The tension surrounding stringpin bowling

string pin bowling

by Helen Tamblyn-Saville

I’ve been following the comments about string pin bowling with interest this week, following the announcement about Airport Bowl and then the statement the BTBA released today. I’ve been on the fence about wading in, but I’ve decided that I want to add my two pence worth. My opinions are my own.

I love tenpin bowling (I spend virtually all my time working on the sport) and I am disappointed like the rest of you that string pin is becoming so prevalent. I was gutted to hear about Airport Bowl converting. That said, being objective, appreciating that these centres are businesses and needing to make money, I accept that for many centres, it makes business sense to convert.

The problem with bowling is that it is different to most sports. Cricket clubs own their own cricket grounds where they play. Football clubs own their own pitches. Tennis clubs have their own courts. Tenpin bowling doesn’t own its own centres so we are at the mercy of the owners. Yes, bowlers give them revenue all year round and we are there in the summer when it is empty, but if a centre decides to convert to strings, it’s because it makes business sense and we are virtually powerless.

I don’t want the sport to die. My heart doesn’t want to play on strings. But my head recognises that we need to work with what we have and this defeatist attitude of “I’m quitting”, “it’s a fairground attraction”, “the sport is ruined” is not helping matters in the slightest. We need to accept that these changes are happening and we need to work with what we have. We have got to stop assuming that stringpin bowling is a bad thing before we have even tried it. Instead, accept it’s different, but it’s still bowling. We are still torturing ourselves with trying to hit pins 60 foot away – that fundamental hasn’t changed. And that’s why we need to sanction, it’s not just coming, it’s already here. We need to work with it.

My personal feelings are that it could be considered a separate classification. The same, but different. Indoor athletics is the same as outdoor athletics, but there are differences. The athletes don’t see it as bad because they are running slower or not throwing as far, it’s just different. I think that’s how we need to see stringpin bowling and that’s how I personally would like to see it managed, with stringpin records kept, etc. There’s a lot that needs to be considered.

That said, I think we as bowlers need to have a good look at ourselves as well. If centres are converting to strings for business and financial reasons and risking losing their leagues, they are doing it because it makes business sense. We don’t pay as much as open bowlers, yet we demand the benefits of oiling, etc. We pay less for a premium. The flipside of that is that we are there all year, whereas the public disappear on hot sunny days but bowls will generally make more from open play. We generally aren’t grateful. Every day, I see bowlers moaning about their “s**thole centres”. I’m guilty of that too, but does that make the bowl feel valued? We demand, we moan, we don’t pay so much. We refuse to eat in bowls and nip to the nearest fast food joint. I understand in many centres that bowl food isn’t great, but it’s another example of not supporting the bowl. Bowlers bring in their own drinks. The public will buy from the bowl. If you don’t want to see your centres disappearing, support them. Work with them.

I don’t think it will be strings that kills bowling. It’ll be us bowlers.


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  1. I agree 100% with your views Helen especially about us bowlers

    It is also relevant to note that many centre technicians are treated as diy men too and this frequently reduces valuable and often limited, time to maintain the pinspotters.

    Training is regularly on the job and that can lead to bad habits being passed on. This inevitably leads to them degrading and then repairs become increasongly costly. Too msny short term decisions ramp up costs down the line.

    Unfortunately string pinsetters remove many of these problems so business wise it makes sense.

  2. I fell in love with tenpin bowling. String pins is a different game. I have seen someone hit a 10 pin and the strings knocked down all 10 pins, I’ll pass on that, thank you very much.

    I have put in 20 years of blood sweat and tears into the game and for centres to just ignore what we have done for them to make a couple extra dollars, is a kick in the groin.

    For you to say it will be the bowlers fault the sport dies is a joke paid for by the string pin lobbyists. Its a different ball game. You won’t need expensive reactive balls or shoes as there will be no one to maintane conditions. Just turf a heavy house ball at the head pin hard as you can…. nahhh not for me.

