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Home > indoor games run up the score

When The Sports Authority opened a small footprint prototype store in Ocala, Fla., a year ago, virtually every department in the 25,000-square-foot store was a condensed version of those found in the company's standard 40,000-square-foot box.

One of the few exceptions was the bowling category. The 24-foot set featured 8 feet of balls, 8 feet of shoes, 4 feet of bags and 4 feet of miscellaneous accessories. When asked if bowling was a popular activity in the Ocala area, a store associate said, "It's huge."

Apparently it is huge in a lot of places. Bowling is the most popular sport in the United States, according to SGMA International's annual Sports Participation in America study. More people bowl (53.2 million) than walk on treadmills (43.4 million), camp (49.8 million) or fish (51.4 million).

That doesn't surprise Jerry Schneider, even though as communications manager for the American Bowling Congress (ABC), Schneider has seen the bowling industry change considerably during the past 30 years.

"Times have changed. Our membership has dropped quite a bit in the last 20 years because there is so much competition for the entertainment dollar," Schneider said. "Bowling at the organized level probably peaked in the late '70s."

At that time, ABC had 4 million members who were regular participants in weekly league play. Since then, its membership has declined to 1.65 million members, and membership in other organizations, such as the Women's International Bowling Congress and the Young American Bowling Alliance, also has declined. Today, those organizations, along with USA Bowling, are in the process of merging their organizations to form the new United States Bowling Congress.

"The move will make us a more unified marketing force and make us more efficient," Schneider said.

Although there has been a decline in the number of people who bowl frequently--the group most inclined to purchase balls, shoes and accessories--the sport's over-all popularity still reached an all-time high in 2001 when an estimated 55.4 million people bowled at least once, according to SGMA International. Bowling's popularity has surfaced in other ways, as well, with the bowling shoe look being one of the hottest trends in the casual footwear market the past few years. And Scheider believes organized leagues could make a resurgence.

Today's bowling "centers" are larger, cleaner and feature more amenities than the bowling centers of old. Bowling continues to be great indoor recreation during the cold winter months in northern markets and during the hot summer months in southern markets, according to Schneider. It is also an activity popular with today's seniors and with more aging baby boomers.

For most mass market and sporting good retailers, unless a concentration of frequent bowlers is located nearby, devoting space to the bowling category is a losing proposition. Casual bowlers don't create strong demand for products, and the prospect of selling balls and offering fitting services would require adding training and labor costs.

Instead, it is far easier with the indoor game category to pursue those segments where, despite lower participation levels, consumers are more likely to purchase products. This is the case with the pool and billiard industry. Nearly 40 million people played pool last year, roughly the same number as a decade ago, but mass retailers have become very aggressive in their efforts to sell pool tables. This is especially true online, where retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Costco are selling products they never attempted to sell in the past, owing to the logistical and operational issues associated with selling pool tables in a retail environment.

For example, among the tables offered at was a Camarella brand table for $1,999.99 that included free shipping on the 820-pound item. offered several non-slate surface tables, but it, too, was selling an expensive indoor/outdoor table for $1,998.88. Costco offered the largest and most expensive selection, where six models in excess of $2,000 were offered, including an ornate model called the "Venetian" for $4,199.99.

Although the quality of tables sold by mass merchants has improved, selling a better quality pool cue remains a challenging proposition because of the service aspect necessary to sell a $200 cue and the potential for such products to be damaged in a mass market environment. Even selling cues costing less than $100 is difficult.

McDermott Cue Manufacturing, a well-known supplier of high-end products, made a brief foray into the mass market in 1998 when it introduced the Sabre brand. Although the imported cues sold for less than $100, the company quickly abandoned the effort.

"We are now focusing on cues that retail for $200, and it was a very good decision for us because we have had a fantastic year," said Steve Suhm, McDermott's marketing director. "The dealers that we work with responded to our decision to focus on the McDermott line and increased their inventory of our products."

The company's standard line retails for between $175 and $1,500, and according to Suhm, someone that really knows cues considers $175 an opening price point.

"It seems like the industry is getting tired of entry-level price point cues," Suhm said.

While the pool and bowling categories are full of challenging issues for retailers, the indoor game areas in which they excel are those such as foosball, air hockey and darts. These games appeal to mass market customers, are affordable, easy to play and the products are easy for retailers to ship, display and sell with minimal effort from sales associates.

"The table games category has been so strong for so many years [that] more and more retailers are attacking it," according to a major supplier.

Table games, as well as darts, are such stalwarts of the sporting goods industry that they have attracted the attention of other retailers, primarily during the holiday season. It is possible to find dartboards at department store retailers such as Dillards and Lord & Taylor. Other companies, such as Kohl's, Linens 'N Things and Bed Bath & Beyond, also sell table games during the holidays.

The most aggressive promotions continue to occur in the mass merchant channel, where discount stores and Sears now promote the category earlier in the holiday season cycle and with greater frequency.

In Wal-Mart's Thanksgiving weekend circular, the retailer featured a single price point promotion that gave customers the option of choosing between a Sportcraft Xenon foosball table, a 5-foot-long Regent Power Glide air hockey table or a Regent electronic dartboard in a wood grain cabinet with 12 darts for $49.62. Within the pages of its circular, the retailer also encouraged customers to visit its Web site for a larger assortment of table games.

At Target and Kmart, where circulars are distributed weekly rather than monthly, as is the case with Wal-Mart, indoor games were regular features. That was also the case with Sears.

Darts, air hockey and foosball are staples of the indoor games category, and like a lot of product categories, improvements in the quality of the merchandise continue to outstrip whatever modest price increases are being seen. Foosball tables being sold for home use at $200 price points today contain features such as cup holders, steel rods, smooth bearings and fast playing surfaces that a decade ago would have been found only on arcade models. The same is true with air hockey tables, where manufacturers have found ways to improve table design for enhanced playability while adding electronic features, such as automatic scoring, to accelerate play.

Enhancement to existing products accounts for most of the category's innovation as new product segments or new gaming categories have found it difficult to make inroads. Sportcraft's Rebound Shuffleboard game managed to secure distribution through Wal-Mart last year and was available for the holidays, but the product is the exception to the rule, as it is difficult to unseat proven sellers such as air hockey and foosball.

Rather than inventing a new game, other manufacturers have adapted outdoor games, such as golf, for indoor purposes. Electronic putting cups have been around a long time, but those products have grown more elaborate as is the case with Huffy's new brand called Definity Golf. The product line includes three different sized putting greens that are slightly elevated platforms that allow the cup to be recessed. With realistic turf, the ability to create breaks using foam contour pads and a surface users can stand on while putting, the product line will be introduced this month at the PGA Merchandise Show.

"You can put it outside, in a game room or in the basement," said Huffy spokesman Brian Meehan. Although Definity Golf is being positioned as a line of training aids, Meehan noted that the products are "turning into one of those high-end indoor games."

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