Former PBA Champ Turned Proprietor Mike Fagan on How Bowling Industry Might Adjust to Post-Pandemic World

by Gianmarc Manzione 0

As a five-time PBA Tour champion who now works on the proprietor side of the industry, Mike Fagan brings a unique perspective to COVID-19’s impact on both of those segments of the bowling world. The Director of Business Development for Triple Shift Entertainment, a chain of 10 bowling centers in Minnesota, took in nearly $900,000 in career earnings over a PBA career that spanned more than a decade, and he still has good friends who continue to battle it out in the pro ranks. In this exclusive interview, he discusses what he is hearing from those former fellow competitors about how they are handling the implications of this pandemic, financially and otherwise, how he sees Triple Shift Entertainment adjusting to the new reality that awaits the bowling-center business as centers slowly reopen across the country, and much more.

As someone who was a star pro bowler and now has experience on the proprietor side of the industry, what has gone through your mind as you’ve watched your industry reel from the blow this pandemic has dealt?

Fagan describes as "tragic" the impact COVID-19 is having on the livelihoods of his former fellow PBA Tour competitors.

It has been surreal; it certainly has. We’ve seen something that looked like it wasn’t going to be affecting us too much and then, obviously, when March came around, things started to get worse and it was kind of a very quick waterfall effect of states closing and following one another’s lead. Now, there’s a new evaluation process of what our business is going to look like, and we’re still doing that because we’re still being pushed back. I know some states are opening, but we are under the mindset that we just want everybody to be safe. Hopefully, we’ll get some normalcy back sooner rather than later.

Can you imagine being in the shoes of a pro bowler who makes his or her living on the lanes amid a crisis of this magnitude?

No, no. It’s really tragic, what’s going on for those guys. We’re not the type of sport that has guaranteed contracts, for the most part. We’re not in a sport in which guys are making millions of dollars a year. If Major League Baseball Players and football players don’t have savings, that’s on them; but for professional bowlers, a lot of times they’re making average or a little above-average what a normal, middle-class income would be. Obviously, they love what they do, and it’s unfortunate that the picture right now is so uncertain. Fortunately, they got through 90 percent of the first half of the season, which included a lot of the majors, so guys had a lot of opportunity to make some money for the year. But it’s kind of scary right now, because there is nothing coming in for them.

What are you hearing from your former fellow competitors on tour about how they are handling the implications of this pandemic, financially and otherwise?

I’ve only spoken with a handful of guys, and I think it’s an opportunity for them, because they’ve been on the road so much the first half of the year, to come home and spend some time at home and be with their families. From a financial perspective, I think it’s hitting them as hard as it’s hitting everyone else in the country. It’s a tough situation, and you just hope that the guys that have been out there who have done well in the past have made proper precautions for a situation in which they may not have any income coming in.

And it’s a particularly uncertain situation for international players, because none of them can have any confident guess as to when international travel will be permitted again this year.

Yeah, I don’t even know how to conceptualize that, because those guys, for the most part, pretty much rely on the PBA Tour as their main competitive ground and their main source of income — obviously, Jason [Belmonte], but also the guys from Europe, Asia, and South America too. It’s scary to think about, okay, maybe the tour can start up again, but other things are restricting them from getting to the U.S. In my opinion — obviously, it’s not a governmental opinion — but if people are flying, what’s the different if they’re coming from one place versus another place?

That may be one of the points on which people are perhaps being a little less than rational about all this.

Sure. Hopefully, we can kind of get back to normal and put this in our rear view, because it’s something that is bringing out the best in some people but bringing out the worst in other people, and it’s tough to watch every day some of these things unfold that you just shake your head at, because you just can’t believe it’s happening.

Does it get back to normal though, Mike? Do we ever see a pre-pandemic normal either in competitive bowling or within bowling centers?

I hope so. Everything is going to adjust; I think things are going to change when it comes to the maintenance of the facilities. The cleanliness of the facilities is going to be at a premium, and rightfully so. If centers want to be deemed safe for customers, they need to hold themselves to a higher standard, especially in whatever the new normal ends up being. For professional bowling, it’s a tough situation, because there are a lot of people within a very small, confined space — especially from a spectator point of view. There will have to be extra precautions for people to get back to that feeling of normalcy, whether it’s temperature checks at the door or body-heat scanners or some other technology. It’s going to be like what happened after 9/11, where you had added security, added precautionary measures. I can see that becoming essentially the new normal when entering a public facility, especially for marquee events.

In what ways will Triple Shift Entertainment centers hold themselves to a higher standard, as you put it, in the new environment we all are entering?

We’re spending a lot of time right now doing some really deep cleaning in the facilities. There’s still a lot of discussions about how to make sure our customers are safe when they return, with things like sharing shoes and bowling balls, making sure that tabletops are cleaned. There are different chemicals our facility managers have been looking into that make the center an environment in which everyone is safe.

