On a frigid January night in Portland, Maine, bowler “Herb’n Legend” stares down the pins at Bayside Bowl. Banners honoring the past winners of his league, Bowl Portland, hang above the 12 lanes and on the walls in this bandbox of an alley. The DJ has ’90s hip-hop flowing, and a surprising number of bowlers are dancing by the ball racks. Herb’n Legend, however, is locked in. If he gets a strike, his team will clinch its match. If he doesn’t, well, no one wants to think about that.
He calmly throws a hook and it breaks perfectly, sending all the pins flying save one. It wobbles theatrically and then falls.
Legend’s teammates swarm him with high-fives. One of them, who is wearing a headband, sunglasses, and a shaggy blond wig, hugs him so joyfully his headband goes askew. Even the opposing team high-fives him vigorously. This isn’t normal behavior for bowling leagues, but it is for BoPo, where everyone appreciates a good shot — including the peppermint schnapps variety.
Pseudonyms here are de rigueur — Herb’n Legend is actually Terry Robinson, a 44-year-old mortgage loan officer, and his wig-wearing teammate, Tom Reynolds, goes by the nickname Rick Vaughn, after Charlie Sheen’s “Wild Thing” pitcher in Major League. Another teammate calls himself Filthy McNasty, after the Horace Silver jazz song. Their female teammates — every team has to have at least one woman bowl in every game — are Slow Roll and Brandy.
Individuals and teams adopt personas as outrageous as their names. A bowler nicknamed Fabio rolls in a feather boa. Sharks and Stripes team members make it their mission to have the best shirts. They loosely follow the tropical theme of Miami Vice in their sleek, black shirts with the team’s pink flamingo mascot on the sleeve. The Bowl Trolls celebrate shots by chest bumping anyone in their vicinity; captain Mich “The Fuge” Ouellette shows off the full Jar Jar Binks tattoo on his back upon request.
“The intimacy here draws you in,” says Robinson, who has been bowling since he was a child growing up in Maine. “It’s just a unique setting I’ve never experienced anywhere else.”
For as playfully zany as the league may be, it’s also intensely competitive. BoPo is the best of Bayside Bowl’s five leagues, drawing some of the top bowlers in the state. The lanes are given a professional-level oil pattern to increase the difficulty. Bowlers track their averages with fantasy league fervor, checking stats and trash-talking recaps as soon as they are posted on the BoPo website. Mallory Nutting, the league’s top woman player and the 2017 league MVP, competes on the regional pro circuit. The date and bowler nickname for every perfect-300 game thrown there is inscribed in chalk on bricks on the walls. If a team needs a new bowler during the 16-week season, which runs from January to April, the website offers a hookup feature called Pinder.
The league’s rules start with “Be nice,” and end with “Don’t kick the ball return.” The season is capped by The Bowling Ball, an elaborate gala with a live band, which starts directly after the league championships. Last year, the theme was The Lawrence Welk Show, complete with a bubble machine and a 20-piece band. This year’s theme is Wes Anderson, invoking the music and spectacle of the director’s quirky films like The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Apparently, Bayside didn’t get the memo: We’re supposed to be bowling solo. The decline in league bowling, which had its heyday in the 1970s, was served up as evidence of societal collapse — a “vanishing form of social capital” — by Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam in a 1995 article and 2000’s Bowling Alone.
It is still true that fewer people are committing to league seasons, and aging urban bowling alleys are being sold to developers interested in the land underneath them, including in Cambridge. But bowling is having a renaissance, and perhaps nowhere more so than in Portland. When Bayside Bowl opened in 2010, there was one other tenpin bowling alley in the area. Now there are seven. Nationally, about 1,000 more leagues were registered in 2019 than in 2018, according to the United States Bowling Congress. Boutique alleys that double as music venues are drawing hipster crowds in places like Brooklyn, Austin, Texas, and Nashville. Bayside’s raucous atmosphere — led by BoPo regulars in the bleachers — infused a rejuvenated nationally televised pro bowling tour in 2019. It reflects a new approach to leagues: BoPo doesn’t play for money and focuses on inclusive participation. “They have a concept that I want all other bowling centers to adopt,” says Tom Clark, the commissioner of the Professional Bowlers Association.
People have been bowling in some form since ancient Egypt. “I’m convinced that it’s in humans’ DNA to throw something at another object to try and knock it down,” says Clark. This thrill fuels Bayside, where Putnam would find social capital overflowing like taps of Maine craft beer. On BoPo Tuesdays and Thursdays during the winter, you’ll see a cross-section of Portland life: movers, lawyers, paramedics, bartenders, boat captains, former Air Force mechanics, state legislators, and cannabis company owners. “There’s every tax bracket, literally everything you could want,” says Brian Owoc, a 40-year-old artist specializing in glass smoking pipes, who bowls as Jamaican Jerk (the wings restaurant that started the team wanted sauce nicknames). Bowling, he says, “is the equalizer.”
