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Not Your Ordinary Alley
Michael Finkel
May 27, 1996
The National Bowling Stadium is striking because no expense has been spared
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May 27, 1996

Not Your Ordinary Alley

The National Bowling Stadium is striking because no expense has been spared

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You can, if you're so inclined, purchase 37 varieties of T-shirts advertising the mammoth National Bowling Stadium in Reno, which opened in February 1995. Or, if you prefer, you can buy an NBS leather jacket ($175) or maybe an NBS brass belt buckle ($45) or perhaps an NBS pewter thimble ($8). You can purchase any of 1,283 different items in the building's Kmart-sized gift shop. Virtually all of the goods promote this leviathan of lanes, the palace of pins, the mother of all bowling emporiums.

But if you want to go bowling there, you're out of luck.

"This isn't a bowling alley," explains NBS executive director Reg Pearson, crinkling his nose at the mere thought. "When people think alley, they think dirt and smoke and beer cans on the floor. This is a stadium. And it's the only one in the world."

The NBS is used exclusively for tournaments and corporate-sponsored events, such as the annual multiweek, umpteen-thousand-bowler amateur events sponsored by the American Bowling Congress, the Women's International Bowling Congress and the Fédération Internationale des Quilleurs. If a tournament isn't in progress, the stadium's 80 lanes stand empty.

Pearson, 59, has been ascending through the ranks of bowling executives for 33 years, starting at a 12-lane dive in northern California where bowling was only a minor distraction from the bar. The NBS is his Sistine Chapel: Pearson oversaw the insertion of every rivet in the building. The House That Reg Built, which is owned by the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority, cost $47.3 million. "Everything I love about bowling I tried lo preserve here," Pearson says. "Everything that stinks I left out. I had to do it right—this is my last hurrah."

And what a hurrah it is. Reno, kid sister to Las Vegas, is not a city of subtlety, and the NBS, a block from the main gambling strip, fits in perfectly. From outside, the building looks like a huge wedding cake, topped by an enormous disco ball and adorned with 15,000 feet of fiber-optic lights that blink from green to purple to orange to blue.

Everything about the place is big. A couple could get married at one end of the stadium and be divorced by the time they reached the other end. (Stranger things have happened in Reno.) The arena's 450-foot scoreboard is the world's longest rigid backlit video screen. The lobby has two glass elevators, 500 silk ferns, a two-ton bronze sculpture of a family going bowling, and a 1940s-theme diner that sells meat loaf for $6.99 and a bottle of Dom Pérignon for $110.

Why build a behemoth bowl-o-rama when serious bowlers seem destined for the endangered-species list? Over the past 15 years the number of league bowlers has dropped 45%. Pearson, it turns out, is an eternal optimist. "All the bowlers are out there somewhere—they still love the sport, but they just don't have time to join leagues," he says. "I knew that if I built this stadium, the bowlers would come."

He did, and they have. The first event hosted by the NBS, the American Bowling Congress's 1995 championships, was the largest tournament ever held. More than 92,000 bowlers participated in the contest, which lasted 151 days. They bowled seven days a week, 20 hours a day. The event infused $230 million into Reno's economy.

Despite the riches, some local folks are less than pleased with the stadium. Reno is a bowling town—the slogan of the local publication Sierra Strikeline proclaims Reno the amateur bowling capital of the world—so it seems a cruel irony that the stadium, idle one third of the time, forbids bowling by the public except on two days a year. Pearson says he doesn't want to harm the income of Reno's more modest alleys but admits that the stadium was "commissioned not for the greater glory of bowling but for the greater profits of the casinos." This means the locals, who don't use hotel rooms and tend not to gamble, are shut out. All the souvenirs in the world won't mollify them.