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More than $200 to go bowling? Why some metro Denver alleys are so expensive now.

Jamie Adams has bowled since she could walk. Raised in a family of avid bowlers, she started in a junior league for toddlers. In high school, she remembers paying $6.99 per game, with shoe rentals costing just $1.99.

But as she honed her craft, her older relatives “couldn’t afford doing even weekly leagues because the price had just gone up so much,” Adams said. Lately, the prices have shot up even more steeply at some metro Denver bowling centers, requiring customers to shell out serious cash — in some cases, more than $200 for a group of four — to participate in one of America’s favorite pastimes.

“It has definitely gotten more expensive, just to go out and open bowl,” said Adams, 33, a private career nanny who lives in Broomfield. And not just for lane fees: “Shoes are now up to $7 or $8, which is ridiculous.”

The popularity of bowling has risen nationally over the last decade, and draws in more American adults than any other participatory sport, according to the Hansell Group, a bowling brokerage and consulting group. The surge in fees at many bowling alleys is attributed by experts to factors that have changed the $5 billion-a-year industry in recent years, including consolidation among the big chains, investments in facility upgrades and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, some of the remaining independent bowling centers are still holding onto the inexpensive prices of yesteryear. But those owned by the largest player in the industry — Bowlero Corp. — charge much more.

At Bowlero Cherry Creek, a bowling center on Leetsdale Drive in southeast Denver that was long-known as Monaco Lanes, four people looking for fun during the weekend will pay nearly $221 for a two-hour reservation. That includes the lane rental fee, which is cheaper on weekdays, plus shoe rentals and an $18 “event fee.”

At Lucky Strike Downtown Denver on the 16th Street Mall, which operates under the same corporate ownership, prices are in the same stratosphere: A lane reserved for two hours can cost between $140 and $200, plus $7.50 each for a shoe rental and a similar event fee.

But budget bowling is still possible: At Chipper’s Lanes in Broomfield, standard pricing for a lane for the same time period amounts to $74, along with $5 each for a shoe rental. Denver’s Crown Lanes Bowling Center and Sports Bar on South Federal Boulevard keeps a set price of $5 per person per game, with $5 shoe rentals.

“Bowling is still a very local business,” said Marty Mischel, a broker at the Hansell Group. “So, it depends on where it is and, actually, the quality of the facility.”

On the 16th Street Mall, a neon sign shaped like a bowling pin signals to players that they’ve arrived at Lucky Strike Downtown Denver — now a mainstay of the Denver Pavilions. At 5 p.m. on Wednesday, 18 customers chatted at the full-length bar, socializing in front of more than a dozen big-screen TVs.

To the left of the entrance, an arcade glittered. In the other direction, 12 lanes were fully occupied. As patrons waited their turns to bowl, they lounged on leather couches, with fake candles set on tables for ambient lighting.

“The environment’s nice; food’s alright. The cost is a lot,” said Robert Caldwell, as he exited Lucky Strike.

“It used to be really, really cheap,” added Regina Martin, his companion.

Mischel confirmed the higher price tag to bowl is growing more common — not only in Denver, but across the U.S. Factors like labor costs, utilities and rising expenses for goods contributed to the change, he said.

But today’s bowling alleys tend to offer more amenities: updated arcades, improved food quality and modernized technology.

Nationally, “revenues for the bowling industry have never been better,” Mischel said.

Bowlero is a dominant force in bowling

Industry consolidation also affects the player’s final bill.

Bowlero — originally Bowlmor — calls itself “the world’s largest owner and operator of bowling entertainment centers.” It has acquired several of its competitors since 1997: AMF Bowling Centers, Brunswick and Lucky Strike. It also purchased the Professional Bowlers Association.

Today, Bowlero runs about 350 locations throughout the U.S., according to its website. Company representatives didn’t respond to The Denver Post’s questions about higher prices and industry shifts.

In the Denver market, Brunswick once operated a number of bowling centers, which are now owned by Bowlero.

“The independent centers — there’s less and less of those now,” Mischel said. “Bowlero kind of sets the prices throughout all of their centers, and they dominate the Denver metro area, for sure.”

But in southwest Denver, Crown Lanes offers the old-school experience — inexpensive prices included.

At 6 p.m. on Wednesday, string lights hung from the awnings outside, and bowlers passed a back-lit Coors Beer sign on the wall before entering through the double doors. Colorado and American flags flanked a sign above the 24 lanes that read, “God Bless the USA.” They were empty, but not for long. An employee behind the counter said the facility was reserved for league bowling later in the evening.

When most American centers were first built in the 1950s and 1960s, league bowling reigned supreme.

“That was just something everyone did in the neighborhood,” said Mischel, from the Hansell Group.

Now, alleys host fewer tournaments and more open play, or non-league bowling. While players historically paid per game, the industry standard has since switched to charging hourly rates.

“It’s just easier to manage for a bowling center to do it by hour, instead of per game,” Mischel added.

Head mechanic Allen Hobbs, 53, has worked at Crown Lanes for about five years. He called the bowling industry “almost a monopoly,” but the alley is surviving.

Because of its independent ownership, it can keep prices at $5 per person per game — and sell a double cheeseburger and side of fries for just $10, he said. Still, Hobbs concedes that “it’s hard to keep prices low and be profitable.”

“This rate never changes,” Hobbs said. “Bowlero can’t do that.”

Modernization comes “at the expense of traditional bowling”

Renewed public interest in bowling is a stark contrast from the situation nearly two decades ago. From the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s, “the industry was really struggling,” Mischel said.

Bowling centers grappled with the high cost of real estate and increased competition in the entertainment sector, including from streaming TV services. Then, during the pandemic, alleys were labeled nonessential businesses, so they shuttered for at least a year — and, sometimes, longer.

Some of those centers never reopened. But others survived and have reaped the benefits.

Coming out of lockdowns and other health orders, Americans sought out in-person experiences and turned to bowling, Mischel said. Now, the industry is making changes at its bowling centers to appeal to younger and more diverse demographics, as well as higher-income players, The Hansell Group reports.

“Bowlero has tried to make bowling more mainstream, and that is good and bad in some ways,” Mischel said. “But it’s been at the expense of traditional bowling.”

Thomas Stead, 41, has watched the bowling industry change since he sat in a crib set up by his parents at the Brunswick Sands Bowl in Lancaster, California.

The Commerce City resident first learned the game at age 2 and started competing when he was 8 years old. Since then, he’s bowled for the U.S. Air Force, traveling as far as Thailand and the Philippines to play.

The professional bowler, who owns the company that makes Nexus Bag bowling accessory backpacks, sees positives and negatives to industry consolidation.

Still, he credits Bowlero with “making the sport have a huge comeback.”

He sees “mom-and-pop places” scrimping by, using less-modern equipment because they can’t afford costly upgrades for lane beds, pinsetters and more. Meanwhile, corporate-owned bowling centers offer better aesthetics and consistency, which attract retail bowlers — many of whom might bowl just once a year, making the higher price less of a squeeze.

“I would like to continue to see support for the game — both the mom-and-pop side and the corporate side,” Stead said. “Everybody needs to make a little bit of money. Otherwise, it’s not a good business.”

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