Lithuanians are taking a big liking to bowling, and even helping liven up the 10-pin business in Latvia, Estonia and CIS markets.
As interest grows, local clubs, which put something of a European nightclub face on the down-home American game, are expanding and multiplying.
Over the past decade bowling has gradually pushed a nine-pin German version of the game into the shadows in Lithuania. But until quite recently, both were essentially just curious and rather costly novelties.
With lane rentals costing 40 litas ($10) to 60 litas an hour, bowling is still a pricey pastime for the average Lithuanian wage earner, but apparently is not for companies out to entertain their employees or the droves of thirtysomething professionals who have taken to the game.
Reservations are needed days in advance to get a lane on weekends at any of the four bowling centers now operating in Vilnius. At least four more centers are in the planning stages or are already under construction in the city. Bowling clubs have also begun sprouting up in Kaunas, Klaipeda, Palanga, Panevezys and other towns.
A two-story, 12-lane complex in central Vilnius with disco lighting and an outer-space motif, dubbed Cosmic Bowling, is the largest 10-pin club in the country, for now. Its owner, the German-Lithuanian venture Funkas ir Partneriai, is in talks to install and run an 18-lane bowling alley at the Akropolis mall and leisure center now being built on the outskirts of the capital.
"The growing popularity of bowling has far surpassed all our expectations," said Gintaras Tumas, general director of Funkas ir Partneriai.
Cosmic Bowling boasts some 250,000 clients, or 250 bowlers a day, since November 1999, when 6 initial lanes came on line. The second six were just inaugurated on March 7. Funkas ir Partneriai Director Gintaras Tumas said 3.5 million litas had so far been invested to equip and decorate the rented premises, and that growth of the customer base had exceeded all expectations.
Estimates that the Lithuanian market could support one bowling lane per 5,000-10,000 residents means facilities can be expected to at least triple in coming years, according to Dieter Tomack, a representative of the German concern Funk, which produces bowling equipment and makes up the German side of Funkas ir Partneriai.
Meanwhile, the Lithuanian joint venture is actively selling and installing Funk pin-setters, lanes and computerized scoring systems throughout the Baltic countries and in countries further east. During 2001, it equipped 7 bowling centers in Riga and Tallinn as well as Moscow, Alma Ata and other CIS capitals.
"Bowling is the sport and leisure (pastime) of the future for all age groups," Tomack said. "We are set to continue down this road, building more and more bowling centers."
Bowling in these parts is definitely more a leisure pursuit than a sport, according to Tomack. Marketing efforts focus on signing long-term agreements with companies and developing a bowling culture among youth. He said there were about 100 "serious" bowlers in Lithuania, who have created a local league and organize tournaments. So far though, no one has bowled a perfect 300 game in the country.