Fear And Bowling

High-tech investors strike fast to spare the PBA from the gutter.

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No one realized it at the time, but the contemporary woes of professional bowling were summed up with cruel clarity in early 1991.

The first hint of trouble came at the Fair Lanes Open in Randallstown, Maryland, where a right-handed Texan named Del Ballard Jr. needed to knock down just seven pins -- the bowling equivalent of a layup -- with his final ball to win the tournament's $30,000 top prize.

As he had all match, Ballard threw his ball out wide, where normally it would hang before swinging back toward the pocket with a vicious hook. But this time it didn't come back. It kept going, to the edge of the lane, over the edge, into the gutter -- on national television.

The crowd at the Fair Lanes Kings Point bowling center, which had been cheering in anticipation of Ballard's come-from-behind win, fell silent. Ballard's opponent, Pete Weber, could only shake his head in disbelief. Ballard himself picked up his ball and quietly walked out.

It was six weeks later when bowling's particular brand of bad juju reared its head again. And again it involved Weber. At the U.S. Open in Indianapolis, Weber cruised to an easy victory over Mark Thayer, capturing his second Open title. When Weber raised the first-place award above his head after the match, though, the porcelain eagle perched on the trophy came loose, dropped to the floor, and smashed to pieces.

These are the stories professional bowlers tell strangers who ask about professional bowling, for to love bowling is to embrace indignity, to cuddle with disappointment. To love bowling is to be so supremely secure or so culturally naive as to shrug off the pall of utter unhipness that shadows all who celebrate the skill of throwing a 16-pound orb at a single spot down an oiled patch of wood (or something that looks like it) 60 feet long and 42 inches wide.

Indeed, to love bowling is to cast your lot with the Ralph Kramdens and Fred Flintstones of the world, to celebrate a sort of antiquated egalitarianism in the age of irony and overnight millionaires.

Yes, to love bowling is to be misunderstood. And to love bowling as practiced by the Professional Bowlers Association is to be professionally misunderstood. Which is why nothing illustrates the state of the Akron-based PBA more than Weber's wounded trophy and Ballard's putting a potential match-winner into the gutter like some beer-soaked Tuesday-night bush leaguer.

Because for all the derision and all the slights piled on bowling over the years, for all the Kingpin and Big Lebowski Hollywood caricatures, nothing pisses off people who love professional bowling more than this: During the last decade -- even in the days when the PBA was a staple of Saturday afternoon television, a ratings plum that blew away just about every other sport on the tube -- Del Ballard's gutterball and Pete Weber's flying trophy are the only bowling exploits anybody can recall making the highlights on ESPN's SportsCenter. And nobody who loves professional bowling doubts the reason why: The world doesn't think pro bowling is a real sport.

The bigwigs at the top of the PBA don't like such talk, of course, since it perpetuates a notion they've been struggling against for years: namely, the perception that bowling is just a game, like darts or Twister -- one best practiced by fat men with wispy mustaches. It is, to their horror, seen by many people as simple recreation, not the sort of competition that requires athletic skill.

Which really isn't true, since bowling is a sport -- at least as much as golf is a sport -- and one not at all performed best by fat men with wispy mustaches; it's best performed by perfectly svelte men with wispy mustaches.

And now, for the first time in years, the bigwigs at the PBA may actually have a chance to do something about those perceptions. In April, three former Microsoft executives with healthy investment portfolios and a collective jones for tenpins finalized the takeover of the moribund association. Though few people knew it at the time, it was a move that saved an organization that was weeks away from financial collapse.

In a flurry of press that hadn't greeted bowling since Del Ballard became the hero of bumper bowlers everywhere, the new owners promised a new PBA: leaner, meaner, dedicated to making the pro tour a viable, modern sporting enterprise. "You probably couldn't ask for a better situation," says PBA Commissioner Mark Gerberich. "They have everything you want . . . It gives us instant credibility."

Instant credibility and immediate expectations. In the heady days following the announcement, there was talk of live webcasts, partnerships with media giants, stock options for players. There was talk of bowling being the sport of the new century -- the PBA as a high-tech start-up.

