On a chilly Tuesday afternoon near the end of January, a Wilmington bowling center hosted enough players to fill most of its 32 lanes.
Cardinal Lanes, 3907 Shipyard Blvd., is busier these days than ever before, said owner Ron Schnell.
“I’ve got 20 teams that have a Tuesday afternoon senior league and then some open lanes down that way that are being used, so we stay pretty busy,” Schnell said.
Of course, that wasn’t the case nearly three years ago, when the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. shut down indoor entertainment venues. For Cardinal Lanes, the shutdown allowed Schnell to make some needed improvements to the nearly 50-year-old facility.
“I mean, there’s always a silver lining to everything if you want to look at it that way. And the silver lining for us is, we’re a fairly busy, active center and so it [the COVID shutdown] at least gave us some downtime to come in and do some heavy maintenance that we needed to do,” Schnell said.
That work included repairing sewer lines and other jobs that couldn’t be done when the center was open and filled with bowlers.
After some legal wrangling between lawmakers, Gov. Roy Cooper and indoor entertainment venues over COVID closures during the summer of 2020, bowling alleys were allowed to reopen that September.
“We’ve just been banging it out every month since then. It’s gotten better every month,” Schnell said. “It was slow to start, but every month just got better and better, and now I had my best year ever last year and we’re on track to have the best year this year.”
In the old days, Schnell said, 90% of the bowling center’s business came from league bowlers with 10% coming from open lanes.
“But nowadays, you’re about 50/50,” he said, “and that’s held true for the last few years.”
League bowling has increased, though, from before COVID, Schnell said.
“We’re full basically right now Sunday through Thursday every night in the evening, from 6 to 8:30. There’s a couple lanes on Tuesday and Wednesday … We’re just busy with the leagues and then we have, on Monday afternoons, 32 teams of seniors … so it’s a good time to be in the bowling business.”
Winter is bowling’s peak season in Wilmington, Schnell said, where it's tough for indoor venues to compete with the beach during the summer.
“January, February, March are our three busiest months,” Schnell said.
Cardinal Lanes isn’t alone in racking up more business. According to a report released last year by research firm Technavio, the market share for bowling centers is expected to show an increase of nearly $3 billion from 2021 to 2026, with the momentum expected to accelerate at a compound annual growth rate of 4.5%.
“Rising focus on recreational bowlers is one of the key bowling centers market trends that is expected to impact the industry positively in the forecast period, as the revenue generated through recreational bowlers is comparatively higher than that obtained from the league/professional bowlers,” the report stated.
Cardinal Lanes works to encourage children to get into the sport with a targeted summer program. “We’ve been doing this kids bowl free program for the last 10 years during the summer. It’s done really well for us,” Schnell said.
Schnell, who has owned Cardinal Lanes for the past two decades, said he started working for the previous owner around 1979 as a pinsetter. These days, it’s not just about bowling.
“A lot of newer centers being built now are built as family recreation, entertainment centers, so they will have bowling, you know, a heavy arcade, some laser tag, possibly even putt-putt,” he said. “We were built as a league-base center because 50 years ago, that’s what bowling was.”
Indoor recreation options have also changed over the years, including the rise in popularity of trampoline parks. In Wilmington, plans are in the works for an indoor skydiving facility on Eastwood Road.
Schnell said he doesn’t see other venues as a threat.
“I’ve always looked at it as none of those things are really my competition. Are they in the recreation area and things like that? Sure, but you know, bowling is bowling, and trampoline is trampoline,” he said.
The growth in demand for indoor entertainment options, including bowling, has coincided with the area’s population increase.
“The number of people that are moving into Wilmington in the surrounding areas is of course fueling some of all that,” Schnell said, referring to how active his bowling center is. “I think there could be another center in Wilmington or Brunswick County. The area probably needs another center, not so much in the summer but more the peak of the winter.”
The 27,000-square-foot Cardinal Lanes is one of only a few bowling alleys in the Wilmington area and was built in 1975, according to property tax records. Schnell holds a lease on the facility, part of a 40-acre parcel owned by The Oleander Co., that extends to the year 2030.
The biggest component of the bowling industry that’s changed for Schnell since COVID has been keeping enough workers in place, he said. Like other service sectors, wages at Cardinal Lanes have increased to $15 an hour.
“I’ve got some employees I’ve had over 30 years and my main ones, but your … weekend warriors, those working weekends, they’re gonna pop in and pop out,” Schnell said. “It’s just the nature of the beast right now.”