Monday, March 2, 2009

Why is Bowling a Second Class Sport?

Bowling has a large following in the USA. The United States Bowling Congress claims to serve some 2.6 million bowlers annually. This stat jives with their 2007 financial statement, in which the USBC reported revenues of $26 million from membership fees; a membership currently costs $10 per person. In contrast, the United States Golf Association reported just over $19 million from Member Program Dues at a minimum per capita price of $15 or $17.25 for a dual membership. In other words, the USBC earns more money from more members at a lower cost than the USGA. Thus, one could say that bowling is more popular than golf in the USA.

But is that really true? My impression is that bowling enjoys greater membership in professional societies than golf but that golf is more popular. Part of this is likely explained by difference in membership frequency. This is not to say that more people golf than bowl, but unless you want an official handicap or want to compete in tournaments, there is really no reason to get a USGA membership, although I’m sure the USGA would disagree.

There are major differences between the two sports in terms of time, cost, and culture. A typical league bowler will finish three games of bowling before a golfer even makes the turn to the back 9. A bowling ball and shoes cost about $200, whereas a set of clubs, bag, shoes, gloves, balls, tees, and club membership dues or green fees, can cost many thousands of dollars. Culturally, golf courses are places where the financially well off congregate and dress codes control the appearance of folks strolling around the clubhouse and greens. Bowling alleys are typically dominated by blue collar folks, and usually all that is required is shoes and a shirt (pants optional). Can you imagine a country club with rental shoes? Obviously, there are plenty of exceptions to these stereotypes, but it would hard to admit that there are not serious differences demographically, economically, and culturally between the average bowler and golfer.

Television coverage of the two sports no doubt is the best measure of the popularity of the two sports. The 2007 golf US Open had 7.83 million viewers. In contrast, PBA bowling on ESPN averages about 770,000 viewers. The PBA Tournament of Champions this year was sponsored by H&R Block, the everyday man’s tax preparation accountants. In 2008, the Golf US Open was sponsored by American Express, Lexus, IBM, and the Royal Bank of Scotland. Obviously, they are catering to different demographics. Tiger Woods had nearly $6 million in earnings in 2008. Norm Duke (a professional bowler) currently leads the PBA with $141,330.

When Business week ranked the most powerful people in sports in 2007, Tiger Woods was listed as No. 2. Tim Finchem, the commissioner of the PGA was No. 34. Arnold Palmer was no. 76. There were no bowlers on the list, NONE. The President of the WNBA even appears on the list as no. 100. Clearly, bowling gets no respect. But should it? Tennis gets more airtime than bowling as does poker. If one assumes that demand is what drives what is broadcast on television, then it should be clear that there is relatively little demand to watch other people bowl on the tube. Why?

From my own perspective, I will only watch ESPN’s bowling coverage when there is nothing else of interest on TV. When I do, I have no stake in the outcome. I don’t care if the chubby guy or the well-mustachioed skinny guy wins. I sometimes watch it with an eye toward improving my own game. Now that I have bowled for three seasons, I watch with awe at how easily professional bowlers seem to pick up spares. The best moments occur when they do not convert single pins and stomp off in anger.

In contrast, watching Tiger is a completely different experience. He has been hyped since he first appeared on the scene. Every tournament in which he plays seems to be a huge drama, whether he misses the cut or blows out the competition. He is a legend in his own day. But why do I care about Tiger and not the chubby guy, whose name I can’t remember, with the thing on his wrist? (My wife just chimed in and made it very clear that Tiger Woods is “sleep withable” while chubby bowler guy is a “definite no”) Why is it that I can’t name more than two professional bowlers, but I can name 20 to 30 golfers, active, retired, living, or dead?

It’s not just me. So why is this? I don’t know. Part of this is obviously culturally constructed as are most fads. But what is the source of the cultural stereotype of bowling? Bowling is something you do with the kids. It is also something you do late at night when you are young and drunk. Professional bowlers do not fit the mold of the typical professional athlete and are the butt of jokes, as I have amply demonstrated. With few exceptions, bowling alleys are not well-maintained, stylish places to hang out. It is definitely not a sport of the social elite, and nor should it be. Of course, neither is basketball, and most professional basketball players come from humble backgrounds. To me, this suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong with the sport that makes it fun to play but not fun to watch.

Here are some good things about bowling. 1) It is accessible. It is not overly expensive, even to buy one’s own equipment. 2) It is fun. People obviously enjoy doing it, otherwise 2.6 million Americans (roughly 1 out of every 116) wouldn’t be members of the USBA. 3) It can be a team or individual sport. 4) It is frustratingly simple. Most people know what they are supposed to do, but they just can’t get the ball to do it consistently. This makes bowling a sport you can work on for a lifetime, like golf, always seeking improvement. This is why bowling is compelling to do, but why isn’t it compelling to watch?

Problem 1- Scoring- I can’t help but to think that the scoring system is part of it. Most people have no idea how a match is proceeding until the announcer pronounces it over in the 8th frame. I love the scoring system, but many people don’t get it. Problem 2- Variety- Many sports have a reputation for being boring to watch, baseball and golf are obvious examples. But in both there is plenty of variety. In baseball, you have different pitches, singles, doubles, triples, homeruns, bunts, stolen bases, pick offs, errors, walks, hit batters, balks, close plays, slides, foul balls, etc. In golf, you have a range of clubs, shots, hazards, and a huge range of variation in courses. In bowling, it is pretty much the same everywhere. Sure, oil patterns are varied, but this is invisible to the audience and not something to which we can relate. In professional bowling, you have strikes, spares, and the occasional open frame and/or split. This does not cause much excitement or drama for the average viewer. Problem 3- Athletes- Professional bowlers are not particularly compelling people. Think of the back story and drama necessary in King Pin to make the final scene a thing you HAD TO WATCH, and still bowling was portrayed as a humurous and "clumsy" activity for dufouses . For most people, there is no back story to professional bowling. PBA matches look like the chubby guy down the street bowling against the mailman. Who cares.

What to do? I’m sure the PBA and USBC would love to find a way to make bowling more interesting to watch. I have no idea how to do this. It needs to be infused with drama and suspense. It needs to have more excitement. It needs to be less predictable and more variable. To be honest, I think I’d rather watch two guys or girls with 150 averages go head to head. Where every spare is desperately fought for. Where there is the risk of not breaking 100 or the promise of maybe reaching 200. Where the ball occasionally finds the gutter. Or maybe we don’t just need bowling alleys, but instead bowling courses. Imagine ten lanes with contours in elevation and curves. Each lanes differs in length, width, and the number of pins. Who knows.

I guess the bottom line is that I love to bowl, but like a lot of people, it is not very interesting when someone else bowls, even the best bowlers in the world.


  1. I'd watch it more if it were easier to bet on. In boxing you always bet on the ethnic guy (if they're the same ethnicity, bet on the one from the poorer country). In pool, the older guy/gal always wins. In bare-knuckle-cage-infested-with-angry-badgers fighting, the guy who used to be a lumberjack always wins. In figure skating, the Russians always win.

    Is there some way to predict the winner in a bowling match?

  2. For the sake of tv, it would help if bowlers had more hair (on their heads) and less gut. You know, looked a little more like athletes.


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