Could bowling be Saudi Arabia’s next big thing?
Saudi Arabia is about to witness the inauguration of three new bowling centers in the western, eastern and central provinces, dedicated by the government thanks to Turki Al-Sheikh, chairman of the General Sports Authority (GSA).
This is part of Vision 2030, with the GSA implementing a strategy to promote various sports and increase participation both professionally and for family leisure.
What makes bowling special is that it is a pastime for Saudis who were introduced to it in the late 1960s, when the country was sending people abroad for scholarships. From then onward, it became a legacy, moving from one generation to another up until now.
According to Saudi Bowling Federation (SBF) records, the Kingdom now has 30 bowling alleys distributed around the country. However, only the Universal Bowing Center (UBC) in Riyadh meets the international standard to host a professional league or tournament (it must consist of at least 30 lanes). The majority are run privately and tend to focus on attracting bowlers for fun.
Running a bowling center requires special technicians, expensive machines, continued maintenance and professional coaches. Those who have invested in that have succeeded in attracting the majority of bowling fans. For example, the UBC receives about 8,000 to 10,000 visitors a month, according to the center’s statistics.
Bowlers are divided into two categories: Those who go for fun, and those who go for fun as well as to challenge themselves to become professionals. Having these two categories implies that center owners have different tastes to cater for. Families, on the one hand, need extra space and tend to avoid bowling in shopping centers where hookah is served because of their children and lack of proper ventilation. Professionals, on the other hand, tend to look for a quiet place to focus and train with their coaches away from the crowd.
And this year, with permission being given for women to participate in bowling, there is a new category with different requirements that need to be addressed, such as a female-only space or different timings with female coaches. The latter would be a tough challenge for centers as the number of female coaches is very limited.
Al-Gosaibi Bowling Center in the Eastern Province succeeds in attracting families, professionals and foreigners. It also led the way by welcoming the first Saudi female bowling team, with the cooperation of the SBF.
Though so far bowling centers in the country are privately owned, universities have opened the door to introducing the game to females. One example is King Saud University in Riyadh, which has a club in the females’ division.
Bowling is for the whole family — it’s an easy game to play, but is hard to master.
Yet, just like we eat with our eyes before our mouth, with bowling if the centers are attracting enough fans, they and others will visit and play more often. That’s why we see pieces of art in the architecture of bowling centers around the world, from Germany to Korea. Whether they glow in the dark or are a masterpiece with a creative theme attracting kids, adults and the elderly, bowling centers are now in every corner, even just outside Heathrow Airport in London or in the White House Museum. Bowling could also be the new hype in Saudi if investors and businessmen considered a long-term approach. Promoting the game for leisure and professionally would ensure the consistent implementation of sports values within society.
• Dr. Razan Baker is a member of the board of directors at the Saudi Bowling Federation, a specialist in corporate social responsibility in sports, and a sports columnist/journalist.