Donny’s Deductions: The History of Professional Bowling

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Donny Turner was awarded the Division II Mr. Bowling Award (as presented by the TSSAA) in 2016. He has been an avid bowler since his childhood, and he continues to bowl competitively when he’s not in class as a Union University math major.

When you think of bowling, you probably think of hanging out with some friends on a Friday night eating pizza and drinking Coke. It is laid back, fun, and totally relaxed. If it ever does get competitive, it is only in good fun and never terribly serious. The majority nowadays don’t even consider bowling to be a real sport. But this was not always the case. Bowling has had one of the most vibrant histories of any sport in the world!

The Golden Age:

Professional bowling, as it is known today, began in 1958. Before this, the only type of bowling that had been aired officially on television was jackpot bowling, a game where each bowler would try to bowl up to nine strikes and the winner would get $1000. The desire to start a professional bowling league that would be aired on TV was headed by Eddie Elias, a sports agent. During a 1958 American Bowling Congress tournament with 60 of the best bowlers, Elias proposed the idea of a Professional Bowling league. He convinced 33 of these bowlers to donate $50 each to start the organization. The league was incorporated.

The Professional Bowling Association (PBA) began in 1959 with 3 tournaments. Lou Campi won the first event and Dick Weber, a future Hall of Famer and acclaimed ambassador for the sport, won the other two events. The PBA tour slowly began growing; in 1960 there were 7 tournaments and then 16 in 1961.  In 1962 the league expanded greatly to 30 tournaments, a number that rivals the amount of tournaments in the modern era. Dick Weber would become the primary face of bowling in the inaugural years of the PBA as he won 10 of the first 23 events. Bowling was quickly becoming extremely popular.

Two bowling-based TV shows grew in popularity in the 1960s: Jackpot Bowling and Make That Spare, a show where bowlers would attempt to make difficult spares and earn money for each spare made. Both of these shows propelled the popularity of bowling greatly, and it was a major factor in getting the PBA to begin being aired live on ABC in 1965. Bowlers were beginning to make a ton of money. Through sponsorships from Ford Motor Company, Coca-Cola, True Value Hardware, and Firestone Tire, the PBA was able to expand the both tour and funding.

In 1963, there was over $1,000,000 (over $7,000,000 today) in prize funds. The top bowler for that year, Harry Smith, made more money than the Major League Baseball MVP and the National Football League MVP combined. Then, in 1964, Don Carter, one of the greatest bowlers of all time, became the first athlete in any sport to receive a $1 million dollar endorsement deal. This was more than 200 times what professional golfer Arnold Palmer got with his endorsements and more than 100 times what football star Joe Namath earned. Carter also made well over $100,000 a year through bowling tournaments and other endorsements with Miller, Viceroys, and Wonder Bread. Being a professional bowler really was a good life.

The popularity in professional bowling also drastically increased the amount of recreational bowling across the United States. Throughout the 1960s, 12,000 new bowling centers were constructed and 4.6 million United States Bowling Congress members existed. Bowling was cool. Everyone, from kids to parents to grandparents, bowled, and everyone loved bowling.

A Quick Aside:

One interesting facet of bowling history is its ties with gangsters and the mafia. Professional bowlers would participate in “action bowling,” a high-stakes form of gambling in which bowlers faced off for thousands of dollars. The dark bowling alleys hidden in the boroughs of New York was where this was the most popular. Often times 50 lane bowling alleys would be bustling even at 1 am. Ernie Schlegel, a future PBA Hall of Famer, dominated this scene. He would go in purposefully smelling of alcohol to hustle other bowlers. They would bet incredible amounts of money, often times more than $10,000 per game. The stakes were incredibly high. Schlegel began doing action bowling when he was just 17. He left the bowling alley that first night with $2,000 knowing he could make a living doing this for the rest of his life; however, not everything about action bowling was so positive.

This world was lawless, and bowlers took advantage of this. People would rig the bowling balls to be weighted illegally to hook more and knock down more pins. This was not unlike gamblers using loaded dice; the gangsters betting on the games were not happy when they found out. They could become violent if the game did not go their way.

There was even an instance where a bowler faked a heart attack to get out of a game. Two bowlers facing off against each other had both bet on himself to lose the match. They were both intentionally trying to throw the match. There were also big guys with guns who had also bet on the game and backed the bowlers. Now, the bowler had a dilemma: he could either step up in the tenth frame to win the game and subsequently be shot by his backer for not throwing the game, or he could intentionally miss the spare and get shot by his opponent’s backer. He did the only logical thing at that point, he faked a heart attack to get out of having to decide. Despite everything, the bowlers look back on it fondly. Limongello, a prominent bowler at that time, said it really was “Good times. I wouldn’t give those days back for nothing.”

The Decline:

Throughout the 70s and early 80s, bowling continued to be extremely successful. Bowlers were treated like rock stars. Bowlers getting 1st place at tournaments still earned hundreds of thousands of dollars, and sponsorship deals were still extremely lucrative. The PBA Senior tour for bowlers over the age of 50 formed alongside the formation of the Professional Women’s Bowlers Association (PWBA). Bowling was thriving and it did not seem to be slowing down anytime soon; except, oddly, things began to slow down and slow down fast.

