How advanced technology imitates bowling and billiards

PAW PAW, Ill. — There`s no bowling alley in my hometown anymore, and coin-operated pool tables in the dimly lit back rooms of a couple taverns have replaced a once-flourishing family poolroom. Even in these low-tech — in reality, no-tech — industries, the economies of scale driven by technological change are altering the marketplace, just they are in the electronics business.

Oct 1st, 1999

by John Rhea

PAW PAW, Ill. — There`s no bowling alley in my hometown anymore, and coin-operated pool tables in the dimly lit back rooms of a couple taverns have replaced a once-flourishing family poolroom. Even in these low-tech — in reality, no-tech — industries, the economies of scale driven by technological change are altering the marketplace, just they are in the electronics business.

In each case, unacceptably high direct labor costs mandated at least a modest degree of automation. The results have been mixed. With automated pinsetting and electronic scoring, bowling now thrives in attractive venues that draw families. Pool (or pocket billiards, if you prefer) has declined because the coin-operated machines only allow the customers to play one kind of game, which has taken the skill and the enjoyment out of the sport.

I made a sentimental journey home this summer for a high school class reunion and visited the store my family bought in 1952 as a combination ice cream parlor, bowling alley, and poolroom. Now it`s a real estate office, from where a high school chum, Dick Bettner, is selling old Victorian homes as weekend retreats for well-heeled Chicagoans.

It was one of those Chicagoans who drove us out of the bowling business 40-odd years ago. He moved to our little village of 800 people and built a state-of-the-art bowling alley across the street from our little two-lane, manually operated alley in the basement of our store. We bailed out of the business immediately, selling out to a bowling alley broker, who managed to move all the equipment to another location for somebody else to operate until automated facilities arrived there.

The underlying reason is economics. The going rate in those days was one dollar to bowl three games. We had two sessions of league bowling four nights a week. With five men or women on a team bowling three games per session that yielded $20 per night. We paid the pinsetters (frequently me) 10 cents per game, or $6 a night. That`s a 30 percent labor cost even before the cost of the daily cleaning and buffing of the alleys, refurbishing the balls and pins, cleaning up around where the bowlers sat, etc.

The economic outlook was equally bleak for the poolroom. We had three tables and charged 10 cents a game. There were a variety of games, which typically took less than 10 minutes each, so if the tables were full we could gross about two dollars an hour. The minimum wage in those days had just gone up from 60 to 75 cents per hour, and it was essential for somebody to monitor the tables constantly to make sure our customers paid for every game they played. Once again, direct labor costs ran at least 30 percent.

We bailed out of that business, too, to concentrate on ice cream and Coca Cola products, where the producers have structured the market to assure high gross profit margins for their retailers — although it didn`t do much for the social status of a high school boy who had once had his own poolroom and bowling alley.

Coin-operated pool tables obviate the problem of labor costs, but they introduce new problems; the end use has to adapt to the technology. Sound familiar?

The coin-operated mechanism collects all the balls in play — except for the cue ball — in the interior of the pool table until the players insert more money. The cue ball, which is slightly smaller in diameter, returns to the players when someone inadvertently puts it into one of the pockets, or "scratches." The net result is that only one game can be played: "eight ball," in which one side attempts to clear the table of all the solid-colored balls (one through seven) and the other, the striped balls (nine through fifteen) before finally sinking the eight ball. With only one, fairly easy game to play, interest logically dwindled, and the sport was relegated to the back rooms of taverns.

Economies of scale cut both ways. The front-end costs of an automated bowling alley or coin-operated pool table dictate sufficient sales volume to pay off the debt, while simultaneously covering operating expenses and generating adequate profits. This isn`t too serious for tavern owners, who can probably write off the investment as a necessary cost of attracting customers for their more profitable beverages. Bowling alley proprietors don`t have that luxury. They`re only in the bowling business, and the high front-end costs require a large enough customer base to keep the alleys busy. There weren`t enough customers in Paw Paw, which still has a population of 800. The Chicagoan who drove us out of the bowling business bailed out shortly after we did. Nobody wanted to take a chance on another failure, so to this day there`s no bowling alley in my hometown.

As Thomas Boswell, the sports reporter at the Washington Post, pointed out in his wonderful book, How Life Imitates the World Series, there are some transcendental truths to be derived from seemingly mundane human activities like sports. Instant replay is coming back to football, for example, and sports writers have gone into a frenzy trying to assess its impact. In the case of bowling and pocket billiards, I doubt that 40 years ago anybody could have foreseen how the fortunes of these sports would have diverged on the basis of changing technology.

Nor could anybody have resisted the introduction of new technology. The market determines that. For people in all technology-dominated industries it`s useful to reflect occasionally on which way the emerging technologies are driving the market — and then scramble to get on the right side. Standard products, for example, are universal. They will fit in any application, and do not fundamentally change the game. Custom products, on the other hand, are stuck in the dead end of billiards because they do not adapt well to changing technology; they cannot change as the game changes. Imitate bowling if you can and leave pocket billiards to somebody else.

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