The question, of course, is this: Once all the excitement dies down, can more money and more marketing of Parker Bohn III, Norm Duke, and Chris Barnes to the masses really work? Can the Internet -- or anything else -- really save professional bowling?

That professional bowling found itself gasping for life is perhaps not a surprise -- certainly not to people who are familiar with the sepulchral state of bowling in general. Though 50 million Americans walk into bowling centers each year, the number of bowlers in this country has remained static since the early '80s, and bowling's core group of participants, those bowling more than 30 times a year, continues to plummet.

"It's definitely declining," says Tony Brooks, a former PBA bowler who now heads up the Greater Cleveland Bowling Association, the local arm of that sport's governing body, the American Bowling Congress. "In the last two years, we've probably had a 10 percent or more drop-off [in the number of league bowlers]."

Even so, bowling is surviving, though in recent years, it has increasingly relied on kitschy hooks like cosmic bowling to lure people to the lanes. Indeed, if nothing else, bowling has always known how to survive.

The first known variation of the game was reportedly played by the Egyptians, as far back as 5200 B.C. At various times over the centuries, almost every culture -- from the Romans to South Pacific islanders -- developed games akin to modern bowling, some of which are still played around the world today.

It was the Germans, however, who developed the precursor to modern bowling, a game that evolved from a religious ceremony associated with symbolically destroying one's enemies.

The secular world soon took to bowling, and it hasn't really let go since. Like ugly pants on the golf course, drinking, gambling, and all sorts of vice have seemed intractably linked to the sport. And though it has enjoyed its moments in aristocratic vogue, bowling has really always been the province of people who work for a living. "It was a game played almost entirely by coarse, roguish men, usually for money," Howard Stallings writes of the sport's 19th-century incarnations in his Big Book of Bowling. "Brawls broke out routinely in these dangerous establishments, and murder was not uncommon."

Roguish men. Gambling. Brawls. Murder. How has Vince McMahon not gotten a piece of this?

It seems bowling has always suffered from some form of image problem. If it wasn't the odd bowling-related homicide in the 19th century, it was its ties to gambling and prostitution in this country during the first part of the 20th century.

Today, that kind of mad, bad dangerousness would be seen as an asset. Pro bowling might have an "edge." But it is bowling's fate to be misunderstood, and so the dynamics of the game changed again, and now the sport has all the edge of a donut hole.

Blame the greatest generation. After World War II, with the advent of automatic pin-setting machines, bowling shed its dank, pool-hall kinship to become downright wholesome, and its popularity soared. From the late '40s to the early '60s, membership in the American Bowling Congress quadrupled. But that popularity would, ironically, lead to a heap of trouble for the PBA and an even more daunting image problem for bowling in general.

According to the late George Allen, an academician and bowling aficionado who wrote about bowling, beginning in the '60s, the people at the grand triumvirate of bowling -- equipment manufacturers AMF and Brunswick, as well as the Bowling Proprietors Association of America -- started promoting bowling as recreation, rather than as a sport. While it successfully brought more people out to bowl, it was also the death knell for bowling as a serious athletic endeavor, argued Allen. "Until then, the bowler was perceived as an athlete and sportsman, competing in a game that took some skill," Allen told Sports Illustrated in 1988, "but there's been a structural shift, a permanent change." That shift sent the message that would become pop culture gospel: Just about anybody can be a good bowler.

"It's like using a frickin' driver with a head that big," says Jim Pencak, his voice tinged with disgust, his hands raised in the air above his chicken quesadilla as if he's about to catch a basketball. "Or making a hole as big as a dining room in golf. That's how easy the lane conditions are. I don't bowl but three games a week, with no practice, and I average 230. At the top of my game out on tour, I didn't average 213 on a competitive condition."

He is sitting in a T.G.I. Friday's on the East Side, talking about oil. Lane oil, a.k.a. the Biggest Issue in Bowling. When professional bowlers talk about oil, they get upset.

