Walking into AMF Southshore Lanes in Alameda, Calif. to bowl the Alameda County Medical Center league is like walking onto the set of a game show.
You’re greeted at the door by an enthusiastic Steve Winters, the brainchild behind a league that has grown so large it had to be stretched over three week nights. You come as eager to bowl as you are to find out what prizes might be on the line tonight—maybe a big-screen television, maybe a brand new laptop, maybe a generous wad of cold, hard cash.
You come to bowl, but you also come hoping to get a shot at the festival of games that Winters has devised—Spin the Wheel, Lucky Squares, Mystery Score, “Bowlinko.”
“It’s like Plinko on the Price is Right,” Steve Winters explains. “They have a little chip that they drop and they win money based on the amounts it lands on. So I turned that into Bowlinko. I have dollar amounts on the board and whoever comes up gets three drops of the chip, and gosh, you can win about $300 or $400 if you get lucky.”
A lot of people are getting lucky at the ACMC league these days. Some walk in with forty bucks and leave with $1,300 in their pockets. Others go home with a little more than just their bowling balls to pack on their way out the door.
“Last night a girl won a laptop computer,” Winters says. “It never ceases to amaze me how much people enjoy the league activities, because they have a chance to get something.”
Steve Winters works the mic with Barbara McBride
The ACMC league is one whose vacancies fill within five minutes, the kind of league that attracts 25 new applications the minute word gets around that it is expanding once again. And when new people ask to join the ACMC league, they don’t just bring their friends; they bring entire leagues with them.
“In 2003 we moved to a new center with 20 teams, and then a smaller league bowling at the other end of the center asked to join ours, so we had 32 teams,” Winters explains.
Today, the ACMC league boasts 90 teams and enough bowlers to fill the rosters of nine NFL teams with players to spare.
“ACMC is the biggest league in all of AMF, which includes over 300 centers throughout the country,” says AMF District Manager Stephen Borasi.
Some of the league’s more than 460 bowlers drive from 80 miles away to be there. They come from Stockton; they come from San Francisco; they come from San Jose.
“Although it’s out of the way, I am willing to drive there because it is fun,” says ACMC league bowler Kaitlyn Howard of Pittsburg, Calif., who carpools to the league each week with her boyfriend and his family—including his mother, his grandmother, his aunt and great aunt.
At least 32 cities from throughout the Bay Area are represented in the ACMC league each week.
Bowler tries his luck at Bowlinko
Each night that the ACMC league convenes is a night that the bowling center becomes a community again, a place where you’re on a first-name basis with the guy behind the snack counter or the girl at the desk, where you’re as likely to get a Christmas gift from a teammate as you are from your own family, where the bowling center is as much a gathering place for the community as the local church or public school.
“Bowlers consider this league an extension of their family,” Winters says. “We do consider ourselves a family-oriented group. We have bowlers that average 235 and bowlers that average 98; and it’s amazing to see these people bowling together and having such a good time competing at different levels of skill but still have fun and be a part of the group. We really are a big extended family.”
Each year, that extended family does what any family might do: They pack up and hit the highway for a family road trip to Reno, where they stay two nights in hotel rooms paid for by money raised throughout the season—the Bowlinko and raffle tickets alone bring in nearly $1,000 a night—and enjoy a season-ending sweeper event and banquet.
And by the time they pack up to head back home, they will have been awarded nearly $200,000 in team and sweeper prize money, bracket and side pot payouts, Bowlinko and Mystery Score winnings and much more.
“I love it so much that it made me quit my long-time Saturday league of 20 years,” ACMC league bowler Debra Ward of Oakland says. “I look forward to bowling each week and try not to miss a night. One year, I actually received a perfect attendance certificate. No kidding, the league actually gives out paper certificates. Unheard of!”
Veronica Santos hands out raffle tickets
“The camaraderie you have with the people that you bowl with in this league just really makes it special,” says Art Moore of Oakland, who bowled his first 300 game at age 78 in the ACMC league last year. “I have some good games once in a while and they look up and say ‘Hey, the old man is still there!’”
Some may say that league bowling is on the decline these days, but there is a place in Alameda where the bowlers beg to differ, where members arrive from several towns away and everyone—from the veteran bowler with the 235 average to the beginner just looking to break 100 and have some fun—has something to show for their participation by season’s end.
“Our league bowlers know that they will not just bowl all season long and get nothing back at the end of the season; we spread the wealth,” Winters explains. “That is another thing that has kept this league popular, and it’s amazing to me because league participation has gone down around here over the past 20 years, but we’ve just turned it all around and made this a success story.”
They have made it such a success story, in fact, that league member Donny Shot of Oakland plans to commemorate it in a way that just might be a first in the history of league bowling.
“I am even considering a tattoo related to the league!” he says.