How long have your centers in Minnesota been closed at this point?

I believe since March 17, so about six weeks now.

And what has been the financial impact of that?

We are still functioning as a company. It’s not a great situation, and I’m not saying we have a runway forever, but we have some great partners we’re working with on the lender side. We’re in talks with them quite often, as we are in talks with all our financial partners to make sure we can come back from this and still be the organization we strived to be pre-crisis.

There’s a lot of talk throughout the industry as to how many centers will be able to withstand eight, 10, maybe 12 weeks of staying closed, of zero revenue. What financial strategies are you guys deploying in Minnesota to make sure you will be able to bounce back when it’s determined that you can safely reopen?

It’s a tough situation, and every day I hear about bars or restaurants that are not going to reopen because they have gotten to the point that the owners or the investment team can’t sink any more money into it. I read an article about Punch Bowl Social possibly not coming back. For us, I hope it won’t come to that. We’re trying to manage our cost structure right now as much as we can and push payments out. We’re confident that we’re going to make it through to the other side of this and that we’re going to be available to run our facilities and continue to build the vision that we have for the company.

Do you expect that someone in the industry will scoop up Punch Bowl Social given the likelihood that it might become available at a fraction of its pre-pandemic value?

I wouldn’t be surprised. We’ll have to see. Our business is definitely different than that kind of a business model. We’re focused more on the league bowling side. Those types of facilities seem to have opened up quite a bit, different names around the country like the Main Events, Lucky Strikes, all those different types of entertainment centers. There may not be room for all of them in the country now that we’re on the heels of potentially an economic crisis as well. I do think that someone will give it a shot; the name certainly has a lot of value to it. Punch Bowl Social has been a known name in the country for on-premise entertainment. It’s just a matter of whether what they can get for it will pencil out.

Will the way forward for more entertainment-focused business models like Punch Bowl Social necessarily be more arduous than centers that do not lean quite so heavily in the direction of the entertainment-center concept?

We’re mostly on the league bowling side for sure, but we do have an entertainment center within our chain, and it’s going to be challenging from the family entertainment center side not so much because of people being afraid of catching the virus — I think we’re going to be able to take precautions to make sure we’re in a safe environment for our customers and for our staff — it’s just a matter of what does the corporate world look like after this, and what does corporate spending look like? A lot of the Punch Bowl Socials of the world rely on corporate budgets and people coming in with disposable income. On the league bowling side, we have our core league bowling base and I hope that no one out there is going to give up their league night for financial reasons. We hope everyone out there can still find a way to enjoy some time with friends and family at the bowling center at the cost of maybe $20 and have a bite to eat and bowl league. When you’re talking about those other facilities, it’s tough to get those centers to pencil at those kinds of numbers. They’re bigger, and like I said, we have an entertainment center within our chain, so maybe we end up pushing more leagues into those types of facilities. There’s going to be some adjustments that have to be made, but I think the advantage is certainly in the league houses, in my view.

But what does league bowling look like in a post-pandemic landscape in which you have two prevailing dynamics at play, one being germaphobia and the other being the pressure to socially distance? Businesses in some states that are reopening are being asked to do so at 25% capacity. How does a league-based center have league bowling in such an environment?

We’re kind of fortunate that this is happening in the months that it’s happening. If this is happening in the fall or winter and the majority of the bowling world is bowling, it’s a tougher conversation. I am hoping that by the fall we’re returning more to a sense of normalcy, but, that being said, maybe it’s just fewer high-fives. Maybe instead of five-person teams we go down to trios so we can spread out a little bit more. When we are talking about open play, maybe we need to push getting your own ball instead of having to share it and touch something someone else has touched. Maybe this is an opportunity to get a ball in the hand of someone who has never owned a ball before.

You mention the word “opportunity,” which is something that came up in the May issue of Bowlers Journal — yes, this pandemic has created plenty of chaos, but on the other side of that coin, what opportunities does it present the industry?

We’re looking at this as an opportunity to hit the reset button a little bit because there’s a lot of opportunity to do things right now that we just can’t do when the business is open 365 days a year. Coming back, maybe there’s an opportunity to get balls and shoes and bags in the hands of people who normally would just come into the center and use a house ball and house shoes. There’s opportunity in all of this and we’ll just have to play it by ear to see where it comes, but ultimately we just need to make sure we are a safe environment, we’re making our customers feel safe, and taking the proper precautions so that our staff is safe as well. I’m not a government official, but I don’t think rushing back to open our doors is the right move. I think a lot of facilities are looking to get back open and get people on the lanes, and they have a right to make a living and earn business and build their business. But at the same time, I think people have been cooped up for six weeks or more and they may not come in; they may just want to get outside and enjoy the nice weather that’s coming. It’s a double-edged sword, because we definitely want to open up, but we don’t want to hire back all of these employees to stand around and then lose even more money because you have more labor.

And what of state governments mandating that businesses operate at reduced capacity? How do centers survive that situation?