It is a huge debate in the bowling world, and to explain it would probably involve a protractor and a compass, but the short version is thus: Over the last 30 years, there has been a less-than-subtle shift in the lane conditions that most bowling centers employ. Quite simply, many proprietors have made their lanes a hell of a lot easier for the average bowler to strike, strategically laying down about as much oil as the Exxon Valdez.

"Now everybody and his brother puts a super wall up there, meaning it helps guide the ball to the pocket," says Pencak, who, as a pro from 1980 to 1993, once won 16 consecutive games on television. "If you miss and throw it crappy to the right, it'll hit dry boards and come back into the pocket. If you hit your left eye and pull it, the ball hits a puddle of oil and goes right to the pocket."

The temptation for people who run bowling centers is obvious. Unlike almost every other sport, a flawless game in bowling isn't just in the realm of the theoretical. In golf, tennis, volleyball, or cricket, perfection is simply an abstract idea, out there in the void: A goal that is more philosophical than physical. In bowling, perfection is not only possible; for some, anything less has actually become a disappointment.

The result has been a constant and ridiculous escalation in bowling score averages over the last several decades. During the 1998-'99 bowling season (yes, there is a season), almost 35,000 perfect games were played across the country. In 1970 there were fewer than 1,000. It's gotten to the point where even the national media are paying attention. Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly called the situation "damn un-American," writing that rolling 300 in some houses is about as difficult as "putting in a bathtub or hitting Willard Scott with a peashooter from the next barstool."

"What's happening is that proprietors, looking to make a dollar, they put an easy shot down in their house to attract the bowlers," says Brooks. "So the skill level in the game has actually diminished, because it doesn't take that much to average 200. Perfect games are commonplace now. You could go back 10 years, and if there was fifty 300 games in the city, that was a lot. And now, that's like two months. It's so bad now that in some of the scratch leagues, somebody shoots 300 and it's like 'Oh, really.' It's no big deal anymore. That was our goal: a perfect game. And now a perfect game doesn't mean anything. It's sad."

For the PBA, the issues of oil and image are inextricably linked. If any jackass with the right ball and the right lane conditions can roll a 230 at his neighborhood bowling center, why would anybody care about Ryan Shafer rolling a 217 to win the Wichita Open or Chris Barnes rolling a 193 to finish second in the Tournament of Champions? "Hell," jackass bowler says, "I could beat those guys."

Which, of course, the jackass couldn't. The way lanes are set up on the pro tour has about as much in common with the lanes at your neighborhood bowling center as the Great Wall of China has with your backyard fence. The difference is usually pegged between 30 and 40 pins. That means a jackass bowler's 230 would be 190, and that isn't even high enough to make the tour, let alone compete on it.

"I once played a tournament at the Riviera Lanes in Akron, where they hold the Tournament of Champions," says Rico Lake, an accomplished amateur bowler who manages the Cedar Center Lanes on Cedar Road. "They dressed the lanes like they do for the pros. It's nothing like bowling here," he says, motioning toward his lanes. "This is bumper bowling compared to that. You can't miss."

And this from a guy who manages a bowling center.

"You know, when David Duvall takes four shots to hit it out of the sand trap, everybody knows why," says Gerberich, trying to explain the oil/image thing with a golf parallel, which a lot of people in pro bowling seem to do. "If a guy misses a head pin four times in a row, everybody thinks he's terrible. The most frustrating thing to a person like me, who grew up learning to bowl and having to work hard to get an average, is that people today -- high-average bowlers -- don't know how to bowl, and they don't understand what it takes to be a great bowler."

Eddie Elias may not have known what it took to be a great bowler, but he did know what it took to sell a great bowler. Elias, founder of the PBA, started it all back in 1958, when he went to an American Bowling Congress tournament to convince the game's top names to pony up $50 each to start a professional tour. He had come by the idea after interviewing two of the game's greatest stars, Don Carter and Dick Hoover, on Akron's WAKR radio station, where he worked while putting himself through law school at Case Western Reserve University.

This was during bowling's golden era, when millions of people bowled every week; when bowlers who appeared on television became stars. (A salient piece of bowling trivia: In 1964, Carter became the first professional athlete to sign a million-dollar endorsement deal, with Ebonite balls.)

