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Friday, October 31, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 36.0° F  Overcast
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Segredo is changing lanes
In the land of traditional alleys, a new campus nightspot offers a different kind of bowling
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Credit:Sharon Vanorny

We tend to associate bowling with smoke-filled alleys, cheap beer, snazzy shirts, clownish shoes and soggy bar food. But the times they are a-changing.

In the heart of Madison's college bar country, where Common Council members fear to extend new alcohol licenses and the crush of buildings hardly allows for bowling mega-centers, a new breed of club has taken root. And it's got an eye toward incorporating the popular sport into a hip lounge environment, with an even bigger goal of proving that you can serve both underage patrons and legal drinkers without its ending in trouble.

Named after the word for "secret" in Portuguese, Segredo moved into the spot at 624 University Ave. most recently occupied by the somewhat notorious downtown bar Madison Avenue. Owners Michael Hierl and Ryan Dionne certainly aren't looking to be low-key. They're not trying to be brash and gaudy, either, and say it's not their intention to supplant traditional bowling in Wisconsin.

"I know that this style of bowling might offend the average Joe bowler, and so I have to apologize to them," says Hierl, an affable, enthusiastic man with several successful businesses already under his belt. A Madison native and a graduate of Edgewood High School and UW-Madison, Hierl has since spent much of his life on the East Coast. But when the idea struck him to import a popular, Brazil-based style of bowling to the United States, it was ultimately Madison that drew his attention.

"We looked at other college towns like Austin and Boulder, but when we found this space [on University Avenue], in this location, we knew we had to take it," Hierl explains.

The ambitions for Segredo are not small. With the emphasis placed on entertainment, food and quality drinks, Hierl hopes the club will encourage other, nearby establishments to expand their focus as well.

Hierl and Dionne have remodeled the space extensively. The intended centerpiece is the four lanes of Brazilian boutique bowling, a game that lies somewhere between the sport Americans are already familiar with and something more intimate. The lanes are, in fact, just shortened versions of the standard - bowling shoes still required.

The atmosphere at Segredo is more lounge than alley, though, featuring a sports bar with free Wii games played on big-screen TVs, a kitchen serving small, sharable plates of higher-quality comfort foods, and slickly designed bars and seating areas. Bar staffers are serving both regular and ice-cream-based cocktails and "mocktails." And Hierl has plans to bring in the occasional live band or act.

Part of the effort to make a sizable splash on the Madison scene, the grand opening of Segredo on Jan. 15 even saw Mayor Dave Cieslewicz rolling out the ceremonial first ball, assisted by several alders and other local movers and shakers.

Segredo serves liquor but also boasts approval to serve the 18- to 20-year-old crowd, making it one of few such clubs in the city. The kitchen will serve not only the club's clientele, but next-door neighbor Johnny O's as well. Hierl says they're aiming for a three-tier demographic of patron: the after-work crowd, the early-evening young professional and the late-night crew. On weekends, he hopes to bring in parties and other group events, both for children and adults.

For all the big goals, though, Hierl is quick to emphasize that he has no desire to take customers away from traditional bowling alleys. He compares boutique-style bowling to playing par-three golf: "One doesn't replace the other, and you can enjoy both."

Of course, even traditional bowling alleys long ago ceased to be purely about bowling. That's by necessity. The number of U.S. Bowling Congress members nationwide has plummeted in recent decades, from 9 million in 1980 to just 2.7 million in 2006. Meanwhile, the number of recreational bowlers has, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, increased from 40.1 million in 1998 to 49.5 million in 2008.

In keeping with the times, local alleys expanded their entertainment offerings. At Schwoegler's Park Towne Lanes (44 Grand Canyon Dr.), for instance, there's karaoke every Monday and Saturday night in the bar. Ten Pin Alley in Fitchburg (6285 Nesbitt Rd.) also has karaoke, on Fridays and Saturdays. Middleton Sport Bowl (6815 University Ave.) features Texas Hold 'Em poker nights on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as DJs on Fridays. Schwoegler's also enlivens the bowling experience with elements like cosmic and rock 'n' roll bowling, featuring loud music, black lights and neon colors.

The area's premiere multipurpose bowling venue is Badger Bowl, 506 E. Badger Rd., where karaoke and poker are only the beginning. The alley's bar regularly hosts live music performances by regional country and rock acts, as well as the likes of Cherry Pie, the hair-metal tribute band, and Bad Medicine, the Bon Jovi tribute band. And if swing dancing is your thing, the movement lives on with regular Badger Bowl events hosted by Madison West Coast Swing.

And there is, of course, bowling. In Wisconsin, the sport has a long and storied history. The state is the site of the oldest alley in the country: Holler House in Milwaukee, which has been in operation for over 100 years.

European immigrants brought various forms of the sport when they settled here, and through the years some of the styles melded to become the modern 10-pin version with which we're most familiar. It may not be the most popular sport in the country, but it could certainly be a contender for the one most consistently played by amateurs and pros alike.

And although political scientist Robert Putnam documented the decline of bowling leagues in his 1995 essay Bowling Alone, they remain a draw even for some younger bowlers. An example of the latter, 29-year-old Brian Lee runs and joined a league in 2005.

"Of course you can bowl by yourself, but it's much more fun to bowl with your friends and have a beer while doing it," he says. "I took that one step further by joining a league, in which a level of competitiveness is added, but in a friendly way. I've always liked the camaraderie among teams, especially the teams that have been bowling together for decades."

But league bowling isn't the watchword for Segredo's Hierl, who worked with a Brazilian company to bring the boutique version to his new club. The company, Boutique Bowling, is based in Porto Alegre, the capital city of the southernmost state of Brazil, and it has expanded its business distributing the smaller bowling setup to locations all across the globe. Everywhere except the U.S., that is, until Hierl approached the company with the idea of using its technology in what he hoped would be a series of clubs. Madison is the first.

"They were amazed that I was offering to fly down to Brazil to meet with them and see their work firsthand," Hierl says.

After meetings, tours and some broken Portuguese-to-English conversations, the deal was done. Just days before the first preview nights at Segredo, a team from Brazil traveled to Madison to install the bowling system, which had Hierl grinning proudly and showing off the first pieces to be installed.

"I really believe there are more than just two options for a job - going into the nonprofit sector and just being out to make a buck," says Hierl. "I want to create businesses that I'm passionate about and that will make a profit, yes. But I think there should be an aspect of good community building as well.

"My wife said, 'Look, you don't need to make a lot of money, you just need to not lose money.'"

Profitability and social responsibility shouldn't have to be mutually exclusive, Hierl says. Part of that attitude can be seen in Segredo's offering of health benefits to its part- and full-time employees.

Maybe all that idealism is his roots showing, or maybe it was his time as a graduate student at Princeton, where social welfare was emphasized as part of the curriculum. Whatever the reason, Hierl's attitude is very Madison.

Now it's up to Madison to decide whether Brazilian boutique bowling is its particular cup of caipirinha. The bold experiment in providing something more than just a "vertical drinking space" for the campus crowd and townies alike could help to push other business owners to do something similar. If it's a success, it could even help ease city fears about binge and underage drinking downtown.

For now, however, Hierl is just focused on getting Segredo up and running - and popular. "I wanted to create a space where students and residents from all walks of life could come together to have fun, without the focus being on drinking," he says. "All the research points to bowling as the one activity that people from most every background, all across the world, say they enjoy."

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