Well, other than locations maybe like Phoenix, where, in the summertime, it’s busier because of how hot it is outside, most places in the U.S. are going to be at reduced capacity in the summer months. It’s hard to make assumptions about how long this is going to last, but in the summer months, I don’t think capacity settings are a big concern in our industry. When we get back to the fall and the winter and we have a lot of bowlers and league bowlers who want to use our facilities, then I think it’s a conversation that has to be had and that we have to have a contingency plan for, because that’s a scary situation.

How much tougher might it be to withstand those typically slower summer months this year, given that this pandemic struck in the spring when a lot of centers do their best business? Steve Mackie down at Tenpins & More in Albuquerque says that March tends to be the most booming month of the year at his center, and that is the very month in which he had to shut down.

Steve definitely has a point there. March is a tough month because it is spring break for most of the country and you’ve got a lot of kids off from school, so it is busy in the centers for the most part. In a lot of places around the country, it’s not yet warm enough to be running around outside, especially in Minnesota. So, yeah, we missed an opportunity in March as well. We’re going to have to come together with the industry, talk about best practices, hear what our local governments are saying, and take their advice very seriously. But it’s an unprecedented time and I can’t say that I am going to be able to see the future on this. I am still fairly new to this side of the industry and learning all the time. I continue to look to the industry for guidance, crisis or no. So far, everyone has been overwhelmingly supportive and helpful. It’s a great community to be a part of. We’re all just taking it one day at a time right now.

What do you think proprietors and pro bowlers alike can learn from this experience?

professional bowlers can certainly learn from this that nothing is guaranteed, whether it’s an injury that sidelines you or some other random circumstance like this. It’s a tough living, but it’s also a lot of people’s passion and their dream, so it’s hard to take that away from somebody who really loves it. For the most part, they would probably do it for free, but they’re being forced to not do it at all right now. I am sure there are some guys out there that might not be able to continue to stay sharp. I know there are other guys who do have access to facilities to practice and continue to try to be ready when this thing blows over. You just have to try to think of it maybe as an off-season, and you have to try to continue to have that mental fortitude to look toward the future.

And what about proprietors? What chief lesson do you think they can draw from this crisis?

I think the same thing; it’s one of those things where you obviously want to be able to be insured. There are just things that are out of your control all the time. The government has forced our locations to shut, and there’s nothing we can do about that. It’s out of our hands. Being properly prepared for situations like this — you buy an insurance package and you hope you’ll never have to use it, but it’s there just in case. Just anticipating rainy days, looking at contingency plans. Now, this is an unprecedented situation; it’s not a situation in which bowling is not working, so as a proprietor I’m going to try to do another business. Everything’s shut down. I think we’re very lucky, because we’re able to work with our lenders, we’re able to work with our equity partners, and we can hopefully come out on the other side of this. I think flexibility in financing is a big one as well, because it’s a matter of how strict that financing is going to be when they come knocking and you don’t have the ability to pay.

You have expressed the view that you don’t think rushing to reopen is the right call in this scenario. What was your reaction to Georgia Governor Brian Kemp reopening some non-essential businesses in Georgia a week-and-a-half ago?

It’s going to be an interesting case study for the rest of the country, for sure. We’re keeping a very close eye on what’s going to go on in Georgia, and we wish them the best and we hope everything works out well for them. But we also will hope they are proceeding with caution, because you never know what the public sentiment is going to be in their area when they just open the doors back up. I think it’s going to come down to consumer confidence, that they can go into any facility and just feel that they’re in a safe environment. We want to be able to give our customers and our staff confidence that when they come into our facilities, they’re going to have a safe environment to hopefully forget about what’s going on in the rest of the world and leave their troubles at the door and just enjoy themselves.

Thirty million people have filed for unemployment in the past six weeks alone. How much discretionary income do you expect customers to have when your centers reopen, and in what ways are your centers planning to adjust to that new reality?

We’re going to have to ride the wave of the greater economy and hopefully that comes back sooner rather than later, but we’re kind of at the mercy of consumer confidence. Hopefully we’re going to be able to say, ‘Alright, let’s hire some people back,’ and it’s more of a V-shaped recovery where it just comes back to where it was. But these are unprecedented times, so we’re just going to try to take it day by day and see what happens and let the numbers be our guide while the government figures out what will be best for the public.

What is your message to an industry that has been close to your heart for a long time now, from your days as a junior bowler and PBA Tour champion to now as a proprietor, as that industry navigates this crisis going forward?

My message is we just need to come together as an industry, we need to share best practices, and we just need to be there for each other and support one another, whether you’re a competitive bowler or a proprietor. It’s important that we know we’re all in this together, and we’re going to see the other side of it. Bowling will be back. It might be a little different than it was, but bowling definitely will survive. We know that we’re not out there alone; we know there are other industries that are going through exactly the same kinds of circumstances as us.

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