Local bowling centers see increase in league participation
ALPENA — The sounds of a bowling center are music to the ears of bowlers like Tara Kowalski.
The hum of balls rolling down the lanes.
The familiar crashing sound of balls striking pins.
Cheers for good shots (or groans for bad ones).
The slapping of hands for high-fives.
For Kowalski, bowling beats staying at home and is a chance to catch up with friends, have fun and engage in a little friendly competition.
“It’s a night out with my friends and seeing people and competition, just doing a sport that I love and like doing,” Kowalski said.
Bowlers like Kowalski aren’t alone in that sentiment. Bowling is a part of their weekly routine, but that routine has been affected off and on during the past two years by COVID-19.
Local bowling centers such as Alpena’s Thunder Bowl Lanes and Rogers City’s Nautical Lanes have done their best to stay open, adapting to changing rules on social gatherings and facemask wearing.
This fall, business seems to be good, in some cases better than before. Local bowlers have flocked to bowling centers, thankful for the return of bowling leagues with no obstacles in the way.
In an average league season — which typically starts in the fall and runs through the winter — Nautical Lanes sees roughly 175-200 bowlers competing.
Numbers have been up this year, according to Nautical Lanes owner Brian Bannasch, after the center opened back up in February when COVID-19 restrictions were lifted again.
“It’s nice to have a full bowling center again. With the last couple years, the hit-and-miss and being closed down, it’s nice to have people back here enjoying themselves and having a good time,” Bannasch said.
A bowler since high school, Kowalski is a member of the Rhode Farms team in the Wednesday Nite Ladies league at Nautical Lanes. Kowalski and her teammates have been together for four years and finished in first place in their first season together.
Kowalski said she stayed home during the height of the pandemic, but was itching to get out and do something.
“I want the world to be back to normal,” Kowalski said. “I want to do something, I don’t want to sit at home. It’s fun to go out and do something.”
Growing up in Rogers City, Diane Delekta bowled in leagues in the wintertime after playing softball in the summer. Her love of the sport took her across the country for tournaments.
As her children were born, Delekta turned her attention to raising her family and didn’t bowl again for 24 years. This year, she’s part of a new team of bowlers — all of whom have previous experience — in the Wednesday night league, and said she’s enjoying herself.
“It’s just fun to be with the girls,” Delekta said.
The past two years haven’t been without their challenges. Bowling center owners have navigated a tricky path of closures and reopenings, trying their best to accommodate league and casual bowlers alike.
When entertainment venues like bowling centers were shut down in March 2020 to slow the spread of coronavirus, Bannasch opted not to reopen, staying closed until August. In November, the state issued new mandates and it closed again.
The first closure came toward the tail end of the bowling league season and lasted until summer, typically a slower time for centers like Nautical Lanes. The second closure, however, came right in the middle of a new bowling league season and many bowlers chose not to return when the center reopened again in February.
During the closures, Bannasch and his staff used the time to make upgrades, doing some remodeling and painting to freshen things up.
Thunder Bowl was shut down last March, too, but reopened in August 2020 with league bowling only. No visitors were allowed, bowlers had to come in wearing masks and wear them if they walked around, and proper social distancing guidelines were followed.
“Was it an education? You betcha,” Thunder Bowl co-owner John Snyder said. “But that allowed us to get back into the business of bowling in a league situation.”
Snyder said the center saw some of its highest numbers in a decade this summer as people looked for activities to do outside of their homes.
Participation in leagues has been consistent, according to Snyder, and most bowlers have complied with rules and regulations so league play can be held with no restrictions, and members can get back to having fun.
That’s the name of the game for Loretta Helzer, who bowls twice a week at Thunder Bowl in two different leagues.
“We’re not professional bowlers, we’re just here for the fun of it,” Helzer said. “Just to spend a day out with friends, and these are good friends who have a lot of fun. It’s about the camaraderie with our ladies here. We have a good time.”