BoPo members refer one another to landscapers, plumbers, lawyers, and restaurant managers — to score hard-to-get tables in this foodie town. They attend weddings, fund-raisers, and funerals together, helping one another through the long, bleak winter months until they can exhale in summer and gather at Bayside’s solar-paneled rooftop bar. During league nights, they may mention their children or their gallery openings in passing, but they are primarily there to cheer a hambone (four strikes in a row). “It’s a place to just be — and not be what you do or who you are,” says Stephanie Martin, a 35-year-old who tends bar at Bayside and bowls as “Brandy” from the 1970s Looking Glass song. “We all just come together and meet up in this bowling sanctuary,” she says. “It’s about the game and it’s about team camaraderie.”
HOW DID PORTLAND, a city of roughly 67,000 people and as many sea gulls, get to be the epicenter of the largest participatory sport in the country, played at least once in the last year by 69 million Americans? In the beginning, things were slapdash.
Bayside owner Charlie Mitchell didn’t set out to open a bowling alley. He just wanted something to do during the winter, after he returned to Portland following a stint in Washington lobbying for the American Civil Liberties Union. This was 2007; Mitchell was 33, and had already served two terms in the Maine House of Representatives (his mother is Libby Mitchell, who served three decades as a leader in Maine’s House and Senate).
Despite being a native Mainer, Mitchell dreads winter. In D.C., he’d revived the ACLU’s entry in the Congressional Softball League, complete with nicknames and an in-house newsletter, and wanted to re-create that camaraderie he’d felt there. Though he had only bowled candlepin, he thought tenpin was more accessible. His younger sister Emily helped him recruit 70 friends, and friends of friends, to bowl on 12 teams at a bowling center outside town. When Bowl Portland started rolling in 2008, they used house balls and rented shoes. He also hired a DJ.
“We got a lot of flak” from other bowlers and even managers, Mitchell says. “They did not like the energy. There was pushback about the music, even though we were driving bar sales through the roof.”
But they also got some love. “We were on a league that was dying, a men’s league,” remembers Chris Johnson, a former chef who works in restaurant supply. “And then one night, a whole gang of people came in and they had T-shirts, all organized, with team colors. And they did not sit down. They yelled and screamed. We were sitting there saying, ‘We want to go bowl with those people! What the hell is going on?’ ”
Johnson took his team, Leisure Rolls, to BoPo. (His nickname, like some others in the league, is too cheeky to print.) The league grew to 22 teams the following year, and clearly needed more space. Mitchell was still in politics, a lobbyist for the Maine Community College System. But he’d find himself in state appropriations meetings computing bowling stats and writing recaps. He sensed a business opportunity.
Mitchell found an investor in then-Maine state Senator Justin Alfond, a scion of one of Maine’s wealthiest families, which is also a minority owner of the Red Sox. (Alfond’s grandfather sold Dexter Shoe Co. to Warren Buffett in 1993. The most profitable line? Bowling shoes.)
The two chose a brick warehouse in the West Bayside neighborhood near the Preble Street health clinic. They renovated it to include 12 lanes, a kitchen serving locally sourced food (from tater tots to salads), and a stage behind the bar for bands, and opened Bayside Bowl in 2010.
Mitchell infused Bayside with his campy wit — his BoPo name is Karl Hungus, after one of the German nihilists in The Big Lebowski. (Several other members have Lebowski nicknames, including Mitchell’s brother, Will, “The Dude.”) More BoPo teams and customers followed, helping transform the former industrial neighborhood into one that now boasts a distillery, a restaurant, a spinning studio, and a food lab. In February, Mitchell finalized negotiations to buy out Alfond’s share of the business.
“Every town has a boutique bowling alley,” Mitchell says. “There is no place that is league-centric, bowling-centric, that also does the other stuff.”
In 2017, to keep up with demand for leagues and also “other stuff” like weddings, Bayside built an eight-lane annex with a rooftop bar and food served from an AirStream hoisted onto the roof. The bar hosts a local podcast, national bands, and a summer film series. But Mitchell’s real goal in expanding was to draw professional bowling to Portland. He persuaded Clark, the Professional Bowlers Association commissioner and a former collegiate bowler, to come to a BoPo night. Clark was sold by the energy, and in 2015, Bayside hosted the PBA League Elias Cup finals, a team competition.
The night before that first Elias Cup, Mitchell addressed the members of BoPo. “This is going to be a moment that changes the history of bowling — where BoPo meets the PBA,” he said.
