Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Age Gap in Professional Bowling

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that the reasons for success in any field are two fold: 1) Unusual opportunities; 2) Practice and dedication. With regard to the first, Gladwell suggests that something as simple as year of birth when coupled with the right environment can foster success. In other words, a large reason for the success of the people who are the best at what they do is luck. You just happened to be born at the right time and were given special opportunities. For example, did you know that many of the hyper-successful players in the computer industry, like Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, and Bill Joy, were all born in 1954 or 1955? All of these guys came of age at the time when the personal computer boom was just beginning, and due to unusual circumstances had a lot of experience with computers at a young age.

The second key to success is practice. According to Gladwell, to become a master of anything, whether computer programming, music, basketball, or accounting, you need 10,000 hours of practice. This obviously requires dedication, but it also means that you need to have the opportunity to practice. If you want to get 10,000 hours of practice in bowling, for example, you need a lot of spare time (pun not intended), not to mention money or perhaps free access to a bowling alley.

So, were there better years in which to be born to become a PBA bowler? Well, I decided to look at the demographics of professional bowlers, and I found something unexpected. Here is the age distribution of exempt professional bowlers in the 09-10 season:

Notice that professional bowling is dominated by two disparate age groups. There are a large number of bowlers were born in the mid to late 1960's. There are very few who were born in the early 1970's, and there is a second large group of younger bowlers born during the late 1970's and early 1980's. In other words, there is an obvious and profound age gap in PBA bowling. If you were born in the early 1970's, your chances of being a successful PBA bowler today are very low.

So what explains this pattern? Well, the PBA came into existence in 1959, also the birth year of Walter Ray Williams, Jr. Beginning in 1965, PBA bowling competitions were regularly broadcast on television on ABC. In fact, the 1960's were the heyday of bowling. Not only were people regularly seeing the sport on TV, but participation in bowling was skyrocketing, bowling stocks were soaring on Wall Street, and newspapers were devoting a lot of ink to the sport.

The image to the right is from the August 4, 1961 edition of the Montreal Gazette, which that day, gave 15 pages to the sport with headlines like "Automation Booms Bowling into Multi-Million Business," "Mass Participation Sport," and "What is the Saturation Point". According to the Gazette, "The activity has boomed into its own with the development of automation, the spur of TV, shorter working hours and better wages - even the traffic situation which sees many people willing to drive far afield for their recreation." The USBC could only dream of headlines like this today. The 1960's were a wonderful environment in which to foster the development of professional bowlers. It should be no surprise that Walter Ray Williams, Jr, Pete Weber, Brian Voss, and Norm Duke were first hitting the lanes during this time. Speaking of Weber's, Dick Weber, perhaps the greatest bowler of all time, was born in 1929. He was in his bowling prime as the PBA first came into existence and first was aired on television. Not to take anything away from his ability, but his success, then, can be in part attributed to the luck of his birth year.

But what happened in the early 1970's? If you were born in 1973, your chances of becoming a pro bowler were not good. Participation in bowling remained fairly strong through the 1970's, but by the 1980's, the sport began to suffer. For example, in June of 1980, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune published the story, "Bowling, Golf Decline In Participants". This trend continued throughout the decade. In February of 1986, the Toledo Times ran a story titled, "Bowling Facing Participation, Cost Problems". In July of 1989, the St. Petersburg times had the headline, "Decreased participation worries ABC, proprietors Series: Bowling". In other words, bowling was no longer cool; it had lost its respect, as this headline from the Wall Street Journal would imply. Those would-be future professional bowlers in their teenage years in the 1980's had other things on their mind, like Def Leppard and Van Halen.

What is interesting is that if you were a teenager in the 1980's, chances are you would not become a professional bowler, but if you were born in that decade, your chances weren't bad. Why? Well, it probably has little to do with the popularity of the sport. I would argue instead that it is about economics. Bowling differs from the major professional sports in that it is not a very lucrative career. The top bowlers, those who have been at it for a long time, can make a decent living. For example, Parker Bohn III has been on the tour for 26 years and has over $2.5 million in earnings, or an average of about $100,000 per year. This is an impressive amount to earn in bowling, but for a high level professional athlete, it's peanuts. In comparison, PJ Haggerty, who has been on the tour three years has just over $60,000 in earnings, or $20k per year.

Young people, folks in their twenties, are at a point their life when they can engage in risky behavior, and joining the PBA is a major risk. Unless you become a star in the sport, you are probably going to lose money trying to become one of the best. Only a very few will succeed. The cost of travel to tournaments alone will offset earnings. So, the swelling ranks of 20-somethings in bowling today, I think, is due more to the fact that younger bowlers can afford to take risk in their early adult years, and I would not be surprised if there has always been a large number of bowlers of this age in the sport. In fact, most bowlers join the tour before age 30. Once you get into your 30's, if you are not having much success in the PBA, you will look for a real career elsewhere.

This phenomenon, however, cannot explain the age gap. As the current crop of bowlers ages, the lack of early 1970's born bowlers will simply migrate to the left on the first graph in the post. The bowlers today in their 40's and early 50's will not be replaced, and in 10 years, the demographics of bowling will be very different. Those potential bowlers born in 1972 and 1973 were most likely victims of the cultural crash of the bowling bubble.

Why I find this so fascinating is that I was born in the spring of 1973. Now, I have a perfect excuse for why I am such a terrible bowler. I grew up bowling duckpins with grandmother in the late 1970's and early 80's. She and her group of fellow retirees bowled once a week at Penn Daw Lanes on Rte. 1 in Alexandria, Virginia, not too surprising given the boom in the sport of the 1960's and 70's. Eventually, we stopped bowling, like many other people, sometime during the 1980's. If I have to find somebody to blame for all of this, I am going to blame Richard Millhous Nixon. I was born during the height of Watergate. Nixon was an avid bowler. If there was anybody who could have caused the social and cultural decline of the sport, it was him. "Dude you like to bowl? Nixon was a huge bowler. Lame."


  1. So 10,000 hours of practice at 12 minutes per game means after 50,000 games we should be masters of bowling. Let's see, 10 games per week, 50 weeks per year, 100 years to become a master. Since I started at age 55, probably not much chance of that happening. Oh well.

  2. Hadn't thought of it that way. Daunting, isn't it? All you need to do then is to bowl 100 games per week for 10 years straight. Or 50 games a week for 20 years. Sounds like you need to be the son or daughter of a bowling alley owner to stand a chance.

  3. Congrats on a very interesting article. This goes a long way to explaining why I lose to guys 15 years my senior on a regular basis. Or it could just be that I suck.

  4. Thanks, MD. I really appreciate that.


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