt while working.
The costs of insurance policies will vary depending on the business’ location, the value of its building and equipment, and many other factors. It’s best to request quotes from multiple insurance providers to get the most accurate idea of what to budget for insurance. When comparing the quotes, look at how the premiums, coverage limits, exclusions, and deductibles compare.
Step 10: Hire Employees
Bowling alleys need to be staffed by multiple employees. According to PayScale, the average salaries for bowling alley staff are:
- General/operations manager: $49,000
- Mechanic/pinsetter: $32,000
- Food and beverage manager: $48,000
- Cashier: $25,000
In addition to budgeting for salaries, a business’ budget needs to include employee-related expenses like paid time off, health insurance contributions, and worker’s comp insurance.
Related: Hiring your first employee
Step 11: Set up an Accounting System
Setting up an accounting system for your bowling alley is critical to the long-term success of your business.
Staying on top of taxes not only keeps the business out of trouble with the government, but the numbers can be used to track and monitor trends and cash flow in the business and maximize profits.
How much can you potentially make owning a bowling alley?
According to Bowling.com, state-of-the-art, well-run bowling alleys can average between 12,000 and 15,000 games per lane per year, with chain-operated bowling alleys averaging 9,250 games each year. Bowling games average $2.00 per game, and for every $1.00 of bowling revenue that an alley sees, it also brings in approximately $0.67 of non bowling revenue, like shoe rentals and food purchases. According to this data, if a bowling alley averages 11,000 lines, it will make about $36,750 for every lane in operation.
Many factors will affect profits, including the business’s location, how long it’s been in operation, and its offerings. For instance, a bowling alley that includes arcade games and a concession stand with good food and beer will bring in more income than a smaller bowling alley with more limited services. The availability of special events can also help to drive profits.
Things to consider before starting a bowling alley
As the bowling industry has shifted, it’s become more important for bowling alleys to appeal to more casual bowlers, including kids, teens, and families. This means that you’ll need to give careful thought to the business model that may be most successful. In developing a unique business model, you’ll also be well-positioned to stand out from any local competition too.
If you want to give your bowling alley an edge in appealing to customers and driving up your profits, consider incorporating specialty services or amenities. Rather than traditional concession foods, consider offering higher-end dining or a bar. Pairing a bowling alley with an arcade, go-carts, or other entertainment can help you to appeal to a broader audience and can encourage families to stay longer, spending more money. You can also develop special theme nights and birthday party packages or start a bowling league or other fun competition to encourage repeat customers.
American Wheelchair Bowling Association
Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America
International Candlepin Bowling Association
National Bowling Association
Professional Bowlers Association
Professional Women’s Bowling Association
United States Bowling Congress