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Bowlmor AMF's plan to strike it big in bowling

When Brunswick (BC) ended its association with bowling after more than a century and sold its properties to Bowlmor AMF for $270 million, the bowling world was stunned. But the privately held Bowlmor AMF has won over the skeptics, and now it aims to attract new players through a $10 million ad campaign that began earlier this month, a first for the industry.

Under CEO Tom Shannon, the Mechanicsville, Virginia-based company has invested $90 million over the past two years to upgrade the centers to make them less "Big Lebowski" and more family-friendly. So far, the strategy is working.

In the past year, Bowlmor AMF's Mar Vista center in Los Angeles saw revenue surge 157 percent, and another one in Norwalk, Connecticut, saw a 254 percent revenue jump, helped by a gain in millennial consumers. The company is taking a cautious approach to expansion and is focusing on fixing its existing locations this year, then it plans to open a handful of new ones in 2016.

"The operators had allowed their centers to really become run down and just not appealing for the modern consumer," Shannon said in an interview with CBS MoneyWatch. "The whole point is that so no one walks into one of our centers, turns around and leaves because it's just not nice enough for them. We have a lot of work to do to raise the level of the product."

One of Shannon's biggest challenges is balancing the needs of the league bowlers, who take their sport seriously, with those of more casual players looking for a fun night with their friends or a place to throw a birthday party for their children. Shannon is also promoting professional bowling through Bowlmor AMF's ad campaign featuring pro bowler Jason Belmonte.

"Sport bowling, league bowling has a very long tradition in the U.S., and I think that's going to continue for many years to come," Shannon said. "We have embraced that heartily, and we have also renovated and upgraded the user experience on the casual side to a much greater degree."

The bowling industry, though, has had a rocky recent history. AMF had sought bankruptcy protection twice since 2001 before Bowlmor acquired it in 2013 with the backing of private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management and Credit Suisse.

The number of people who bowl at least one game a year has fallen to 69 million, down from 71 million a few years ago. League bowling, which was once a mainstay of centers, attracts about 1.8 million players, down from 9 million in the 1970s and 1980s.

Bowlmor AMF isn't the only big player in the sport. Competitors include Lucky Strike Entertainment and Splitsville, which market themselves more as entertainment destinations. But Shannon said Bowlmor places a greater emphasis on bowling than those rivals.

"Our average center has 40 lanes," he said. "A lot of these boutiques dabble in bowling. Maybe they have a dozen lanes."

Indeed, Bowlmor AMF is betting that emphasis will help it strike riches for some time to come.

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.