Thursday, October 8, 2009

Scotch or Favre? On Age and Bowling Ability

When I started doing the research for this post, my goal was to determine the age at which bowlers peak. I am 36 years of age, and my game is improving, but I can't help but wonder when that trend will reverse itself. Eventually, the body breaks down and my average should start to decline. Baseball players, for example, seem to peak in batting average in their mid to late 20's. What about bowlers?

To this end, I went to the PBA website, which lists all active pro bowlers and their stats. In particular, I looked at annual bowler averages, which the PBA lists for some bowlers as far back as 1998. They also list date of birth, so it's fairly simple to look at age vs. average. In all, this gave me 236 data points to work with. When you plot them, you get a really lousy correlation, but a correlation nonetheless.

What it suggests is that from age 20 to age 50, bowlers just keep getting better. To make this pattern a little clearer, I looked at the average average (not a typo) for bowlers ages 20-50 for five year intervals (e.g., 20-25, 25-30, etc.), and the pattern really stands out. PBA bowlers in their 20's tend to bowl in the low 2-teens. Bowlers above 40 tend to average around 220.

When I first saw this, I was somewhat incredulous. Can you think of any other sport in which you reach your peak performance above age 40? Certainly golfers can compete well into their forties, but they usually peak in their 30's. So, can it be true that bowlers are like scotch? Do they just keep getting better with age?

If that were true, wouldn't the ranks of professional bowlers be dominated by old guys? Well, check out the PBA website. This does not appear to be the case. The average age of the 31 bowlers I examined was 37. In other words, there is a good mix of young and old, but certainly this is a fairly advanced average age for professional athletes.

Here is what I think is really going on here. I will call it the "Favre effect" for Minnesota Vikings QB, Brett Farve who is still kicking ass in the NFL at 39 years of age. My hunch is that as professional bowlers age, there is a "weeding out" effect. In other words, if you are still rolling in the PBA after age 40, it's because you are a really good bowler. So, by the time we get into the upper age brackets, they are dominated by very high skill bowlers. This is not to say that skills do not improve with age or experience, but only that what is really driving this correlation is that many bowlers leave the PBA before say age 40 because it is not a fruitful career.

Consider that if you are not in the top 40 in earnings, you are not making $40,000 per year. I have no idea how much income bowlers make in other places, such as endorsements and such, but I imagine that unless you are in the top 20, it's not much. When you are in your early 20's, I think it is a lot easier to bowl professionally and not make much money, particularly if you are dreaming of being the next Walter Ray. In other words, you can struggle through your early years because there is the chance of a big payoff in the future. But as you get older, and it is clear that you are never going to break into the top 20, you will see greener pastures elsewhere. The net effect will be that young bowlers will have a large range of skills (and averages), but as you get into the later middle ages in the PBA ranks, you only have those bowlers good enough to make a very decent living at it.

This is just like quarterbacks. There aren't many QB's who play until they are 40. Those that do were really good, ala Brett Favre.

[Want to read more? Click here for an update to this post.]

2 comments:

  1. Okay. I'm 46, been bowling for four years. I can't find my life expectancy dot on your chart, brother. Maybe I'm that x-factor that skews (or slues or stews whatever the right word is...screws?) your research parameters. Surely, though, I'm a dot on SOMEbody's chart... :)

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  2. I would love to have access to the USBC database. It would be very easy to extend this graph forward and backward many years. Not only that, it would include bowlers of a large range of skills, including "developing" bowlers like ourselves.

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