Saturday, November 14, 2009

The TV Currency

I was pleasantly surprised to find in my mailbox a couple of days ago the new issue of US Bowler Magazine, specifically Volume 5, No. 2, the Winter 2009-10 edition. It's always a surprise because it comes so infrequently that I forget that it is one of the perks of my USBC membership. In fact, it seems like the only perk. On p. 8, there is an interview with Stu Upson, the USBC's new Executive Director. I generally liked the things that Stu had to say. In particular, I found this statement intriguing, "We want to work closely with our membership to achieve our mission of growing the sport, having said that, we have to search for new ideas. The current approach is not working well enough."

Now, maybe I'm reading too much into this. After all, a new Executive Director has to point to problems he thinks he can fix, or else he would be saying that he's not really necessary or the right guy for the job. But being part of your membership, Stu, I'd like to share a few thoughts, not that you'll ever read them. Nobody ever seems to pay attention, other than the Holy Cross Lutheran Church A Bowling Team in Arlington, Texas. (Thanks guys!) Before I begin my rant, let me say at the outset that this might anger many a bowler if they read it, but thankfully, most bowlers don't know how to read.

That little joke right there really speaks to my point. I have rediscovered bowling over the last few years. I have enjoyed it tremendously. It is a frustratingly simple game, like billiards. I know what I have to do, but I just can't quite do it. It shouldn't be this hard. That one aspect of the game keeps me coming back over and over again trying to get to the point where I can consistently find the pocket or pick up solitary 10 pins. It suits my obsessive personality well that way. It is a remarkably difficult thing to master.

However, while I enjoy bowling, analyzing bowling statistics, and writing about bowling, there are times when I am ashamed by this. Take the simple fact that I have generally concealed my identity. Ok, if you click on that link, you will bring me out of the closet. That feels better. [Please don't give me a lifetime ban.] But why have I worn this mask in public? Well, in certain contexts, it can be a little embarrassing to be a guy who puts so much time and effort into bowling. I can't put my finger on the reason why exactly, but it kind of feels like being a guy who is a huge fan of the WWE. Bowling has a certain gestalt and style that does not mesh with my other life. In that life, I am a long-haired, overly educated, liberal academic (some would say "elitist"). Are these words we associate with bowling? Not so much.

It shouldn't be this way. Bowling should have a positive association for everyone, but cultural forces are powerful forces. They shape perceptions and they shape trends. I know that not everyone feels the same way I do about bowling. In fact, if I look at the advertising in my new magazine, I recognize that I am not the target demographic of the USBC. Your target demographic is apparently into cheap diamond initial pendants (p. 15) and fake diamond-like substances (p.29). These ads really speak to what bowling wants to be. It wants to wear diamonds, but the best it can do is to wear stones that "dazzle like diamonds but without the outrageous cost" (p. 15).

In other words, Stu, I think you recognize that bowling has an image problem, and this magazine really isn't helping. I could dissect it like any good academic would, and believe me, the temptation to do so is strong. For example, US Bowler always includes some short segment we could call, "Cool people bowl, too!" (See Chris Paul, pp. 2-3; Alyssa Milano and Manny Ramirez, p.12). Unfortunately, these always come off as hokey and insincere. While Chris seems to have a genuine interest, Manny and Alyssa do it only for charity. They could care less about bowling, and the account of Manny's bowling illustrates this perfectly. It feels like this segment is self-defeating.

Leaving aside US Bowler, one thing that I find incredible is that bowler success is commonly measured in terms of "TV appearances". I get it. Most bowling tournaments are not on TV, and when they are, only the final rounds are shown. So, if you make it into the glowing box, you're doing well. I can think of no other sport that does this. If you are a professional athlete in a major sport, you are on TV every time you step on the court, field, or ice. "Television appearances" would be synonymous with "games played", not a very meaningful indicator of ability or success. When we say that the guy with the bushy mustache has the most television appearances of all bowlers, it makes it seem like this is what drives bowlers- to be on TV. There may be some truth to that. Everybody likes attention. But the use of this simple descriptive statistic of bowling ability just screams, "Pay attention to me!"

This, is your problem, Stu. Bowling wants more attention. You can do this my measuring how much attention bowlers get on TV. You can do this by wearing fake diamonds. You can do this by trying to associate bowling with people who get a lot of attention. But all of this stuff just makes you seem desperate, like the fat girl in the bar with big hoochy heels and clothes that are way too tight. We all know that the fat girl will be miserable and alone at the end of the night.

I wish I knew how to make bowling more widely popular and not seem like the desperate fat girl of professional sports. I'm sure you do, too. I will say this. US Bowler magazine does not make me feel like I belong. It seems like it was written for somebody else, and if I continue to feel out of place in this sport, I can guarantee that many others feel the same way.


  1. Wow. How's that spleen feel now, Todd?

    Often there's a gold nugget or two of pure poetry in your blants (blog + rants) in this one: The use of the word gestalt in this particular post about bowler stereotypes. But who am I to critique the critiquer? (After all, I am just an epileptic bowling Nobody deep in the heart of Texas.)

    As a seminary student and future (God still willin') pastor, I have often thought that if Jesus popped in on us for a visit, he'd start with a bowling alley on league night. I really like to people-watch at our lanes. But I have discovered that the person bowling next to me (or against me) may very much NOT fit the Big Lebowski stereotype. Actually, I'll bet you that there are more bowlers like you out there than you could sprinkle your gestalt on.

    From my vantage point, the best bowlers in our house, those who have never had to struggle to learn their art (maybe to perfect it), might more fit the slacker stereotype. I watched one twentysomething guy in our league a few weeks ago throw back more than a few beers, smoke about half a pack of cigarettes, and roll a 300, seemingly without a care in the world. And he returned to his job on the docks the next day.

    As long as bowling continues to be considered a blue collar pasttime, the USBC (and its advertisers) will continue to pander to the target demographic that makes them the most money (so you're not likely to see the U. of Phoenix pushing degrees in an issue anytime soon). Few people really understand that bowling is more than a pitcher of beer and a pair of ugly shoes.

  2. Very well stated, E.B. I'm a nobody in the High Plains. You are correct. There are people like me. You are also correct that bowling is a blue collar stereotype. I see two ways for bowling to go.

    It could follow the NASCAR model and cater to the demographic that fits the stereotype (which is probably the majority of people who take bowling seriously). Or it could follow the NFL/NBA/MLB model which is loved by one and all. NASCAR has done pretty well for themselves, but the big sports have dominated. That they welcome everybody might have something to do with it.

    Being a person who has recently discovered a love for bowling, I want to feel like I belong. In my league, though, I feel like the weirdo. This is not to say that people aren't nice to me. They are. I enjoy the social scene. But I still feel like the odd man out. Only one team in our league even knows of the BM Report because they stumbled across it on the tubes. I have not even wanted to share it with them because I feel like I would stick out even more.

    The whole schtick of this blog is to take a serious, funny, and mildy intellectual look at bowling. To take it seriously, from the perspective of a scientist, a critics, and a smart ass. I have experienced some success at that, and I think the reason why is because it is an endeavor imbued with irony. But must it be ironic? I would like to think not.


  3. And well done with the "sprinkle your gestalt" phrase. For a "nobody" in Texas, you always manage to entertain me.


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