12 Striking Facts About Bowling

By: Meg Sparwath  | 
bowling strike
Surely you've bowled in your lifetime. But what do you really know about the sport? Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

We all recognize the pins, balls and ugly shoes, but how much we all really know about bowling? Probably not much. It's a sport that — no matter your age or skill — you can pick up and play. And drink beer at the same time. What's not to love?

That's clearly part of why bowling is the No. 1 participatory sport in the U.S., according to the Bowling Proprietors' Association of America.


You might remember your parents' wild bowling league days (we can't all have parents who were at Woodstock), and others may have gotten their bowling educations watching Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble bowl at The Water Buffalo Lodge. Whatever you know about the sport, chances are, you don't know it all. So read on for 12 striking facts about bowling.

1. Millions Bowl Annually

According to the American Bowling Congress, more than 67 million people in the United States bowl for fun every year. More than 1.2 million compete in leagues certified by the United States Bowling Congress. That means they compete in teams of three to five bowlers for eight to 12 weeks. There are lots of leagues and they start as young as age 10.


2. Bowling Is Old School

The earliest form of bowling has been traced back to ancient Egyptian times, around 5000 B.C.E. Artifacts, including nine stone pieces and one stone ball, were discovered in the tomb of an Egyptian child. The goal of the game was to roll the stone ball at the other pieces, while first rolling it through an archway. This, of course, is well before Moses led his people out of Egypt. Homer may have written the Odyssey between bowling turns. Who knows.

Bowling's origins can be traced back to Ancient Egypt. It was a popular Golden Age topic in paintings, like this 17th-century piece, "The Bowling Game" by Dutch painter Jan Steen, c. 1655.
Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 2.0)


3. King Edward III Banned Bowling

The first written record of bowling is a ban by King Edward III in 1366. Edward enjoyed lawn bowling himself, but outlawed the game for his army and others who weren't "well-to-do." He thought they were bowling more than working, so he added a greens fee of sorts: 100 pounds to play.


4. It Spread Across the Globe

Bowling spread so fast across the world, so the rules were different almost everywhere — even the number of pins and how they were shaped was different. Bowling was so popular by the 19th century, delegates from nine bowling clubs met and formed the National Bowling Association in 1875. Just 20 years later, the American Bowling Congress was launched.


5. It Was a Man's Game

Today, anyone can bowl a game. But it wasn't always that way. When the American Bowling Congress formed in 1895, it classified bowling as a gentlemen's sport. Women were not allowed to participate. But the ladies didn't like that idea, and in 1917 they formed the Women's National Bowling Congress so the sport could include females, too.

bowling men only
Women were originally not allowed to bowl. You can see here in this circa 1919 image only men are bowling.
Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 3.0)


6. Bowling Basics

So you know the goal of the game is to knock down all 10 pins each frame. But what are the rules? You get two attempts per frame, and each player bowls one frame per turn. Each game consists of 10 frames. If you bowl a strike in the 10th frame, you get to bowl two more frames to boost your score. If you throw a spare, you get to throw one more ball. Be careful during your approach: If you step over that foul line, no pins knocked down will count toward your score. No attractive shoes are allowed while bowling.


7. Pick a Better Ball

Never quite know which ball is right for you? Your bowling ball should weigh about 10 percent of your body weight. So if you weigh 150 pounds (68 kilograms), you shouldn't be using that 8-pound (3.6-kilogram) ball. You want your ball to have some weight, but it shouldn't be so heavy you can't toss it comfortably down the lane. The finger holes shouldn't be too small or too big, either.

bowling balls
The weight of the ball really matters, so choose wisely and your game could improve.
Henry Donald/Getty Images


8. Oil on the Lanes

Oil and water may not go together, but oil and bowling do. Ever notice your ball feels oily? That's because of the oil used on the lanes. Oil was originally used to protect the lane surfaces, but today specific oil patterns affect how fast a bowler's ball travels, spins and hooks (rolls in a curving pattern), down the lane toward the pins.

Bowling centers have a machine that oils the lanes. The machine can be programmed with specific patterns that tell it how much oil to put down and where. Most bowling centers use "recreational" patterns that make it easy for average bowlers to play. But professional bowlers use oil patterns designed to make it more difficult to hit the pins.


oiling bowling lanes
A lane maintenance professional uses a lane machine to oil the lanes following a practice session of the Professional Bowlers Association tournament in Lakewood, Colorado. The machine cleans off old oil while applying new oil.
Craig F. Walker/Denver Post via Getty Images

9. There's Lots of Lingo

Like turkey. A turkey is when you get three strikes in a row. A six-pack is code for six strikes in a row, and a seven bagger to 11 bagger is, you guessed it, seven to 11 strikes in a row. But the lingo goes way beyond just strikes. The pocket is the area where the ball needs to hit to get a strike. The pocket is between the 1 and 2 pins for left-handers and between the 1 and 3 pins for right-handers. The head pin is the pin that stands at the front and closest to the bowler; also known as the No. 1 pin. And approach has two meanings in bowling: it's the area right behind the foul line and it's also when you're stepping toward the lane before you release the ball. There are all sorts of approach techniques.


10. There's Etiquette, Too

Aside from the rules of bowling, there are things you just don't do. Like you don't bowl at the same time as someone on a lane next to you. The first person on the approach bowls first. If it is unclear who was up first, the bowler on the right should. You also shouldn't talk to a bowler while they are on the verge of making a shot. Also, if you score a strike on your first ball, awesome. But you should head back to your seat and not hang around the ball return. If you don't bowl a strike, step back from the approach so others can bowl on the lanes next to you.

bowling etiquette
If these two were following bowling etiquette, one should have waited and let the other bowl first.
Image Source/Getty Images

11. Bowling Burns Calories

So you technically can burn calories while you're bowling. That's the good news. So if you weigh 180 pounds (81 kilograms) you could theoretically burn about 326 calories per hour while you bowl. (Golfing burns 244 calories per hour and sitting burns 77 calories per hour.) Those 326 calories you'd burn, though, are based on an hour of actual bowling, not waiting for your turn. And if you're drinking beer, well, forget the calories you're burning and consider the calories you're adding.

12. What's With the Shoes?

Finally, as painful as the topic is, it cannot be ignored. It's every bowler's nightmare: the shoes. There is no other article of clothing, in any sport, that comes close to bowling shoes. There is a good reason for the shoes. They're never worn outside so the clean soles protect the lanes and let you slide easily on your approach. But we don't have much explanation for how they look. Even Fred Flintstone chose to bowl on his tippy toes instead of wearing those shoes.

bowling shoes
Bowling shoes have a purpose. We just aren't sure why they have to be so ugly.
PictureNet/Getty Images