PBA: 5 Reasons Why the PBA Is (Slowly) Gaining in Popularity

Mike ZacchioContributor IOctober 2, 2011

PBA: 5 Reasons Why the PBA Is (Slowly) Gaining in Popularity

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    Bowling popularity resembles the stock market—ups and downs. Like any company, when they start to see their popularity slipping, they do something to spruce it up.

    Unfortunately for the PBA, whoever has been making some of these decisions should seriously re-think his job.

    Back in the day, bowling was huge! They really didn't need to market it all that much because everyone and their mother, literally, was doing it. Nowadays, most people between 10-21 don't even know that there is a professional bowlers tour, let alone that it is televised on the most popular sports station in the nation.

    When I started bowling in high school, it was right around the time high school bowling hit a huge spike in participation. Many of my former teammates and rivals still bowl today because we love the sport and actually follow it to a degree.

    Before I got competitive with it, I knew next to nothing about anything related to bowling other than the fact that for some reason I knew I wanted to bowl.

    Bowling is creeping in popularity, slowly but surely. And here's five main reasons why...

5. Michael Wilbon

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    What better way to shine light on a sport than by having the sport plugged by a popular sports anchor of the airing station?

    Michael Wilbon, co-host of Pardon the Interruption, called out one of the most popular players on tour at the time, Wes Malott, saying that the reason Malott didn't partake in the recent plastic ball championship is because he couldn't win without a high performance ball.

    Malott responded back saying, "I heard some of the things Wilbon was saying; if he wants to drill up his high performance ball, I'll be glad to drill up a plastic ball and we can shoe it up anytime."

    After winning a tournament following the plastic ball championship, Malott is seen raising his trophy saying to the camera, "What now Wilbon?"

    On PTI, Wilbon accepted the challenge stating, "I'd be happy to 'shoe it up'," but requested a 57-pin handicap. Wilbon calculated the handicap by saying he's expected to bowl a 175 and he's expected to bowl a 240, so 57 pins was fair for a professional to give to a guy who doesn't bowl for a living.

    The two squared off in a friendly battle where Wilbon defeated the King of Bowling, 256-248, including the handicap of course. If you watched the match, you probably wouldn't be all that impressed with Wilbon, but shooting a 199 scratch against a pro under, on a pro pattern (Scorpion), under the lights and pressure of TV is impressive. Especially since he started the match with a gutterball.

4. Kelly Kulick

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    We've all seen the, "Anything you can do, I can do better" commercials to promote female participation in sports.

    Sports stars like Mia Hamm and Lisa Leslie helped put females on the map in terms of the "popular sports." Women have a tough time being taken seriously in any sport, let alone a sport that predominately nobody cares about.

    When a 32-year-old female from Union, New Jersey took to the lanes of the PBA's Tournament of Champions, nobody expected her to "hang with the big boys" in their own house.

    Kelly Kulick had been very successful on the women's tour, but to bowling fans around the world, that meant nothing. Women were allowed to enter in any men's tournament, but staying atop the leaderboards was always difficult.

    Only once did a woman even sniff a PBA title, when Liz Johnson became the first female to make a PBA final in 2005. Johnson lost to that year's player of the year, Tommy Jones in the Banquet Open, but held her own, falling 219-192.

    Side note: She defeated Malott, 235-228, to make the championship.

    Back to Kulick, she makes the championship of not just a PBA tour event, but a major, one of just four majors all year and has to face Chris Barnes, a player of the year candidate and shoo-in Hall of Famer.

    While Barnes has earned the reputation as one of the tour's biggest choke artists, whether it was a choke or not, Barnes had no shot against this Jersey girl.

    Kulick romped Barnes 265-195, taking home one of the PBA's most prestigious titles, a $40,000 check, an enormous trophy, the respect of male bowlers everywhere, a place in the history books and undoubtedly, both Barnes' dignity and manhood.

    Kulick did not defend her title in 2011, and her odds to win in 2012 are currently at 60-1. I wish I could find the page from before the 2010 ToC to see what her odds were then, but I can easily see it being 125-1, if not higher. If I find it, I'll post it. 

3. The Flare and Excitement

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    If you bowl competitively, you know how much pressure can build up.

    Your 15-pound ball starts to feel like it weighs twice that, your legs and arms like jello and those pins seem to be a mile away and are weighted with cement.

    I honestly don't know what's worse, choking when you need it or having your opponent send a screaming messenger to slam out a 10-pin and seal your fate. Only then to have your opponent wind up and slap out the shot in celebration. 

    It's like watching a team win the World Series at your stadium; it sucks, and all you can do is grin and bare it.

    Players like Hall of Famer Pete Weber are well-known for their flamboyant attitude on the lanes. For Weber in particular, it's his signature "crotch chop" (shown above), a similar celebration to professional wrestling's group, Degeneration X's "Suck It" gesture.

    While I doubt Weber is telling his opponent to "suck it" rather than the pins, it's the players like him that break the mold of the stereotypical boring players who show no emotion whatsoever.

    Many, if not all, up and coming bowlers today use celebration as a mental game, trying to get their opponent off focusing on his game and pissed off at them. I know that I personally hate seeing celebrations because I know it gets in my head, but at the same token, I'm one of the most animated when I throw a big hit.

    Making it bowling today isn't all about skill. You can shoot numbers through the roof, but if you can't keep your composure, you're done.

    Many of the "old timers" find this new era of bowling to be a disgrace and disrespectful to both the game and their competition—that it is unsportsmanlike. A bowler, by traditional standards, is supposed to keep to himself and let him and his opponent bowl their games and whoever wins, wins. Shake hands at the end, and be done with the match.

