The history of AMF Bowling is a tale of evolution, innovation, and resilience in the world of recreational and competitive bowling. From its inception as a subsidiary of the American Machine and Foundry (AMF) Corporation to its transformation into a global entertainment giant, AMF Bowling has etched its name in the annals of bowling history.
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Origins and Early Endeavors
The story of AMF Bowling commences with its parent company, the AMF Corporation, which diversified into various industries after World War II.
One of these ventures was the bowling industry, marked by the introduction of automated bowling equipment and the establishment of bowling centers. The decision to enter this leisure pursuit quickly proved profitable, laying the groundwork for the birth of AMF Bowling.
AMF’s initial foray into the bowling business was marked by automated equipment and the operation of bowling centers. However, as the company expanded into diverse manufacturing sectors, it faced challenges. Aging production facilities and quality control issues in some product lines resulted in declining sales in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The diverse output of the corporation became increasingly challenging to manage, leading to financial losses.
Resurgence and Expansion
Despite these hurdles, the AMF Bowling brand continued to flourish in the world of bowling. Realizing the potential in this sector, AMF embarked on an ambitious expansion campaign. In the mid-1980s, the company invested nearly $100 million in acquiring bowling centers, underscoring its commitment to the bowling industry.
However, in 1985, corporate raider Irwin L. Jacobs’s Minstar, Inc. acquired AMF Inc. and began divesting its various business divisions. This marked a turning point for AMF Bowling, as it transitioned into new ownership and embarked on a journey of transformation.
The Birth of AMF Bowling Worldwide
Commonwealth Venture Partners, a consortium of private investors based in Richmond, Virginia, recognized the potential in the bowling center and bowling products divisions of AMF and paid $225 million in 1985 to acquire them.
This move led to the formation of AMF Bowling Companies, Inc., later known as AMF Bowling Worldwide. The new owners set out to revitalize the bowling center business, investing nearly $500 million in enhancing the appeal of bowling for league and casual bowlers.
Mark Willoughby, a former executive from PepsiCo, was brought on board to lead the bowling center business. Willoughby’s vision was clear: make AMF Bowling the “McDonald’s of bowling.” The company began its ascent to become the largest owner of bowling centers in the United States.
Acquisitions and Growth
AMF Bowling’s growth extended beyond the United States. The acquisition of Fair Lanes, Inc. in 1995 positioned the company as the largest owner of bowling centers in the U.S. The addition of Fair Lanes’s 106 bowling centers brought AMF Bowling’s total to 205 centers in the U.S., with an additional 79 overseas.
When Goldman Sachs acquired the company in 1996, their strategy was to clean up purchased properties and create a national chain of amusement complexes. In a series of acquisitions, the company expanded its reach further, buying Bowling Corporation of America, 43 centers from American Recreation Centers, and 15 from Conbow Corporation.
By the start of 1999, AMF Bowling operated 421 centers in the United States, 46 in Australia, 37 in the United Kingdom, and 41 in eight other countries.
Adapting to Changing Times
The bowling landscape underwent significant changes as the typical bowler evolved from a blue-collar factory worker and league member to a more diverse, middle-class demographic that sought enhanced amenities.
In response, AMF constructed 300 upscale Centers adorned with modern décor, attracting significant business through group events. However, the Great Recession of 2008 impacted AMF’s ability to maintain and enhance its 262 existing U.S. bowling centers, resulting in fewer people bowling.
Navigating Bankruptcy and Reinvention
In 2012, AMF Bowling entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy for the second time. The company cited the challenge of adapting to the marked shift in the average bowling customer. The transformation of the bowling industry was evident, with a decline in league memberships and changing expectations from non-league bowlers.
As part of its restructuring, AMF Bowling underwent a merger with Strike Holdings LLC, operating as Bowlmor Lanes. This move brought all remaining bowling centers and the 50% interest in the QubicaAMF joint venture under the control of Bowlmor AMF, now known as Bowlero Corporation.
The merger aimed to reinvigorate AMF Bowling’s business and adapt to the evolving market dynamics. While some owned and leased centers were closed, the focus was on enhancing the operations of the remaining bowling centers.
AMF Bowling’s Impact on Equipment
AMF Bowling was not just an operator of bowling centers but also a significant manufacturer of bowling equipment. The introduction of the American Machine and Foundry Pinspotter in 1952 marked a pivotal moment in the bowling industry. It was one of the first fully automated pinsetters used in quantity, revolutionizing the game.
The bowling equipment division of AMF was responsible for manufacturing a wide range of products, including pinsetters, bowling pins, bowling balls, ball returns, lane surfaces, and automatic scoring equipment. This division was known for its commitment to quality and innovation.
In 2005, AMF Bowling’s equipment division collaborated with Qubica Worldwide to form a 50/50 joint venture, QubicaAMF Worldwide. This partnership brought together Qubica’s expertise in automatic scoring technology and AMF Bowling’s technology in lane equipment and pinsetters.
The collaboration aimed to push the boundaries of technological innovation in the bowling industry, offering bowlers enhanced experiences and more accurate scoring.
Evolving Bowling Equipment
In 2007, a new company, 900 Global, acquired the rights to sell customized bowling balls featuring the AMF logo. This move allowed bowlers to enjoy the performance and quality associated with the AMF brand.
Over the years, AMF Bowling’s equipment division continued to innovate, and the company’s commitment to excellence remained unwavering.
With AMF Bowling’s emergence from bankruptcy in 2013, the 50% interest in the QubicaAMF joint venture came under the control of Bowlmor AMF, later known as Bowlero Corporation. This transition marked a new chapter in the history of AMF Bowling and its partnership with QubicaAMF Worldwide.
In December 2014, the founders of QubicaAMF Worldwide acquired the 50% interest held by Bowlmor AMF, bringing the manufacturing and marketing of AMF-branded bowling equipment fully under the control of QubicaAMF Worldwide.
In 2023, AMF Bowling is enhancing its bowling centers with modern amenities, embracing technology for an interactive experience, offering customized bowling leagues, expanding food and beverage options, catering to all age groups, implementing sustainability initiatives, fostering collaborations, maintaining a strong online presence, and prioritizing safety and hygiene for a comprehensive and enjoyable bowling experience.
The journey of AMF Bowling is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of a company that has seen significant transformations throughout its history. From its origins as a subsidiary of AMF Corporation to its emergence as a global leader in the bowling industry, AMF Bowling has navigated challenges and seized opportunities.
Today, AMF Bowling’s legacy lives on through various entities that continue to operate under its name. Whether you’re a casual bowler, a league enthusiast, or someone interested in the technology that enhances the bowling experience, the impact of AMF Bowling remains significant.
As the world of bowling continues to evolve, the legacy of AMF Bowling serves as a reminder of the enduring appeal of this beloved pastime and the companies that have played a pivotal role in shaping its history.