At the time, bowling was by far the most popular participatory sport in the United States. As Elias knew, popularity didn't guarantee success for the tour, however. It was clear to him that the PBA couldn't survive without television. So from the beginning, the tour was a creature of and for the medium, dependent on the exposure and revenue television brought. In 1961 he arranged his first contract with the ABC television network -- a relationship that would last 36 years, eventually making it the second longest-running sports program on television, behind college football.

To get the network interested, though, Elias realized he needed to do things differently. Though hard to imagine now, at the time sports on television was a tough sell to advertisers. So instead of having the network sell spots on the tour's show to advertisers, he would sell most of the advertising; then he would go to the network -- contracts in hand -- and negotiate to carry the events.

Elias was a born hustler, and he quickly realized there were other ways to profit from his enterprise. In 1965 he persuaded Firestone to stick its name on the PBA's marquee event, the Tournament of Champions, held most years at the Riviera Lanes in Fairlawn, outside Akron. The association made it one of the first national sporting events to have a corporate sponsor.

"I put Eddie in the same league as [IMG founder] Mark McCormack," says Gerberich, who was hired by Elias in 1983. "He got pro bowling on the map. He was a visionary. [ABC] made us a lot of money. We made them a lot of money, too."

Indeed, the PBA needed TV, but TV didn't do too badly by the PBA either. The tour became a regular fixture of Saturday afternoon programming on ABC, the habitual lead-in to the network's Wide World of Sports.

It outdrew such fixtures as college basketball, the NHL -- even golf. A television matchup between the Masters golf tournament and a bowling tournament wasn't even a contest. Bowling stomped.

Back then the PBA was still fat and happy, handing out big prize money to bowlers, gliding along on a juicy contract with ABC, and enjoying good ratings, even if the audience was getting smaller and older.

"The following was so strong back then, you bowled for a lot of money," says Pencak. "I bowled at an event [where] first place was $100,000, in 1989. That was the U.S. Open. They had a few U.S. Opens that were half-million-dollar tournaments, and first place paid $100,000."

All that started to change in the early '90s. Bowling's ratings began to slide, its viewers grayed, and -- most important -- it couldn't deliver the specific kind of audience advertisers and sponsors wanted.

"The bowling demographic is all over the map," says Gerberich. And that's the problem. Because bowling couldn't offer the coveted 18- to 34-year-old male sports fan, it had trouble attracting sponsors and advertisers, despite the fact that ratings remained solid.

Elias saw the writing on the wall. In 1989 he negotiated a four-year contract with ABC that paid the PBA $195,000 per event. By 1993, when the PBA sat down with ABC to hammer out another contract, the network was offering $50,000 per event. "At that point in time," says Gerberich, "we were probably getting 30 percent of our income for our association through television. And when you cut that number by $2.8 million, it's a big hit."

And then, the ultimate insult: The show that ruled its Saturday afternoon time slot for time eternal, ABC said, wasn't worth paying for. In fact, if the PBA wanted the tour on the air, the PBA was going to have to pay the network. So in 1997, the PBA and ABC parted ways.

Life changed for the players during this time, too. Prize money stagnated or declined. Entry fees went up. It became harder to make a living throwing a bowling ball from week to week.

"After they lost the contract, it went way down," says Pencak, who also served on the PBA's executive board for several years. "Then they started looking to manufacturers, as well as increasing the entry fees for each event for the bowlers. All of a sudden, you're bowling for less money, and it's costing you more money to bowl on the tour."

But the PBA's loss of its television deal with ABC wasn't the only problem. In 1995 an audit of the association's books revealed serious trouble. Prior to examining its books, the PBA had anticipated a $75,000 cash surplus for the year -- not bad leftovers for a nonprofit. The auditors, however, found that projected surplus to be a pipe dream. Instead of being in the black, the PBA was actually looking at a $670,000 shortfall. "There were items that weren't billed, bills we didn't know about. It was just a number of different misdealings," says Gerberich. "Accounting 101 kind of stuff."

