USBC changing direction to try to generate income through lifelong bowlers by Mark Miller



    Republished courtesy of (Dec. 14, 2011)

    USBCLogow.jpgIt's no secret the number of league bowlers has dropped every year for more than three decades. It's also well-known the many ways the United States Bowling Congress and its predecessors have attempted to change that.

    Adding more awards, increasing youth scholarships, creating national promotions and asking people to join for the good of the sport have done nothing to stop the drop from nine million to two million registered league bowlers since 1980.

    So when USBC announced at its annual convention it was changing focus from promoting bowling as a sport to a lifetime activity, people had every right to be skeptical.

    But USBC leaders like Executive Director Stu Upson and new President Jim Sturm say this time will be different. They believe USBC has done a better job of doing its homework to learn what will entice today's consumer to join USBC and to create programs and services to meet current needs.

    "We learned it is not possible to create products that appeal to everyone," Upson said. "We have to offer a broad amount of products and services.

    "For example, Apple has the iPod but has several different versions. That's where we have to have a variety of things.

    "We have been too rigid with our offerings. Yes, certified averages and awards are important to some people but not everyone."

    USBC spent its first six-and-a-half years taking its national governing body status serious enough that its mission focused on ensuring the integrity and protecting the future of the sport. Its vision sought to grow the sport of bowling through more people recognizing bowling as a sport and more people participating in bowling as a sport.

    Many people thought this was a good direction because it brought USBC back to the original intent of its American Bowling Congress roots to standardize the rules of bowling amid the chaos of conflicting ideas. Only later did ABC, and after it the Women's International Bowling Congress and Young American Bowling Alliance, begin thinking about members to fund those principles.

    "ABC, WIBC and YABA were membership organizations supporting USA Bowling (the then-United States Olympic Committee-recognized NGB)," said former USBC President Darlene Baker at the USBC Convention. "USBC has both responsibilities as an NGB and membership organization which has caused some confusion. The last few years there's been a lot of attention on the NGB and it's led to the perception we don't care about the average member."

    "I agree with that," Upson said later. "I've been here two years and consider myself an average member and think that perception has been true."

    So to help change that perception and help grow membership and revenue, USBC decided to move the needle to the middle of the NGB/membership pendulum. After losing more than $6.2 million in 2008-09 and 2009-10 and having to cut staff and programs to return to fiscal solvency in 2010-11, USBC knew it had to do something different.

    The decision to do so began last year when the USBC Strategic Planning Committee looked again at what the organization should be when it grows up.

    "It was quite simple," Upson said. "What we'd been doing for the past 20 years hadn't been working.

    "Certainly we're an NGB. That is what we are about. But we need members to help fund what we do and to get more people involved in bowling."

    One of the first things the committee did was to create new mission and vision statements. While approved by the board and announced to the USBC staff long before, they weren't officially revealed to the public until the Convention.

    Mission – To provide benefits, resources and programs that enhance the bowling experience.
    Vision – Create lifelong bowlers.

    Once USBC learned peoples' thoughts, it began testing some new concepts in the 2010-11 season. These included different products and upgrades and delivery methods.

    Among the products was a member welcome gift. Also tested was a blanket league certification where all bowlers in a center become members. Plus, short season, fun leagues and casual memberships were tried.

    The question remained - will members pay more for better benefits?

    "It's not so much continuing with things they have to buy but giving them something they want to buy," Upson said. "The key element is frequent, casual bowlers. What is it that will entice them to join USBC? It may not be awards. It may not even be a certified average."

    And it may not even be traditional bowling related products and services, Sturm said.

    "For some people it's not about league prize money but about reward points," Sturm said. "Others may want discounts on bowling balls or discounts on food and beverages. It's all about what will it take to get them into USBC."

    New on the delivery side is league secretary software that would have memberships sent directly from the league secretary to USBC. Currently, bowlers fill out membership information on their first league night, give it to their league secretary who sends to the local association which processes the applications and sends on to USBC headquarters in Arlington, Texas.

    The new model identifies two stakeholders – field ambassadors who care about and will help promote bowling and bowling center owners and staff who deal daily with their customers.

    What about the 3,000 local and state USBC associations?

    "As I said at Convention, this is not in any way a program to put associations out of business," Upson said. "Will it change their roles? Yes. And we'll need feedback from all of our constituents, association volunteers, proprietors and bowlers."

    "We will refocus the purpose of the local and state associations," Baker said. "They will be more than processing centers. Everyone's time is valuable and we want to help the proprietors."

    About 12-15 markets of varying sizes and locations have been testing the new ideas. USBC leaders will then analyze the results and form a plan to present at the 2012 USBC Convention in April.

    The goal is for a limited rollout of the new package in 2012-13 with national rollout in 2013-14 with the hope of no membership loss that season.

    While some new programs are in the testing phase, two aimed at youth already are underway. One is teaching parents and other volunteers basic coaching skills. Free instructional classes for USBC associations and Bowling Proprietors' Association of America-member centers feature curriculum aimed strictly at teaching youth how to bowl.

    "Our belief and vision is that we can grow the sport simply by teaching the game and developing a volunteer coaching base is paramount in executing that vision," said International Bowling Campus Director of Youth Development, Chad Murphy said. "With the help of Carolyn Dorin-Ballard and the USBC Coaching team, we have some of the best instructors in the nation onboard to lead these seminars. Now we need parents, association leaders and center managers to take advantage of the opportunity."

    Also available this season is the USBC Roll 'N Grow membership for youth age 7 and under. For just $8, those young bowlers in regular or bumper league of any length can join and receive special awards and benefits.

    Roll 'N Grow memberships include a $1 processing fee and are in addition to USBC Youth Basic membership for $5 ($1 local processing) and Youth Standard for $17 ($2 local processing, 50 cents state fee).

    "We're putting a lot of emphasis on youth," Upson said. "The creation of the youth department on Campus proves that.

    "I know it's a cliché but youth are our future. But we also want to do what we can for adults."

    NOTE: The Bowling Examiner originally wrote this for International Bowling Industry magazine.