Misadventures in Football Bowling, Detroit’s Beloved Fowling Game

I was always the last one chosen in high school gym.  Football was the worst: I couldn’t catch the ball to save my life and throwing wasn’t much better.  So when I invited my family to try a round of the fowling game in Detroit — that’s football bowling — I got a lot of raised eyebrows.

For one thing, no one even knew what fowling was.  Once I told them about this new sport, they were even less convinced.  That’s no surprise; both my parents and my sister are even less athletic than I am.

detroit fowling warehouse

What is Fowling?

If you were to set up two sets of bowling pins across from each other, as if two opposing teams were playing beer pong, and then used a football to knock down pins…you’ve got fowling.

This was originally a tailgating game, which means the brilliance is in its simplicity.  The goal is to throw the football across the lane and knock down all your pins before the other team does.  Unlike traditional bowling, you don’t reset pins between rounds.

fowling game setup
The one-of-a-kind fowling game

There aren’t many rules, other than that you can’t defend your pins unless the football has already bounced from the ground.

And oh yeah, if you knock down the middle pin without hitting any others, that’s a “bonk” and you get to sound a freighter horn.

Bottom line: throw the football, hit the pins.  Sounds easy, but football bowling is easier said than done.

The Fowling Warehouse Hamtramck

On a winter afternoon, my husband and I walked into The Fowling Warehouse outside of Detroit, in Hamtramck, MI.  Like a lot of Detroit, the former industrial warehouse looks a little rough around the edges but it’s really well converted.

Inside, you’ll find 30 fowling lanes.  At the time of my visit, about half were saved for groups with reservations and half were available for open play.  You’ll also find a a bar with a lengthy beer list (with beers that fill from the bottom, for a perfect pour every time) and a stage where they sometimes feature live music.

To add to the whimsical nature, there’s also a beer vending machine with $2 mystery beers.  That’s a darn good deal if you don’t mind being surprised with what comes out.

Mystery beer machine in the Fowling Warehouse Hamtramck

Fowling Detroit Style

Assuming you’re not traveling with an entire group of friends, your first task in the fowling game is finding a team to challenge.  This is not the time to be shy.  There were plenty of people who, like us, showed up with a date wanting to play but without someone else to compete against.  Go make a friend and invite them for a friendly round or two.  Chances are they’ll say yes.

Since there aren’t many rules, you can experiment with your fowling strategy.  You don’t necessarily have to throw the football in a normal spiral.  Use both heads to chuck it from over your head.  Give it an underhand throw.  Different styles offer different combinations of force, bounce, and aim.  It’ll take some practice to figure out what works in each situation.

My Football Bowling Results

My first time wasn’t pretty: we were newbies and it showed.  The other team managed to knock down 9 of 10 pins before we got any of theirs.  I assumed we were out of luck, but that last pin turned out to be elusive.

last pin standing
Last pin standing.

In a total upset, we came from behind for a surprise win.  Even the Buffalo Bills hit the playoffs every once in awhile, and apparently even a girl chosen last in gym class can score unexpectedly.

After that round, we found a different team to compete against and pulled out another W.  For the last few rounds, we mixed up our team compositions a few times to get to know them better — after all, this is a social game that you shouldn’t take too seriously.  There were some wins, some losses, but no matter how bad my throws were, it was a blast.

While You’re in Detroit…

There’s no food at the Fowling Warehouse, but if you’re in Hamtramck April through September, don’t miss a Vernor’s Float at Burk’s Igloo.  When you mix their homemade soft serve with Michigan’s favorite ginger ale, it really brings out the oaky undertones.

And even though it isn’t fancy, you should definitely get yourself a Detroit Coney Dog.  The local favorites are at American and Lafayette: find out which coney dog was my favorite or do the side-by-side challenge.

Where to Stay in Detroit:

Over the 5.5 years my sister lived in Detroit, I stayed in several different neighborhoods and hotels.  Downtown, despite being more expensive, is by far your best choice.  You’ll love being in walking distance of restaurants and nightlife, especially since driving in Detroit is not always easy (beware of potholes, “Michigan lefts”, and lots of one-way streets).

The Aloft @ David Whitney is unlike any other chain hotel I’ve ever stayed at — sitting around a jaw-dropping atrium with skylights, marble, and terra cotta.  It’s in the heart of the Entertainment District, right on the People Mover and QLINE for easy transportation.

If you’re after great value, I can recommend The Athenium.  Every room is a spacious suite and the staff were fabulous during my stay.  Since it’s in the heart of Greektown, it’s a fun and lively neighborhood to stay in.

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Detroit several times and if you use one of my links to book your own trip, I’ll earn a little beer money for my next fowling misadventure.  After all, when you mix alcohol and football bowling, what could possibly go wrong?

2 thoughts on “Misadventures in Football Bowling, Detroit’s Beloved Fowling Game”

  1. Timothy Pressman

    One of your best pieces to date. I know I’m biased toward Detroit. It’s just an awesome city with fantastic people and all kinds of crazy stuff to do. This was no exception. Glad you’ve enjoyed it so much but saddened you won’t be returning as frequently.

    1. @Tim, I share your bias toward Detroit. I like it, even if I can’t put my finger on anything specific. It will definitely be a change to “force” myself to return in the future vs. having a guaranteed excuse to go.

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