A Boardman bowling lanes owner uses glow-in-the-dark balls and high school bowling teams to put youth back into the sport.
By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
BOARDMAN -- Peppe Smith was into bowling when bowling wasn't cool.
A born saleswoman, she wasn't about to leave it that way.
Smith, who owns Camelot Lanes in Boardman with her husband, Bob, is at the forefront of an ambitious, nationwide marketing campaign to make bowling cool again.
A national board member of the Bowling Proprietors Association of America, a bowling trade organization, she chairs a committee that aims to start varsity bowling teams at high schools across the country.
"I sell bowling," she said. "I do it because it's good for the sport, and it's good for my business."
So far, she says, it's working.
Smith started here at home, setting up programs at Camelot to attract people who, in the past, might not have considered bowling as a pastime. One such group, for example, is teen-agers.
The bowling center invested in some black lights and glow-in-the dark bowling balls, turned up the sound system and began opening its doors to hundreds of teens on Saturday nights.
Bowling under black lights to the sound of rock music, known around the country by names like Cosmic Bowl, Extreme Bowl, and Glow Bowl, made Camelot a popular weekend teen hangout.
"Kids are not thinking bowling is old-fashioned. They know better," she said. "They think we're cool."
The next step: Smith next began lobbying local school district officials and meeting with students. Soon she had varsity bowling teams started at Canfield, Boardman and Cardinal Mooney high schools.
She talked up the project to other bowling center owners in the region and recruited sponsors for more high school teams. The joint effort has established 10 varsity bowling teams in Mahoning Valley districts, sponsored by seven bowling centers.
The centers pay most of the expenses for team uniforms, coaches' salaries and student transportation, with the help of student-run and parent-run fund-raisers. Bowling is not sanctioned as a high school sport by the Ohio High School Athletic Association. School districts generally only pay for OHSAA sanctioned sports.
Expanding her efforts, Smith led a BPAA task force that canvassed school districts across the state and, in a year and a half, established a network of 110 high school bowling teams across Ohio with 3,000 student team members.
Now, she's taking on the nation.
Calling herself a cheerleader for bowling, she's scheduled meetings with large, bowling center chains like AMF, a Virginia company that operates 400 centers in the United States and 150 in Europe, and Brunswick Corp., with 110 bowling centers around the country.
Her message: It's time to get away from the old, Archie Bunker image of bowling. It's time to get children, teens and senior citizens interested in the sport.
One way to bring the sport's popularity back, especially for young adults, is to start up high school varsity bowling teams, she said.
"I tell them we in the bowling industry were asleep at the switch when soccer became popular," she said. "Now it's our turn.
Smith grew up surrounded by the sights and sounds of bowling. A Valley native, her parents, Richard and Julia Petrone, built Camelot Lanes in Boardman in the mid-1960s.
Her parents never pressured her to join them in business, and she didn't. Smith moved to Syracuse, N.Y., where she earned a bachelor's degree in interior design and a master's degree in business administration, both from Syracuse University.
"I'm a sales person, can you tell?" she joked. "I sold office furniture, design services, scarves and tablecloths, beautiful things. Now, I'm making bowling beautiful."
She and her husband were living in Europe about 12 years ago when her parents called to ask the question they'd never asked her as a child: Would she like to join the business? The timing seemed right, so the couple moved back to the Youngstown area and began buying the bowling center from the Petrones.
Smith said she's not a good bowler, but she rolls a few games at least once a week just to keep in touch with the sport. The rest of the time she works at home, except when she's traveling. Besides her volunteer efforts for the BPAA, Camelot Lanes is working on a ever-changing list of programs to build interest in bowling and, in turn, keep their business healthy.
The store is selling cartoon-decorated bowling balls and other kid-friendly accessories at a kiosk in the Southern Park Mall, and its special-rate senior citizen programs are attracting crowds of the over-65 set to the center.
Camelot offers latchkey programs after school for pupils in grades one through eight at several area elementary and middle schools, and it's reaching out to tots with parent-child bowling classes.
Kick ash: Next on the agenda, and a radical step in an industry notorious for its smoking and drinking patrons, Camelot will introduce "Kick Ash Weekends" starting this fall. Smoking will be banned at the center from Saturday morning through Sunday evening, a move designed to attract families and people who avoid bowling because of the smoky atmosphere.
"It's risky, but it's not an experiment. We're doing it," she said.