RICHMOND, Va. - If a mention of bowling conjures up an image of a smoky room filled with paunchy guys in untucked shirts with team names sewn onto the backs, chances are you haven't bowled lately.
New alleys have glow-in-the-dark balls and pins for late-night bowling, kid-friendly bumpers that keep balls out of the gutters and monitors that play funky messages when bowlers roll a strike.
Even the lexicon has changed: The industry prefers bowling centers instead of bowling alleys.
"It adds to the game to see accents like that. It's exciting," said Zenia Burnett, 22, who was playing with a group of friends at a Richmond bowling alley.
One of the biggest forces behind the new image is Richmond-based AMF Bowling Worldwide - also the biggest player in the industry with 322 bowling centers in the United States, including two in Augusta, and 87 in 10 other countries.
The company, which still only has about 5 percent of the approximately 6,800 centers in the United States, is aggressively expanding by buying up smaller chains. It also has big plans for international growth, where bowling is often almost unknown.
AMF also is the world's largest supplier of bowling equipment - everything from bowling balls to high-tech machines that pick up the pins after they have been toppled.
The goal is to turn AMF into a global brand associated with bowling - the same way that Kodak is associated with film, McDonald's with fast food and Kleenex with tissues, said Merrel Wreden, the company's vice president in charge of marketing.
"It's an industry that's ripe for consolidation," said Sandy Hansell of Sandy Hansell & Associates, a consultant and broker for the bowling industry in Southfield, Mich. "Most of the centers are mom and pop operations, and many of them are getting ready to retire."
In the past year, AMF bought 112 bowling centers in the United States and six in Britain.
When AMF buys a bowling center, it spends an average of $300,000 to $400,000 to renovate it, Mr. Wreden said. Discolored lanes are torn out and aging equipment is replaced with state-of-the-art technology.
Restaurants are given a face lift, and they are moving away from the traditional fare of tepid beer and hot dogs. Mr. Wreden said fast-food chains are an option. In many locations, billiard tables and video games are installed.
While AMF's domestic growth potential is great, the market itself is not growing much.
In the past, the industry depended on league bowlers, players who took the game seriously and committed to play regularly for a whole season.
"Lifestyles changed and it became harder and harder for people to make a commitment to be in one place for 35 weeks in a row," broker Hansell said. "The number of people participating in leagues began to shrink and the industry began to widen its thrust to attract more bowlers."
The fancy marketing has allowed the industry to just offset the loss of league bowlers by drawing in more occasional bowlers.
"When you have the core league bowler decline like we've had, it's difficult to replace," said Steve Ryan president and chief executive officer of Strike Ten Inc., the industry's new trade group.
For truly rapid growth, AMF is turning to international markets.
The United States has about one lane per 2,000 people - a much lower ratio than other countries with rapidly growing middle classes. China has one bowling lane for every 300,000 people; Brazil has 450,000 people per lane; Poland has 2 million people per lane; and India has 25 million per lane.
"Bowling is one of those recreational activities that a burgeoning middle class will go to," Mr. Wreden said.
He said the same thing happened in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s and in Japan in the late 1970s.
"It becomes a social outing as well as a recreational or sporting outing," he said.
AMF earned $549 million last year - $310 million in the United States and the rest in countries ranging from Japan to Korea and Sweden.
So far, AMF has made big inroads in foreign countries with its bowling supply business. The company sold more than 1,500 packages last year that contain all the equipment needed to set up a single bowling lane in China. In contrast, AMF sold only about 200 such packages in the United States last year, Mr. Wreden said. Each package sells for $35,000.
AMF has its own network of bowling centers in some countries, including Britain and Australia. But in China, Japan and some others the company has only a few alleys it uses to showcase AMF's equipment for local buyers.
AMF also is setting up joint ventures that will give it 20 centers in Asia and 39 in Brazil and Argentina.
The industry's growth potential has attracted attention from Wall Street. The merchant bank Goldman, Sachs & Co. bought a two-thirds stake in AMF for $1.3 billion last year.
"They see the business as a high return on investment business and a high cash flow business with significant growth possibilities," said Stephen Hare, AMF's chief financial officer.
There are about 6,800 bowling centers in the country.
More than 53 million people bowled at least once last year.
The bowling industry, including bowling centers and equipment manufacturing, earned $4.3 billion in 1995.
SOURCE: Strike Ten