Love Bowling, Hate the Shoes? You're in Luck (Sort Of)

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Credit: Bowlero

Part of the charm of bowling — or the horror, depending on who you ask — is those red and black leather and rubber shoes with that distinctive sweat-and-varnish smell.

One bowling giant says it's high time for those puppies to get a refresh.

Bowlero Corp., which operates 300 bowling centers in North America, has called on alley cats to "redesign the iconic bowling shoe." Bowling shoe design enthusiasts must submit their designs by mid-April, then five finalists will participate in a fashion show (on actual bowling lanes — though that does sound slippery). The company says it will eventually select a design to professionally produce and distribute to more than 75 locations.

Bowling was a $3.8 billion industry in the U.S. in 2017, with Bowlmor AMF Corp. (now Bowlero Corp.) holding a 15.7 percent market share, according to a December 2017 report from IBISWorld. The report says Bowlmor AMF Corp is the largest industry operator — it acquired AMF Bowling Worldwide and Brunswick Corp.'s bowling centers business in recent years. Bowlero is a private company, but IBISWorld estimates its U.S. relevant revenue will increase at an annualized rate of 76.1 percent over five years from 2017 to reach $592.8 million.

Bowlero has tried to class up bowling in recent years -- it has set to work upgrading some of its locations that hadn't been spruced up since the '50s or '60s. Along with those makeovers came "upscale" food and beverage service to some of its higher-end "experiential centers": Think two-foot hot dogs and a 14-inch "Behemoth Burger."

Bowlero's Chief Customer Officer Colie Edison says that's all meant to change bowling's rep. "It used to be warm beer and cold food," she says. Now, it's laneside lounges and high-definition video screens at the company's roughly 50 experiential centers. But through all those bowling upgrades, they've left the shoes be.

Not anymore.

Now, before you think, "Bowling Yeezys," or "Bowling stilettos," don't get too excited. Edison says the shoes have to stay to a design template, which has the traditional sneaker shape with a bowling sole (for safety reasons).

"They have to stay in the mold — you're not going to see high heels and high tops," she says. She added that contest entrants are welcome to get creative with colors, patterns and overall design.

Maybe it's a good thing the shoes won't see that drastic a change: Edison acknowledges that there's some beauty in the nostalgia of bowling. "The fact that this is an analog experience, when everything is so digital" is appealing to its customers, she says.

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