You are currently viewing Is Bowling the Most Popular Sport in America? Analyzing the Data

Is Bowling the Most Popular Sport in America? Analyzing the Data

  • Reading time:12 mins read

Bowling has long held a venerated place in American culture and recreation. For generations, bowling alleys have been community hubs and centers for competition. The image of friends sharing pizza and rolling balls down lanes together has become an iconic part of the American pastime.

Given this history, bowling is often referred to as one of the most popular sports and recreational activities in the United States. But does the data actually back up this claim?

While bowling remains a beloved activity, its popularity has waned over the past several decades when compared to other professional, collegiate, and recreational sports.

By looking at factors like league participation rates, demographic data, industry revenues, media coverage, and cultural presence, we can gain a clearer picture of bowling’s standing.

The numbers may reveal that the strikes, spares, and splits of the bowling golden years have given way to a more complex situation. Bowling still holds an important place in many communities, but other activities have arguably eclipsed it in terms of national mainstream popularity.

Bowling League Participation Rates Declining Over Time

One of the best ways to measure bowling’s popularity is to look at league participation rates over recent decades. League bowling, whether through long-standing associations or short-term leagues, provides a sense of how many people actively and regularly compete in the sport.

In 1980, approximately 8 million Americans were part of a bowling league. At that time, over 12 percent of U.S. adults identified as league bowlers.

But by 1998, less than half as many Americans regularly participated in bowling leagues. League membership had dropped to approximately 3.5 million bowlers.

By 2013, the United States Bowling Congress reported that league membership had further declined to just over 2.3 million bowlers. The percentage of adult league bowlers was down to 4.7 percent, one-third of the highs seen in 1980.

While these absolute numbers are still sizable, the sharp downward trend shows declining engagement in competitive bowling over the past 30-40 years.

Other recreational sports that require equipment and facilities like golf and tennis have also seen drops in league participation over this period.

But the fall of league bowling has been exceptionally steep, likely due in part to changes in work and recreation habits. The rise of more flexible, drop-in style fitness and social activities has put a dent in structured league bowling.

Still, league participation rates alone don’t tell the whole story. Recreational, non-league bowling remains relatively popular, even if less centralized than in decades past.

Occasional Bowlers Keeping the Lanes Active

While league bowling has declined, bowling as an occasional recreational activity has fared better. The number of people who bowl at least once a year has stayed relatively steady over the past several decades.

A National Sporting Goods Association survey found that over 39 million Americans went bowling at least once during 2020. Though methodology changes make direct comparison to previous years difficult, numbers have generally fluctuated between 40-50 million annual bowlers over the past couple of decades.

This indicates that while fewer bowlers are committing to leagues and teams, plenty still dust off their bowling balls for birthday parties, corporate events, family visits to the lanes, and other recreational outings each year.

Casual bowling for fun continues to attract participants across generations. The social atmosphere and accessibility likely contribute to its endurance as a group activity option.

Bowling does face strong recreational competition from activities like basketball, hiking, and golf, which all saw over 20 million estimated participants in 2020.

While bowling bests some other sports like tennis and softball in recreational participation, it does not stand out as significantly above and beyond alternatives. Much of bowling’s enduring recreational appeal comes from its uniqueness as an activity. The novelty helps it hold its own despite external trends.

Bowling Demographics Changing Along with Broader Population

To better understand bowling’s evolving place in American society, it’s insightful to break down its demographics. In its mid-20th century heyday, bowling leagues included diverse mixes of men, women, and youth. But since the sport’s peak, demographics have shifted along with broader societal changes.

As of 2013, 69 percent of adult league bowlers were men, and 58 percent were age 50 and up. By contrast, only 7 percent of league members were under age 18. Regional differences also remain, with nearly a quarter of all American bowlers living in the Midwest.

While these figures represent serious league bowlers, recreational participation data similarly shows bowling skew older. Around 65 percent of recreational bowlers are age 34 and up. Roughly 56 percent are male and 44 percent female, indicating a more even gender split for casual play.

Bowling’s aging participant base reflects broader declines in youth sports participation across the board. Children and teens have countless competing activities and digital entertainment options. Attracting younger demographics will be key to the sport’s future.

Bowling organizations have responded with more modern marketing and events catered to younger crowds. Time will tell if these efforts can successfully broaden bowling’s appeal.

Steady Industry Revenues Masking Undercurrents of Change

For an activity often perceived as past its prime, bowling still generates substantial revenue each year. The bowling industry in the U.S. brought in an estimated $2.06 billion in 2021.

While business disruptions impacted revenue over the past couple of years, pre-2020 numbers remained similar. Revenue has floated within a steady $2.0-2.5 billion range for quite some time.

But behind that absolute revenue figure lies nuance. The number of bowling centers in the U.S. has decreased over time. Centers now generate more revenue by offering new attractions like arcades, upgraded dining options, and sports bar environments. These offerings surrounding the bowling experience account for a growing portion of revenue.

While industry dollars remain stable, league, open, and recreational bowling revenues have all gradually declined over the past 20+ years when accounting for inflation.

