SIOUX CITY -- The homecomings were almost always happy times for Bo Goergen, returning to the place where he grew up in a large and wonderful family that impacted Sioux City in a great many ways.
The joy has been in short supply, though, for two of the more recent visits from a guy whose family became a cornerstone to what was once a flourishing local bowling community.
A little over 19 months ago, the 1978 Bishop Heelan graduate came back for a solemn farewell to his father, Jim, a talented athlete in his own right and for many years the co-owner of Greenville’s popular Park Bowl. I can’t imagine anyone in this entire clan that isn’t liked if not loved by all in their acquaintance and Jim certainly led by example.
Then, in late November, sadly, the 19 months she survived after losing her husband of 61 years, Blanche Goergen, a loving matriarch, succumbed to heartbreak. Thus, another family reunion filled with tears was in order.
Blanche’s brother, Bernie Schreiber, as many of you realize, was Jim’s longtime partner in the Park Bowl, a business launched by Blanche and Bernie’s dad, Wally. Bernie, now retired and living at Dakota Dunes, was the first baseball All-American at the University of Mississippi, which wouldn’t have plucked a young athlete out of Northwest Iowa for no good reason. Still, it was Bernie’s success as a professional bowler that became his best-known athletic achievement.
Then, a generation later, along comes Bo, following in his uncle’s footsteps as a PBA Tour performer while also becoming a successful bowling center proprietor. He is now the executive director for the Bowling Centers Association of Michigan. If you want to know some history, trends or projections on this particular sport, he’s your man.
That’s precisely why Bo, summoned to be with Mom in her final days, slipped away for a bit to see precisely what has become of bowling here. This wasn’t a happy experience, either, learning that a metro area that once supported eight different bowling establishments is now down to just two -- the 12 alleys at Rush Lanes, formerly Lewis Bowl, and then Harmony Lanes, one of only three 24-lane houses remaining in Western Iowa.
“I stopped at both centers, trying to get a feel of things and, yeah, you guys could use a lot of help getting bowling back where it belongs back home,’’ said Goergen, who simply can’t be 57 even though he isn’t denying it. “A town of that size, two centers should be flourishing. Bowling has had issues over the years with many, many factors. There’s no way to pinpoint any given factor specifically for what has happened.’’
What’s happened is that a country that had somewhere around 12,000 bowling centers in the mid-1960’s now has only 4,800. From 10-million sanctioned league bowlers in the U.S. in the late 1960’s, the ranks have thinned out to 1.5-million.
“You have the scoring element that is out of control due to a relaxation in specifications for the game and also in regard to the strength of the bowling balls to lane conditions to even the pins,’’ said Bo, who partners with his older brother, Rick, 61, in the Northern Lanes in Midland, Michigan. This is the establishment where Jim Goergen relocated after a lightning strike touched off the blaze that leveled the Park Bowl in July of 1986.
It was a couple of years later the American Bowling Congress heard the hue and cry from bowling proprietors across the nation, acceding to their wishes for rules changes that allowed their customers to post higher scores.
“They came up with what’s called ‘the system of bowling,’" said Bo.
A sanctioning body that once disallowed 300 games due to overly favorable conditions, the ABC gave the OK for proprietors to apply as much oil as they wished for the first 27 feet beyond the foul line on their 60-foot lanes.
“They said, ‘If you choose to oil any further, here are the parameters,’’ he said. “When you provide friction and hook to a bowling ball, the angle that it goes into the pocket is so much more severe. It carries a much better carry percentage.
“Then, about a year later came the invention of resin-reactive cover stock on bowling balls. Prior to that, all you had was urethane and plastic -- balls we use now only to make spares because they don’t hook as much. So, resin-reactive cover stock has pores in them and when they go through the oil, it kind of gets absorbed. The oil actually gets taken off the lanes and after so many games it creates a trough (to the pocket where strikes result). And the scoring went up exponentially.’’
Try these numbers:
| In 1984, with around eight-million sanctioned league bowlers in the U.S., there were just north of 3,500 perfect (300) games. In 2016, the 1.5-million sanctioned league bowlers scored 300 games more than 47,000 times.
| In the first 84 years of the ABC national tournament, now sanctioned by the United States Bowling Congress (USBC), a total of 34 perfect games were recorded. Then, in just the 1989 event, stretching from February to July, national tournament bowlers in Wichita, Kansas, the host that year, put up 300’s no less than 56 times.
| In 1997, 20-year-old Jeremy Sonnenfeld from Sioux Falls was competing at a college tournament in Lincoln when he was credited with bowling’s first-ever 900 series. Just two decades later, this has now happened nearly 40 times.
“Do you see the problem?’’ asks Goergen rhetorically.
“In bowling, I find it similar to other industries that go through peaks and valleys,’’ he said. “We have a governing body (USBC) and they have been having some challenges within them with the fact of allowing specifications to be too lax.’’
Goergen is among the difference makers working at making his sport more appealing in the modern world. That includes filling the void created by declining league participation with much more recreational or open bowling. The successful bowling centers have become more modern family entertainment with something for people of all ages.
“Jokingly, I like to say we have a tough time getting people to commit to a marriage for 32 weeks,’’ he mused. “How can we get them to commit to a 32-week bowling league?”
It’s all part of what Goergen discussed with Brian Atchison, who has sacrificed time and financial risk in keeping the Plaza Bowl open. Atchison isn’t in this for himself as much as he is for a love of the game.
“His intentions are fabulous,’’ Goergen said of Atchison. “I think he’s got a great foundation. I think he could be very successful, but he’s got to be put in a position to be that way and finances are a big part of it’’
And, we’ll get into some of that next Tuesday.