(FORTUNE Magazine) – Forget everything you think you know about bowling. Bowling is not a dying sport, and the stereotype of the bowler--a "middle-aged, overweight man with a beer gut, who smokes and thinks the Internet is a hammock," as one bowling consultant puts it--is inaccurate. In fact, bowling is a growing, $4.2 billion industry. More and more people bowl every year--in 1996, 53 million people visited the 6,800 bowling centers in the U.S.--and industry observers say bowlers are getting younger and are better educated. A newly formed trade group, Strike Ten Entertainment, is trying to improve the sport's image with bowling-themed restaurants and a bowling-only cable channel.

Lest you think all this merely a show of poignant optimism over a hopelessly down-market activity, there is some very smart money at work here: The bowling business is ruled by that most unproletarian of institutions, Goldman Sachs, the top-tier investment bank. In May, Goldman paid $1.325 billion for a two-thirds stake in AMF, which owns about 390 centers and is the largest manufacturer of equipment. The bank saw promise in AMF's family-friendly approach to bowling, not to mention its 30% cash flow margin.

Goldman's money arrived at a good time--AMF lost money last year because of weak overseas demand for bowling equipment. Goldman's backing has also allowed AMF to expand through acquisitions. The company recently bought 50 centers from Charan Industries for $106.5 million, and another 43 centers from American Recreation Centers for $70 million. There's plenty more for AMF to buy too, since about 85% of all the nation's bowling centers are independently owned.

The strategy is to clean up the recently purchased properties and create a national chain of clean-cut amusement complexes. AMF spends up to $500,000 on renovations per center. They're stripped of discolored wood and antiquated equipment, and remodeled after a prototype in Mechanicsville, Virginia, down the road from AMF headquarters. This pristine 56-lane complex contains a bar with pool tables, automatic scoring on computer screens with cartoons, a bowling supply store, and a day care center. For kids, the lanes are fitted with rubber bumpers to prevent the ball from going into the gutter. Bowling becomes almost an afterthought on weekend nights, as the center is equipped with videoscreens, glow-in-the-dark equipment, and disco balls to attract local teens. "One needs to make sure that the centers are clean, services are good--that people are in uniforms, they're smiling, and the restaurants are clean," says Doug Stanard, AMF's CEO. "If you have a rundown center where the carpet is worn and the place is lit by 25-watt bulbs, half of which are out, it's a bad product."

Goldman is betting that once AMF has established its string of sufficiently clean, well-lighted bowling centers, this investment will pay off handsomely. "If you look at bowling centers over time," says Terence O'Toole, a Goldman Sachs managing director, "they're generally going to have stable cash flow year to year, as opposed to a movie studio that's dependent on big hits." Goldman Sachs, of course, isn't the only elite investment bank trying to broaden its reach from Wall Street to Main Street (as the two preceding stories demonstrate). If bowling's recent growth proves to be more than just a retro fad, however, this partnership with AMF may be a merger of highfalutin and lowfalutin that has some real promise.

--Henry Goldblatt