    • I must take exception with Chad’s comment. I’ve literally watched tens of thousands of games over the past nine years in a string house and have NEVER seen what he describes. I HAVE seen the six pin wrap the ten and the string knock it over. Same with the four around the seven. What we don’t see is the inordinate number of messengers that are prevalent in the game today. All in all, it’s about a 4% decrease in the scoring with strings. If things were so good “back in the day”, why aren’t we still using rubber balls? Using a two-finger grip? Applying sawdust to the approaches? It’s evolution. Things change. The proprietors aren’t doing this to “rob” the league bowlers, they’re doing this to stay in business. String machines are about one-third the cost of free fall. The mechanic’s cost is one-tenth. If they need to do this to stay open, good on them for taking this step to provide a bowling centre for the public. Are the strings the best possible condition? No. There, I said it. But, if it allows for more centres to stay open, applaud the owners for trying something to preserve bowling. If you’re not at the top level of professional football, cricket, tennis or auto racing, you wouldn’t expect the venue you play at to be just like you see on television. League bowlers, for some reason, expect this treatment. The following is a list of the items that already ARE at the highest professional standard, and that AREN’T going to change: lane beds, approaches, ball returns, house specifications, personal equipment, such as balls, shoes, training aids, etc. If the only difference is there’s a string on your pins, and you have to give up eight pins on your average (assuming a 200 average, b/c EVERYBODY is a 200 average, right?), it’s a pretty good deal to actually be able to still bowl rather than just look at another empty building.

  3. Helen
    it is possible to run a successful league and tournament centre alongside open play. You do need to encourage you league bowlers and look after them. Over 50% of my income comes from organised play. It is not difficult but does need people who understand bowling and what it takes to run a centre with good lane conditions and not just fancy decoration.

    The large chains are looking to maximise profits hence they will go to strings. Once they do this the number of people able to prepare the lanes falls to a part time person. This means the conditions are almost always much poorer in string centre and not suitable for league or tournament play. I recently went into one to try it. The lane was shorter than a sanctioned lane and my spare ball was in the gutter by the arrows, I put my ball in my bag and left. It was everything I expected from one of the chains, a really poor condition. Apparently they dress the lanes once or twice a week so the lady behind the reception stated.

    The big bonus of leagues is they come in the morning and fill my centre, the schools in the afternoon and the leagues on weekday evenings. We have 46 kids partipating in juniors now we have built it up.

    I still need open play on Fridays and weekends but it is possible to be successful.

    You can help the independents by practising at their centres and joining their leagues.

    Sport bowling will survive and the arcades (chains) alongside them. We just have to live with strings for a while. Someone will bring out a more economic pinspotter at some point.

    Like Helen I had to put my voice into the debate. RIP airport bowl, you were good but alas no longer

  4. Years ago in the 1970’s when they started to appear from the Schmidt company these were all known as ‘Spaghetti Machines’

  5. I too have been following the debate. The problem started many years ago when the new owners of the centres decided to not to invest in both conditions, equipment and staff. Their business plan were not to support the sport but to simple maximise profits. It is they who will bring about the demise of the sport in the UK. They should take note of the independents but also look outside the UK for inspiration of how to run a bowling centre profitably. Strings are just another nail in the coffin for the sport.
    On the point that the BTBA will sanction the center with string has also been high on people comments. The bottom line for the BTBA is that they have to sanction them. If all centres went to strings and they did not sanction then there is no need for the BTBA – so self preservation is the order of the day.
    I am the General Secretary for the Bowling European Corporative which runs a championships across all countries in Europe. We did attempt to bring the Championship to the UK last year and only just made it through by the skin of our teeth and the skill of the mechanics. We had to ask for the approaches to be re-surfaced after own show policies had ruined them. Bottom libe is now we will not attempt to bring the Championships back to the UK as the centres are not good enough and all players in BEC politely told us never again! With Strings taking over in the UK the situation will never be reversed – so the BEC will remain offshore going forward where proprietors welcome us, make conditions a joy to play on and centres where we can eat and drink to a high quality – and simply want to stay in the center. It is not RIP just to the Airport but probably to the Sport in the UK. Sad!

  6. Not having seen or bowled in a centre with strings what I would like to know is if I left a split ie; the 4 7 10 would I be able to convert it if the answer is no how the hell can the BTBA then sanction that centre.

  7. Well said Jeff, Unlike a lot of European bowls who concentrate on league/tournament bowlers giving them good food thus getting a lot more revenue in through the restaurants/bars English bowls owned by the mega companies just think open bowlers are the way to make them the most money so dont put themselves out…I think it will be their loss but thats my opinion

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