“And it was,” Mitchell says now. “It is.”
THE ELIAS CUP LEAGUE FINALS features a pro-am event the day before the main competition where a set number of BoPo teams pair with a pro for a tourney of their own. From the start in 2015, this event has been like love at third beer for the PBA and the BoPo. The vibe is unlike any other on the tour — pros might miss an easy spare and laugh about it. Professionals discovered how fun Portland could be, and the Elias Cup has been at Bayside ever since. Even the official event is lit — last year the winning pros ended up in a victory mosh pit with fans.
“They just love bowling, and they have a good time,” says professional bowler Kyle Troup, who as one of last year’s winners commanded the middle of the pit. Troup, known by his clown coif of strawberry-blond hair, fits right in to the quirkiness of Bayside. “There’s not many places where I hang out with the locals,” Troup says. “Here, I end up at bars with them. We act like we’ve been around each other forever.”
The synergy of fans and bowlers at the Elias Cup was a selling point the PBA’s Clark used in 2018 when he was negotiating a multiyear broadcast deal with Fox Sports. “The goal was to get these cool people who are young and got into bowling as a goof, but now appreciate bowling as a sport, to promote it to others,” he says. Bayside would continue to host the Elias Cup, and be the site for all rounds of the inaugural PBA playoffs.
The kickoff in April 2019 was nothing like your grandfather’s polyester plaid sport, the one narrated reverently by Chris Schenkel on Saturday afternoons on ABC. BoPo regulars were out in force three straight work nights, cheering and carrying on for all eight hours of the initial rounds. Among them were about a dozen women calling themselves the Babes of Bayside, in outfits — faux leather jackets a la Grease, skimpy Santa Claus skirts, and pageant gowns — they coordinated ahead of time. Some of the men wore retro tuxedos and wigs; one donned a squirrel costume. With music blaring, they chanted the bowlers’ names and clapped during their backswings. They were acting like it was a regular league night.
“The reason we’re all rowdy is because we all know each other, we’re hanging out with each other every week,” says Tom “Rick Vaughn” Reynolds, who has a 186 average and in his civilian life is a 41-year-old pediatric neurologist. “Now, we get this cool excuse to do what we do normally with each other and get fired up about bowling and have drinks together, but do it on TV.”
Traditionalists from around the world brought the noise on social media, accusing the BoPo folks of mocking the game with their cacophony and trashy outfits. Bayside even received nasty phone calls. In person, too, some attendees were disgruntled. David Ricci and some friends drove up from Manchester, New Hampshire, for the PBA finals last June and ended up sitting in the balcony, to get away from the noise. “It’s very distracting when they roll,” Ricci, 73, said at the time. “I love to see people enjoying it, but it’s ultimately too loud in here. It’s not football.”
Stephanie Martin, one of the Babes of Bayside, laughs about it, saying, “How could we be so misunderstood?” This is, she says, how BoPo regulars show their love for the game. And most people seemed to like the energy, remarking that it was overdue to bring excitement to the sport and its players. Some 22 million viewers tuned in to the PBA across 2019, doubling the numbers from the previous year on ESPN. And in September, Bowlero, the nation’s largest operator of bowling centers, bought the PBA, pumping prize money into the professional circuit and citing the marketing of young, athletic professionals as celebrities.
The bowling industry has been reluctant to embrace innovation, says Colie Edison, Bowlero’s chief customer officer and CEO of the PBA Tour. When Bowlero ran a commercial with 10-foot pins running down the street, “crushing” other forms of entertainment like movie theaters and nightclubs, it got blowback from the old guard. But when revenues jumped at lanes, people got on board. “There was little to no hesitation,” she says.
Bowling center owners tend to lean right on the political spectrum; since 2010, the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America’s Political Action Committee has given $192,000 to Republican candidates and a mere $3,000 to Democrats. But Bayside is distinctly blue, hosting political fund-raisers for Democratic candidates and progressive issues.
But even as BoPo has grown to some 400 bowlers on 57 teams, on league nights, politics are never in play. Escaping the world is the draw. For Reynolds, who bowls for Mitchell’s team, B.E.E.R., or Body English Endorsed by Roto Grip, the games offer a stress release from the hospital’s pediatric wards. Every Tuesday he comes to the lanes, turns off his phone, and takes off his watch. He dresses in full team kit: royal blue socks up to his royal blue shorts, orange shirt with a pin-shaped ode-to-Adidas logo. “It’s one of the best things that has ever happened to me,” he says.
Liz Robbins is a writer in New York. Send comments to email@example.com.
This story has been updated to correct that Tom Reynolds is a pediatric neurologist.