And it wasn't going to get better any time soon. "We knew that the budget for 1996 was based on what happened in 1995. We were looking at the same amount of revenues. We knew the next year we were going to have the same amount of losses."

Now they were looking at a $1.3 million debt. Even worse, when the PBA paid its bills, it had been dipping into the players' deferred compensation account to do so.

The PBA limped along this way for several more years. Belts were tightened; the debt was reduced. In 1997 the PBA worked a deal with CBS television to produce and telecast its own events.

At the same time, the organization was trying to attract more attention to woo new sponsors. The pins were changed -- made heavier, painted gold. The funereal atmosphere was scrapped: The hush was lifted, and fans could cheer while their guy was bowling. There was a million-dollar advertising campaign.

And yet, by the spring of 1999, things were worse than ever. "We knew in March we were dead," says Gerberich. "We knew in March that we were going to be $1 million short in sales. That's when you know what you've sold for the CBS shows. You know what you're paying. And then this guy doesn't come in [with advertising] and this company isn't going to sponsor, and it's like 'whoops!'"

By midsummer, Gerberich started worrying that he wouldn't be able to meet payroll. At the PBA's Akron HQ, any purchases -- even paper clips -- had to get his approval.

In August they got a break. Brunswick, one of the world's biggest suppliers of bowling equipment, had committed to being a sponsor for the tour's 1999-2000 season, and company officials agreed to front some of that sponsorship money to the PBA early. Still, Gerberich knew that the PBA couldn't hold out forever. Unless they found a buyer for the tour, it was going to be over -- and soon. By the end of November, the end of the PBA seemed imminent.

As it turned out, God decided to save the PBA the day before Thanksgiving. "It was a modern-day miracle," says Gerberich. "We were just blessed."

The Lord, of course, works in mysterious ways, and one need look no further than the salvation of the PBA for evidence of His peculiar style. Deliverance, after all, came via The Wall Street Journal.

In the summer of 1999, the Journal published a story about the second lives of ex-Microsoft executives. Featured was a former employee of Gates & Co. who had taken a path decidedly less traveled than most of his former Seattle compatriots.

Chris Peters had once been instrumental in developing some of Microsoft's best known software. But in early 1999, after 16 years with the company, he felt it was time to do something new. So he went bowling. "I wanted to learn to bowl, because everyone else was learning to play golf," says Peters. "I like doing the unexpected."

His goal was merely to get better than he was, which wasn't very hard, since he wasn't particularly good.

"My goal at the time was to bowl a single game of 200, which I did a few months after taking up bowling," he says. "I also, like every other league bowler out there, have the personal goal of eventually averaging 200 on easy conditions."

All that got blown out of proportion in The Wall Street Journal, however, where Peters was portrayed as walking away from Microsoft to try to become a professional bowler. "The minimum requirement to join the PBA is a 200 average, and this confused the reporter and turned me into someone who wanted to be a pro bowler," he says.

Ever the vigilant ambassador for pro bowling, Mark Gerberich saw the article and sent Peters an e-mail. "I just told him that, if there was anything I could do to help, let me know," says Gerberich. "I was just being a nice guy."

Peters responded with a long e-mail, telling Gerberich how interested he was in the bowling industry, in the tour, in what the PBA was trying to do with the sport.

"When I got his letter back, I thought, Well, this is very cool," says Gerberich. "This guy wants to get involved. It would be great to have this Microsoft guy on our board."

In October the two met at a bowling trade show in Reno, where they talked about the state of the PBA. Peters came to realize how much trouble the organization was in, and soon after he started talking to a friend, Rob Glaser, the CEO of RealNetworks and an avid bowler (he had two lanes installed in the basement of the company's offices in Seattle) about an idea he had. Soon enough, he brought in another friend, Mike Slade, who had heard about Peters's idea.

"We had many other friends that were interested, but we decided to hold it at three for simplicity's sake," says Peters. "We have spent a lot of time as venture capitalists lately, and from a strictly business perspective, it looked like -- and still looks like -- an awesome opportunity."

So on the day before Thanksgiving, Peters called Mark Gerberich.