Food, entertainment, and ancillary offerings have filled in the gaps. So while bowling centers can still thrive as businesses, their financial models have diversified beyond just bowling revenue. Operators have needed adjustment and innovation to stay afloat.

Media Coverage and Pop Culture Presence Lack Mainstream dominance

Two other figures can round out our examination of bowling’s national popularity – broadcast media coverage and presence in pop culture. While subjective, these measures provide useful context around bowling’s current place in the American consciousness.

In terms of media coverage, bowling lacks a major consistent presence. ESPN featured the PBA Tour from 1962-1997, bringing bowling into millions of homes.

But aside from smaller channels like FS1 that air events, bowling has minimal national TV time today compared to the “big 4” pro sports (football, baseball, basketball, hockey) and college sports. Even niche sports like poker and cornhole now receive more airtime.

Pop culture visibility has also slowed since the sport’s mid-century heyday. Films like Kingpin and The Big Lebowski gave bowling a cultural spotlight in past decades.

But modern references are few and far between. Real-world tournament sponsors like work to keep bowling on the national radar. Still, these efforts have not vaulted it back into mainstream consciousness just yet.

Among recreational activities, bowling falls somewhere in the middle – not obsolete but not at the peak of relevance. While it retains a nostalgic kitsch factor, the next generation of pop culture momentum remains to be seen.

The Verdict: Bowling Still Beloved But Lacking Prior Mainstream Popularity

Given the data and perspectives covered, we can now synthesize a verdict on bowling’s current standing. The numbers reveal a complex situation below the surface-level narrative.

It appears premature to claim bowling as America’s outright most popular sport in 2023. Measured both by participation rates and societal visibility, it does not have the dominant mainstream presence as in prior generations.

The highest league and recreational bowling participation today comes from older demographics, pointing to a need for renewal. Industry dollars remain steady but increasingly rely on reinvention, not just bowling revenue alone.

However, while past its competitive peak, bowling unquestionably retains a beloved place in American culture. Tens of millions still take to the lanes every year for recreation and tradition.

Major tournaments still command large crowds. Centers remain valued community spaces, even if not just for bowling alone. The sport maintains infrastructure and enthusiasm beyond many activities.

In the end, bowling sits in a gray zone today – neither collapsed nor the thriving attraction of yesteryear. The sport has staying power but also room for growth.

Proactive efforts to attract youth demographics and evolve with consumer tastes can write the next chapter in Bowling’s rich story. Bowling may not claim the “most popular” mantle out right now, but it retains hallmarks worthy of preservation.

The Future: Signs of Hope for Bowling’s Resilience

For stalwart bowling fans and those newly discovering the sport’s joys, there are legitimate reasons for optimism moving forward.

Recent years have seen increased promotion and marketing of bowling as an inclusive, family-friendly activity. Virtual reality platforms have helped introduce new fans to bowling environments. Rebranding and event outreach continue engaging younger crowds critical to sustainability.

Leaders also recognize the importance of showcasing diversity in bowling. Once dominated by white male leagues, organizations now celebrate role models across gender, race, sexual orientation, and ability. This greater representation and intentional outreach expands bowling’s appeal in an evolving America.

Revamped coaching programs also develop the next generation of bowling talent and enthusiasts starting from a young age. Schools and community centers use bowling to teach important life lessons around respect, focus, and persistence.

While the data shows bowling is no longer America’s undisputed most popular sport, it retains a special place in the nation’s culture. With smart evolution, broader inclusion, and grassroots development, bowling could roll towards a new renaissance. The ingredients remain for this classic pastime to thrive and inspire future generations.

Frequently Asked Questions

How popular is bowling as a sport?

  • Bowling is still enjoyed by millions annually, but its popularity has declined from its peak in the mid-20th century based on falling league participation rates. It now ranks behind leading recreational sports like golf, tennis, basketball, and others in terms of regular participants.

What is the #1 sport in the world?

  • Soccer/association football has the most global reach and fans worldwide, making it arguably the #1 sport globally.

Where does bowling rank as sports?

  • Bowling ranks outside the top 10 most popular sports in America today. It falls behind sports like football, basketball, baseball, soccer, golf, and more in terms of fans and participation.

What are the top 5 most watched sports in the US?

  • The top 5 most watched sports in the U.S. are football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and ice hockey.

Is bowling a sport yes or no?

  • Yes, bowling is considered a sport, requiring physical skill and competitive play.

What percentage of people like bowling?

  • Around 24% of Americans bowl at least once a year, showing an enduring affection for bowling as casual recreation. But only around 4% now participate in leagues.

What is America’s #1 sport?

  • American football remains the most popular spectator sport in the U.S. based on TV viewership, revenues, and fan engagement.

What is the 3 most famous sport?

  • Globally, the 3 most famous sports are soccer/football, basketball, and cricket.

What is the #2 sport in the world?

  • Cricket is considered the 2nd most popular sport in the world by overall fan following, behind soccer/football.