Story by LEIA LARSEN • Photos by BENJAMIN ZACK • Standard-Examiner Staff
BRIGHAM CITY — One of the biggest bowling ball manufacturers on the planet was born and bred in Brigham City. The team at Storm Products, Inc. will forgive you for not knowing it’s there, but they’re angling for change.
“When (people) hear I work at a bowling ball factory ... usually everybody’s surprised, they laugh at first,” said Tavio Sawyer, Storm’s creative director. “Then we start telling them about all our stuff.”
They laugh at first, possibly, because of the outmoded image bowling still has — the greasy snack bar, polyester jerseys, awkward shoes and awful lighting. Or the shuttered and shabby alleys, like South Ogden’s Hilltop Lanes, decades past their heyday. Movies like “The Big Lebowski” featuring a middle-aged loafer “The Dude” aren’t doing the sport any favors.
“‘The Big Lebowski’ is a blessing and a curse. We all love it, we love that persona, but we know it pigeonholes us,” Sawyer said. “The whole look has changed, but nobody knows.”
The company is now working to put a spin on bowling’s image, appealing to a broader recreational crowd — those hitting the lanes a few times a year for fun.
Storm Products Inc. got its start in the mid-1980s making ball cleaner and shifted to making balls a few years later. The company quickly grew into one of the biggest and most coveted bowling ball brands in the industry. Founders Bill and Barbara Chrisman are still actively involved in the business.
It has expanded to include two other brands — Master, an accessories brand, and Roto Grip, which makes high-performance balls marketed at a younger pros and leaguers. Storm now churns out 500,000 balls a year, all from their Brigham City manufacturing plant at 165 S. 800 West.
But for an industry proud of the nuances of their sport, changing the game to include recreational bowlers can be tough.
“Leaguers don’t like it when lights get turned off and black lights go on. They cringe,” Sawyer said.
While the sport’s commonly associated with middle-aged blue-collared America, it’s been drawing a younger crowd for decades. Most professional bowlers are in their 20s and early 30s. Among recreational bowlers, the sport’s most popular with the college-aged set, according to a 2014 survey by White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group.
Numerous socio-economic studies the group has conducted show the sport has also become more popular with the white-collar class. In 2007, 56 percent of bowlers came from households making $75,000 or more.
Those affluent customers, however, aren’t buying balls. They’re mostly visiting the big entertainment centers with black lights, video games and bars — places like Fat Cats in Ogden or Boondocks in Kaysville that have balls on hand for recreational customers.
Those occasional bowlers often aren’t aware of what they’re missing.
“Balls you find at an alley are made of plastic and they have no cores inside,” said Chad McLean, Storm’s technical manager. “So you can try to spin as much as you want to and its just going to go straight because there’s no engine driving it.”
Recreational customers are less likely to know about ball technology, like cores that offer different hooks or cover stocks that respond to a lane’s oil conditions. That’s why they’re less likely to invest in a $80-$250 ball or bowling accessories. It’s largely why they’ve been ignored by the industry, too.
“The biggest thing is, recreational bowling as a whole isn’t necessarily that much on a decline. But competitive bowling is,” said Victor Marion, Storm’s director of research and development. “That’s the trick for us.”
Bowling peaked in the 1960s, when there were around 12,000 alleys in the nation. In those days, the bowling business was based on leagues — around 75 percent of all bowlers were in leagues from the 1960s to the 1980s, according to White Hutchinson.
Now, there around 5,000 bowling centers and the business is built on entertainment. Casual bowlers represent nearly 80 percent of all bowlers, according to a 2012 study.
To understand the bowling industry’s missed opportunity, imagine how different the $2.5 billion ski industry might look today if it only marketed products to Olympians and race teams, ignoring those sticking to the bunny hill or the recreational skiers taking a yearly trip to Deer Valley.
At the same time, a beginner skier might never progress without learning about the benefits of ski camber and boot flex or that there are different skis for powder and groomers.
Bowlers seem to prefer golf analogies.
“It’s almost like comparing golf to miniature golf,” Marion said. “They’re both technically golf, but there’s a big disparity.”
To teach the younger, more affluent recreational market about the perks of investing in the sport, Storm first wants to capture broad attention.
They did it once before, in 2000, when they began scenting their balls to smell like fruit, baked goods and candy. By the mid-aughts they’d landed on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, in USA Today and even got a shout out on Saturday Night Live for that strategy.
These days, reaching more people means standing out online, especially on social media.
In 2015, they posted a video to Facebook with professional bowler Jason Belmonte as McLean broke the Guinness World Record for the most bowling balls held by a single person at one time — 13 balls total. The video got 20,000 views and nearly 200 shares.
“The goal is we want to start branching outside of our own market. The BMX market ... they’re always looking for new things to play with and play on, we thought that could open up our exposure to their demographic,” Sawyer said.
From there, it’s education.
Their website has an interactive “Matchmaker” feature to help bowlers from novices to pros find their perfect ball, complete with instructions on how to figure out ball speed, rev rate, axis rotation and tilt.
“We’re taking on this new type of messaging with info-graphics and info-motion graphics, creating a website where if you don’t know anything about bowling, it’ll be broken down in simple terms,” said Gary Hulsenberg, director of marketing. “It’s teaching you in a fun way how to get the most out of your game.”
Storm’s next strategy is more locally focused — they plan to become a more visible presence in Northern Utah, offering ball demo days and events where the recreational bowlers play. The idea is to get those casual bowlers to become more serious about their game.
“We want you to enjoy bowling like we do, and eventually maybe you’ll want to do it more,” Sawyer said.
Storm’s Brigham City offices show bowling still has broad appeal. They’ve managed to attract a lot of millennial talent from around the country to their mom-and-pop operation.
McLean is a former professional bowler recruited from Florida.
“I wanted to be here forever, it was my dream to come work here,” he said.
He also appreciates Brigham City’s other perks, like easy access to skiing, hiking and rock climbing.
“Everybody who’s young lives outside of bowling. We like things other than bowling,” Sawyer said.
Storm lured him from an advertising company in the Seattle area.
“I think what happens with creatives is we get inspired by ideas,” he said. “This company ... appealed to me because I could be one of the people growing something and breaking it out of its own paradigm.”