Gerberich was alone at the PBA's office. Everyone else had already gone home for the Thanksgiving holiday. "I was just kinda figuring out how I was going to go home and deal with the wife and tell her next Tuesday we're not getting paid," says Gerberich.

Then the phone rang.

"I did it," Gerberich recalls Peters telling him.

"You did what?"

"I put together a group to buy the tour."

All it took was $5 million and a vote from the 2,500 odd players who make up the PBA -- not as though the bowlers needed a lot of convincing. "The way I see it," says Dave D'Entremont, a Middleburg Heights pro who has won five titles, "if these guys can't do it, we might as well pack it up."

The deal was finalized in April, and for the first time in years, sports pages around the country wrote about the Professional Bowlers Association. The tone was predictable: Who woulda thought? Tech boys and bowling. How quaint.

Now the heavy lifting has begun. The first order of business was converting the PBA from a nonprofit to a for-profit corporation, which will allow Peters & Co. to make and implement decisions a lot faster than the PBA used to. The day-to-day operations are still being run out of the Akron office, at least for the time being, but a new marketing and promotions operation is being set up in Seattle. Once the organization finds a president, which it's in the process of doing, things are supposed to really start happening: TV deal. New website. Sponsorships. A full-fledged sports-marketing campaign.

And yet, will any of it matter, given the feeble state of competitive bowling in general?

"On the recreation side, bowling is huge, which is great," says the Greater Cleveland Bowling Association's Brooks. "Everybody wants to bowl. Every walk of life . . . You've got extreme bowling, with the pins glowing and the black lights and the disco, and everybody has a great time. But competition bowling -- that's where the problem is. I don't know how you can attract people. I guess that's the million-dollar question."

Peters says he and his partners are committed to the sport, but that they can't fix things overnight. "The main thing I like to emphasize is that this thing won't be set right for three to five more years," he says. "Even with us doing everything right. It's not like we do two things, and next month there's a big sports organization. Their woes were a long time in coming, and fixing them will take a long time."

But it's not the PBA's job to answer for all things bowling, he says. On some level, it doesn't matter who bowls or how often. After all, NASCAR has become a huge business, and how many people ever drive a stock car?

"We don't see our job as making bowling more popular, only to make PROFESSIONAL bowling more popular to fans," Peters writes in an e-mail. "The athletes . . . are not popular in any mass way. Earl Anthony was and is an amazing bowler, but we need to work to make newer names come to people's minds. Names like Chris Barnes, Jason Couch, Norm Duke. It's not enough to use the Internet to ramp up marketing; it's just a new tool among many, but a very exciting new tool, and one we think we understand. I don't care if pro bowling is ever seen as 'cool.' I'll settle for 'wildly popular.'"

D'Entremont would settle for wildly popular, too. Hell, he'd settle for any kind of popular. After all, it's guys like him who are counting on the PBA to succeed, who need it to succeed. If the PBA falters, it'll be him, not Chris Peters, left without a career.

But he is used to disappointment. He is, after all, a professional bowler. And for two seasons, in 1995 and 1996, Dave D'Entremont was one of the best bowlers on the planet. Over those two years, he won three titles, including the biggest event in pro bowling -- the Brunswick World Tournament of Champions -- and earned almost $300,000. But the next year, his hand hurt after each event. He struggled; he wasn't bowling the way he had. In 1997 he won just over $43,000. In 1998, it was just over $19,000. In 1999, it was just under $26,000.

"If the money in bowling was even a third of what it is in golf, I could have been set" after the 1995 and '96 seasons, he says, sitting on the deck behind his Middleburg Heights house.

In April he had surgery on his hand to relieve what had become constant and aggravating pain. In July he bowled in a tournament in Tucson, though he eventually decided to pull out. It was too soon to come back, even though he bowled without any pain for several rounds. "I bowled 24 games without any pain in my hand at all," he says. "That felt so good . . . I felt like the old me."

And that's all he really wants, he says: a chance to bowl, without pain, as he knows he can.

Actually, he sounds a lot like the bigwigs at the PBA.

"My main goal," he says, "is to get back to the point where I can just give it one more shot."

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