The Showboat was the most famous bowling center in the country 30 years ago — back when the PBA ruled its weekly Saturday afternoon time slot on ABC with the late Chris Schenkel calling the strikes and spares.
Some years, the ‘Boat, as it was nicknamed, hosted a pair of annual Professional Bowlers Association tournaments, a tribute to the facility’s — and the city’s — popularity.
But the Showboat on East Fremont Street was shuttered in 2004, a couple of years after being renamed Castaways.
But its demise did not leave bowlers with no place to go, and many in the bowling industry still consider Las Vegas the nation’s hottest city for their sport.
This season, 21,801 members of the U.S. Bowling Congress and Southern Nevada Bowling Association regularly compete in the area’s 16 bowling centers. The only cities with more USBC members are Detroit, Chicago, Washington, Minneapolis and Denver.
What sets Las Vegas apart from its more populated brethren is that it has the most lanes per capita and about half of its centers are less than 10 years old.
This year puts the local bowling community in a national spotlight as Las Vegas hosts the 106th annual USBC Open Championships in a temporary, 60-lane facility inside Cashman Center. About 85,000 bowlers will compete — starting Feb. 21 and continuing over the next five months — and most will bring friends and relatives.
Several centers will host ancillary tournaments throughout the 154-day event, and many of the nearly 240,000 visitors will be exposed to top-notch bowling facilities.
Michael Gaughan, who started Coast Resorts, was looking for a way to lure locals to his casinos in the late 1980s. When he expanded the 2-year-old Gold Coast in 1990, he put 70 lanes on a new second floor.
“The more things you have to get people into your place the better off you are,” Gaughan said. “I didn’t even care if it made money, but it did. I’ve made a lot of money from bowling.”
Lanes were featured components when he later expanded The Orleans and built Suncoast and South Point, each of which he sold to Boyd Gaming a few years ago. Gaughan since has bought back South Point, and a little more than a year ago, he was able to lure Mike Monyak to leave Boyd to run South Point’s bowling program.
Monyak, a former PBA Tour player, said the biggest challenge for local bowling proprietors is to fill lanes with league bowlers.
“If anything, we’re overbuilt. Losing the Showboat was very sad because of its history and tradition, but it wasn’t a bad thing for our industry. We had too many lanes.”
Since the Showboat-turned-Castaways was closed, three bowling centers have opened — at South Point, Red Rock Station and the Strike Zone at Sunset Station — with a total of 208 new lanes.
Fortunately, the population also has grown.
Nine of Southern Nevada’s centers have at least 56 lanes, including four with 70 or more. The average is 45 lanes, which is more than twice the national average.
This year, Southern Nevada will host four professional tournaments, an international women’s event and a wealth of annual, high-paying amateur tournaments.
But league participation is a concern.
The USBC says 67 million Americans age 6 and older bowled at least once last year. But today’s total of about 2.4 USBC league members is about one-fourth the total of 1983.
“We’re feeling the effect of the economy a little bit,” said Mike Coffman, who oversees bowling operations for Boyd. “We’ve seen a little erosion in our open play (nonleague) base. Our bigger concern is what’s going to happen with our summer leagues.”
But Monyak said he is surprised revenue from last month matched figures from January 2008 at South Point.
“In a bad economy, bowling hangs in there,” he said. “Its entertainment value really shines. For $40 you can take a family of four bowling or to a movie, but you can bowl almost twice as long, and you can laugh, talk and interact with people. You can’t do that at a movie.
“And if you’re bowling, you can get up to go to the restroom without missing anything.”
SOUTHERN NEVADA BOWLING CENTERS
• Boulder Bowl, Boulder City, eight lanes
• Gold Coast, Las Vegas, 70
• Silver Nugget, North Las Vegas, 24
• Nellis 300, Nellis Air Force Base, 16
• Orleans, Las Vegas, 70
• Pahrump Nugget, Pahrump, 24
• Red Rock, Las Vegas, 72
• Sam’s Town, Las Vegas, 56
• Santa Fe, North Las Vegas, 60
• South Point, Las Vegas, 64
• Strike Zone, Henderson, 72
• Suncoast, Las Vegas, 64
• Wildfire Lanes, Henderson, 18
• Terrible’s Town, Henderson, 16
• Texas Station, Las Vegas, 60
• Virgin River, Mesquite, 24
COURTESY: Southern Nevada Bowling Association