Professional Bowling began to lull in the late 80s and 90s. Bowling prize funds did not increase with inflation and the number of tournaments in the year began to decline from 30 a year to less than 20 a year. Sponsorships began to dry up, and the PBA began to regress greatly. In 2000, the entirety of bowling was purchased by former Microsoft executives Chris Peters, Rob Glaser, and Mike Slade for $5 million dollars, less than the price of a minor league baseball team. Peters aimed to revamp bowling and give the industry a new image. He created a new website for the PBA (pba.com), and he aimed to stream the qualify rounds for PBA tournaments on a website (xtrafram.tv.). This web-streaming service is one of the few bright spots in a dark time. This service is still offered today and quality and viewership has only steadily increased.

Despite growing efforts, and major publicity from a 2006 sports documentary, A League of Ordinary Gentlemen (a documentary on the 2002-2003 season that followed a few of the best bowlers in the word), bowling was not growing fast, and the downward spiraling economy was not helping. The PWBA folded in 2003; however, the women were subsequently allowed to enter PBA events, and in 2005, Liz Johnson, widely regarded as the best female bowler of all time, made a PBA television show. Regardless, things were not looking up, recreational bowling had declined by 40% in 10 years, and the brand of bowling had never been worse.

Bowling had begun to take on the image of being a “lazy man’s” game. The prestige of bowling had been lost. Bowling was the brunt of many jokes. Jim Gaffigan, a popular comedian, had an entire shtick that made fun of bowling. He commented on the laziness of bowlers saying, “If you’re out of shape and you’re bowling, you’re probably a professional bowler.” He also mentioned that bowling was low on this list of things people could do. He said: “Bowling is the activity you do after you’ve done everything else.” Granted, this is a comedy routine, but there is some truth to his words. The idea of going bowling did not have the prestige of going playing golf or the physical fortitude of playing tennis. Bowling was seen as a lazy activity that anyone could do, but no one really wanted to do.

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The Youth Movement:

The PBA saw its darkest time in the 2010-2012 season. There were only 12 events that year, and only 3 of the events were aired live on television. The only positive to this season was a $250,000 first place prize to the winner of the Tournament of Champions, arguably the most prestigious tournament of the year. For every other tournament, the first place prize fund was between $20,000 and $50,000. This isn’t terrible money strictly speaking, but if you were a professional bowler and not in the top 10, you could barely make a living. The 20th ranked player would barely be earning more than $20,000 per year, half of what the 20th ranked bowler made in the early 1980s. The average income for the remaining 250 best bowlers in the world was less than $10,000 per year. This is, of course, not including sponsorships and other endorsements, but gone were the days of $1 million deals and Coca-Cola endorsements. Thankfully, all hope is not lost. There has recently been a huge movement of youth bowling.

Something interesting happened in late 2008; Jason Belmonte, a professional Australian bowler, did something different. He bowled using both his hands instead of one.

*image courtesy of Jason Belmonte’s official website

This popularized a new form of bowling that had never been seen before. Many people were in favor of this new form of bowling while others were vehemently opposed, but the most important thing is that it put bowling in a spotlight again. It made bowling more interesting and it garnered attention from everyone across the world. Jason Belmonte has even been featured on Dude Perfect, a popular YouTube channel, twice, and both videos have tens of millions of views. He has been the best possible ambassador for bowling, and the youth are taking notice.

Bowling two-handed makes it easier to hook the ball, thus scoring higher games with less experience. This makes the sport more accessible and many more middle and high school bowlers are using this technique. Jason Belmonte has helped grow the sport more than just about any other professional bowler. Youth bowling has seen its first positive trend within the last 5 years for the first time in over 2 decades. This is not a coincidence, and major bowling organizations such as USBC (United States Bowling Congress) have grown as a result. USBC hosts a national youth bowling tournament every year called Junior Gold. This tournament has seen a 300% increase within the last 7 years, from ~1000 to over 3000 entrants. This has had a lasting and positive effect on Professional Bowling.

Through the youth movement, there has also been a huge influx of young bowlers (18-25) who have seen major success on the PBA tour recently. These youth bowlers have already gained the experience of fierce competition from tournaments such as Junior Gold and other grueling youth tournaments. They are capable and often more competitive than some of the veterans on tour, and they have the advantage of athleticism on their side. These bowlers have documented through different forms of social media how often they work out, and they work out a ton. This new wave of youth bowlers put a huge emphasis on staying in peak physical condition, often working out just as much as or more often than they bowl. This has given them an edge over the competition, and it has begun to chip away at the stereotype that all professional bowlers are out of shape. Bowling is on an upward trend.

Bowling still has a long way to go. Realistically, professional bowling will never be as big as football or basketball; however, bowing is growing steadily. Bowling is America’s favorite recreational activity, and youth bowlers are heavily involved and extremely passionate about the sport. That is what it will take to keep the sport of bowling alive. As long as there are people out there who genuinely care about the sport and are dedicated to its growth, bowling will never die.

 

If you enjoyed reading this blog post and want to learn more about bowling and how to get better at bowling, we have a couple great books on bowling in the Library!

Bowling Execution – A fantastic book on how to get started in the basics of bowling.

Historical Dictionary of Bowling – A book on different terms and people related to bowling. A great book if you want to learn more on the history and terminology of bowling.

*written by Donny Turner