    Today, if you were to run out a 10th frame, catch the biggest break in the world and then essentially throw it in your opponent's face, lets just say that he'd more than likely be reluctant to shake your hand and say, "Congratulations."

    Ninety-nine percent of the time, the bowler is expressing excitement for winning, not for his opponent losing. Although, if there is a personal grudge, that can very well be the case.

    Like the fancy dunks of the NBA and end-zone celebrations of the NFL, this is how the PBA will gain attention. The only question is, will it give them enough attention to bring the sport back?

2. Youth on Tour

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    Pictured to the left are four of the biggest rising stars on the tour (from left, Dan MacLelland, Osku Palermaa, Tom Smallwood, Jason Belmonte and Michael Fagan). Each of the pictured have their own contribution to the sport as to how the sport can possibly grow.

    Both Palermaa and Belmonte have already single-handedly, or should I say, "two-handedly" revolutionized the game. They both bowl using the two-handed delivery style, which gives a bowler more revolutions and a truckload more of power of their ball.

    A style that used to be unheard of, is now sweeping the nation. At tournaments you'll find a handful of them, and at your league, there's usually at least one guy who's doing it.

    Experts have been trying to breakdown the style to see how it's delivered and if it really does give a bowler the upper hand. While you can argue anything, I agree that it absolutely gives a bowler an advantage; and I'm not just saying that as a two-handed bowler.

    Using both styles I can see the incredible difference first-hand. I average about 20 pins higher one-handed, but only because that's what I naturally do and because that's what I've practiced for six years. But I know and see the difference I get two-handed vs. one-handed.

    It's much more uncoordinated of a motion than one-handed and more difficult to control, but I know if I, or anyone, can take the time to master the style, their scores will go through the roof. 

    Fagan and MacLelland are making waves with their style.

    Both of these youngsters use extraordinarily high backswings that are typically not shown on tour anymore. Most bowlers today like Norm Duke and Walter Ray Williams Jr. use a short, choppy backswing. Not many bowlers have a backswing in which the ball goes over their head; Pete Weber is probably the poster boy for a high backswing.

    Those with the higher backswings are usually the ones who get the reactions those with shorter backswings don't. With the higher backswing, they tend to have more revs than other players and their balls will probably kick out a 10-pin or just hook a lot, which is appealing to most viewers.

    Those who watch bowling usually watch to see strikes—they don't watch to see 20 frames of splits and spares.

    Going with the style points, Fagan's got some great freakin' hair!

1. Technology

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    Let's face it—bowling is a sport. And if you have a professional organization for a sport, there are lower levels you must go through to get there.

    Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeria all started playing ball in their backyard before they found their way into the pinstripes. You don't just wake up one day and say, "Hey, I want to go pro in ____" and then do it the next day.

    Bowling is no different.

    Like I've said in the past, bowling isn't as popular as some of the other sports, so it doesn't necessarily have "minor leagues" per say, but it does have outlets: Junior leagues, high school, college, regional tours, etc.

    Again, before you can run, you have to walk; and before you can walk, you have to crawl.

    All bowlers started by open bowling at some point in their lives. Some were born talents out of the womb like Pete Weber, whose father, Dick, was one of the greatest of all time. But for others who weren't "born to bowl," they had to pick it up on their own.

    Kids are creatures that require a lot of patience to deal with, especially if you're going to breed them for a sport, especially for bowling.

    They get frustrated easily, by let's say a strikeout, or many, many strikeouts; by air balls, gutterballs, you name it. People want to do well in whatever they do, it's just human nature.

    Nobody likes going bowling and shooting a 26 for the game. Enter new technology.

    Back in the day, the scoring we know today did not exist. Talking to the bowlers in my league, my boss used to be the best in the county, hands down. He's 75 now, and they said when he was in his prime he averaged in the high 190s and nobody could touch him.

    If you average 190 today, you're about average, maybe a little better.

    The ball technology has drastically changed since those days. Now balls are made with weight blocks and reactive coverstocks that help the ball grip the lane for more traction and hook for a better entry angle to the pocket, resulting in better carry, aka more strikes.

    Higher scores result in happier bowlers. Like my other boss, his son, says, "Nobody wants to go home and say, 'Hey hun—I shot 520 tonight, but our team won.' They want to come home and say, 'Hey hun—shot 720 tonight and a 300."

    Personal story:

    In high school I wanted nothing more than to make the school's bowling team. We were the best in the county, and one of the best in the section—we always were.

    I tried out my junior year knowing nothing about the sport. I didn't know the difference between plastic and resin balls, I didn't know how to calculate scores, I didn't know about boards or adjusting—nothing.

    I tried out using a 10-pound plastic ball two-handed (how I originally bowled), and averaged 125 over two days and eight games. Needless to say, I was cut. The coach offered me a spot in the weekend league where the team bowled.

    A year later, I tried out, one-handed, with a clue and a 15-pound resin ball. After averaging 195 over the same format, I made the team.

    Long story short, I finished the year at 184, while the league leader was 206. That was a "high average" for 2007. The last few years the high averages of high school have been around 220.

    The new technology in balls allows them to do things a ball could never do, mainly hook out of the house. YouTube until you eyes dry out, you'll never see a clip from the 1980s where a player is lofting gutters to keep the ball on the lane.

    Be honest, how cool is it to see Robert Smith stand on lane 15, loft the ball onto lane 16 and demolish the pins? It opens your eyes, it grabs your attention. It's more exciting to watch Walter Ray's strike-fest up the five board.

    Even if Smith loses, more often than not, people leave that match remembering Smith's strikes over Walter's.

    People love seeing the action of bowling—the huge hook and explosion of pins. Not the boring straight ball that kicks out the 5-7 every frame.

    As the number of honor scores continues to increase, so will the number of bowlers.