Villages bowling still on a roll

Larry Ducat doesn’t have any secrets.

The owner and proprietor of The Villages’ two bowling centers doesn’t have any insider information that explains how the community has bucked the sport’s documented decline and attempted revival in recent years.

But The Villages has done just that — and thanks to its bowling infrastructure, it will likely continue to.

“I don’t have a golden wand, but this community might,” Ducat said. “Our residents and customers — who we like to call our ‘bowling community’ — they have the time, the money and the desire. They want to be in our bowling centers and socialize, and that’s the not-so-secret secret, if there is one.”

Florida’s Friendliest Hometown has become one of the nation’s friendliest bowling locales, as Spanish Springs Lanes and Fiesta Bowl — each housing 32 lanes of play — host thousands of players in more than 80 leagues throughout the year.

The local commitment to the sport hasn’t wavered despite bowling’s fluctuation in participation nationally, with the number of people bowling within United States Bowling Congress (USBC) leagues nationwide decreasing by 5% each of the last three years.

“We’re a little bit up and a little bit down,” said Frank DeSocio, executive director of the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America (BPAA), a nonprofit organization serving the interests of bowling center owners. “It’s a sport that’s cradle-to-grave. You can play your whole life.

“But then you add in a place like The Villages, where you have an iconic owner like Larry Ducat, who gets it and understands it — that’s why it’s strong.”

In The Gutter

Bowling’s ongoing participation trends tell two different stories.

Bowling remains the No. 1 participation sport in the United States, as more than 69 million people bowled at least once in 2019, according to the USBC.

But the sport has continued its gradual year-to-year decrease in the number of bowling league participants — or diehard players — with just 1.21 million USBC members in 2019-20. That figure is down from more than nine million league bowlers in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“The sport isn’t based in those competitive bowling leagues that used to be in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” Ducat said. “Bowling is more of a social outing now and the business structure has had to change a lot because of that. You have to be more conducive in allowing that social play, rather than the ultra-competitive leagues that used to be.”

Bowling’s decline in committed players starts and ends with societal changes, namely increased competition for consumer leisure time and recreational dollars, as well as a generational shift in social interaction.

“People would sit there, drink their beer and eat their pretzels, and they’d be talking,” said Robert D. Putnam, author of “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” who also served as a research professor of public policy at Harvard University. “But that’s yet another missing occasion in which we no longer can have a regular conversation.”

Because of the lack of committed bowlers, centers have shuttered across the country at an alarming rate over the past five decades, dropping from an estimated 11,000 venues in the late 1960s to just 3,864 USBC-certified centers in 2019.

“Bowling (center) owners, it turns out, are very concerned about you bowling alone,” Putnam said. “When you bowl in a league, you drink four times as much beer and eat four times as many pretzels.

“And the money is in the beer and pretzels — it’s not in the balls and shoes.”

The Villages Way

Inclusivity and opportunity have kept The Villages clear of the sport’s fluctuating figures.

The community is home to both competitive and social leagues all year long, with openings available to players of any skill level or competitive desire.

“A lot of people when they move here, they stop in the bowling centers and say they used to bowl,” Ducat said. “I think everyone used to bowl. But now they have the time and resources to pick it up again, and we have the facilities and leagues to help make it happen.”

Fall leagues traditionally open in August or September, with winter leagues generally rolling off in January. A dozen summer leagues are also wrapping up their final weeks of play after beginning in May.

“People get to know each other, friendships are made and it’s just a great atmosphere to be in.” — John Weber, Director of the PBA50 Tour

“I think it’s wonderful what we have here, because bowling takes a backseat for a lot of us over the years,” said Liz Ishley, of the Village of St. Charles, who first began bowling at the age of 16 and now participates in leagues all year. “But to have people here like myself who have done it all their life, in our own place to come and bowl, whether you want to socialize or compete, it’s just phenomenal.”

John Weber, director of the PBA50 Tour, which has brought its national championship to Spanish Springs Lanes each of the last three years, said The Villages has put together the perfect blueprint to foster a strong bowling community.

“I think bowling is a community sport,” Weber said. “You don’t normally see people traveling more than 10 or 15 miles from home to bowl, so it’s important to have a place established — or in The Villages’ case — two places established.

“People get to know each other, friendships are made and it’s just a great atmosphere to be in.”

Ducat Does It

The vision for such inviting venues comes from Ducat.

“He knows how to open a bowling center up for people,” DeSocio said of Ducat. “He knows what he has to get done, but he also does a great job knowing what the consumer wants. That’s why he’s so successful.”

A native of Ohio, Ducat, 72, moved to The Villages in 1999, before eventually assuming ownership of both Spanish Springs Lanes and Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 1, 2006.

One of Ducat’s first orders of business was making the local lanes feel even more inclusive for all, ramping up the number of social leagues available and removing competitive temptations — such as large sums of prize money — out of play.

“We feel like we have something for everyone, and that’s what was really important to us in taking it over,” Ducat said. “If you want to just have fun, you can make that small eight-week commitment for a social league. But we still have some of the most competitive senior leagues in the country, too.

“I’ve always said the business is there, you just have to give the right product that people want.”

And it’s the way Ducat and his staff present the product that has earned him so much acclaim throughout the bowling circuit.

“I don’t even worry about coming here because Larry Ducat is so organized,” Weber said. “I know that everything is going to be perfect when we get here. Everything runs like clockwork at his bowling centers and it’s always a pleasure to be in The Villages.”

Looking Ahead

The USBC has made some headway in bridging the participation gaps between the sport’s heyday of decades past and the current generation, beginning with the promotion of youth and collegiate programming.

The International Bowling Campus founded a youth development initiative to bring junior bowling leagues and tournaments across the country, including grants provided to school districts to form high school bowling teams.

Collegiate bowling has also flourished in recent years, with 240 USBC-affiliated universities taking part in the sport nationwide in 2019-20.

In the meantime, the BPAA has begun working on initiatives with bowling centers across the country to better monetize their current patronage. From enhancing food operations to adding secondary entertainment options, DeSocio said the key will be acquiring new customers while not increasing the cost of the center’s mainstay activity.

“Our expansion is going to be similar to maybe what Walmart did years ago,” DeSocio said. “We have to ask ourselves how do we generate more income within our four walls than we have been? Expenses are not going down — that’s just the life we all live — so how do we generate more income and not just by raising bowling prices?”

The future of the 55-plus crowd within the sport also looks promising, with industry experts citing the demographic’s affinity for bowling’s social atmosphere.

“Seniors are absolutely exploding in bowling, because this is their social media,” DeSocio said. “Seniors want to interact with other seniors. They want to tell their story. They want to talk about their grandkids. They want to talk about their life — and they want to do it in a bowling center.

“Yes, they can go play cards or golf, but that’s with four people,” DeSocio continued. “Bowling is with two- or three-hundred people.”

Ducat said that tried-and-true recipe for success not only plays into The Villages’ favor as a senior bowling mecca, but it also makes the local bowling community one of a kind across the United States.

“I think it’s going to be important for us to stay diverse in our customer base,” Ducat said. “We’re always trying to increase the customers that we’re trying to reach. Bowling isn’t a late-night deal in a smoke-filled center anymore, rather it’s more of a fun-filled social game — and that’s what it should be.

“It’s got to be that open, everyone-is-welcome type of environment that we’ve always had here, and that’s what we’re going to continue striving for.”

Staff Writer Cody Hills can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5286, or cody.hills@thevillagesmedia.com.