As a kid growing up in Albany, New York, I remember many of my family members participated in various bowling leagues throughout the area. There would be Tuesday night team events at Albany Bowling Center, maybe a Thursday night solo tournament at Redwood Lanes, and there was always youth bowling at Sunset Recreation or the Playdium. It was impossible to get time for solo practice, as the lanes were often clogged with various leagues and tournaments of every sort and size.
Today, however, bowling has dried up. What was once the most popular participatory activity barely hangs on today. The massive sponsorships and leagues have trickled to a few bowling proprietors that still operate today, along with some stand-alone bowling lanes that are part of shopping mall arcades.
It wasn’t always this way. Growing up, I could never imagine that there would be a world where people didn’t bowl.
Bowling was always on television, it was a participatory sport with big stars and contests. Every local media outlet had their own “Bowling for Dollars” show, where local bowlers would throw strikes at a studio lane setup, and the more strikes the bowler hit, the more money a lucky home contestant would receive.
ABC had a long history with professional bowling – in the 1950’s, they aired a Sunday night program called Make That Spare, which sounds more complicated than just hitting the headpin and watching the lumber fly.
Of course, if you’re talking true bowling skill, there was always the weekend Pro Bowlers Tour episodes, where the nation’s top bowlers competed in a “ladder” tournament to claim the sponsor’s top prize. Here, for example, is a full ABC broadcast of the 1979 Rolaids Open from Missouri. And check out the 70’s fashion and porn staches.
And when there wasn’t national bowling programs, there were always local telecasts, such as this long-running “TV Tournament Time” from my local television station, WRGB in Schenectady, New York.
And it was tough to be a bowler back in the day. If you actually hit a perfect game of 300 (twelve consecutive strikes), they put your name over the lane where it occurred. That was a huge deal. I couldn’t get a 300 total of three combined games, and I’m bowling on lanes where so-and-so hit the pinnacle of tenpin perfection.
Then it all changed. The game suddenly dropped in popularity. It was a perfect storm of factors that changed the sport.
Let’s see if I can list them all.
Lanes went smoke-free. Bowling centers used to allow their patrons to smoke – whether at the concourse, at the settee area, heck you could have a Marlboro hanging out of your mouth as you tried to pick up that 3-10 baby split. But as lanes cut back on smoking in their facilities, it became more difficult for those who DID smoke to bowl.
The balls became more technically advanced. What used to be a plastic molded bowling ball in the 1970’s turned into a high-tech weapon in a bowler’s modern arsenal. Balls are now made of very reactive urethane, and the interior core of the ball is aligned out of balance, causing a ball to roll at an angle. This, combined with our next change, allowed for bowlers to achieve much higher totals than they did in the past.
The lanes were short-oiled. Bowling lanes have a thin coat of oil that goes from the foul line to the pin area. Over time, those lanes were oiled with a longer dry area to the pins, allowing for a urethane ball to hit the dry lane area and react quickly – almost like the ball made a sharp turn into the headpin.
Too many 300’s. Remember what I said about bowlers reaching 300 as a lifetime goal? Go to any bowling center today, and the proprietor will tell you that in the remaining leagues that participate in his facility, they had maybe six or seven 300’s that week. Short-oiled lanes, urethane-reactive bowling balls, it all adds up. It’s like suddenly figuring out how to develop a golf ball and golf clubs that will guarantee a hole in one on every single stroke.
Bowling was treated as a novelty. For some time, proprietors tried to energize interest in bowling by adding “Midnight Rock’n Bowl” nights. The lanes would have neon painted pins and ultraviolet lights, which in itself was fun to watch … for a few times. Then it got old quickly.
It also didn’t help that instead of the PBA Pro Bowlers Tour, bowling fans were now stuck with shows in which bowling and its long history was treated as a joke. For that, I give you the game show Let’s Bowl.
And although some of the great bowling movies – The Big Lebowski, for instance – encompasses bowling culture, other films, like the godawful Kingpin, turn it into a simpering joke.
Who’s bowling in the pros today? Yeah, I was going to get to this. If I were to say to you, “Name the best bowlers of the 1970’s or 1980’s,” I’m sure you’d rattle off Earl Anthony, Norm Duke, Marshall Holman, Dick Weber … Now try to do that with the modern lineup. I’ll wait.
Maybe you know of Pete Weber, that might be it. And you probably know him for his 2012 US Open championship, where he channeled his inner Rob Van Dam.
Holy shit. If I ever did that in my bowling youth league, my coach would have told me to take off my shoes, sit in the concourse and don’t move until my parents came to pick me up.
But then everybody thought Pete Weber’s schtick would save bowling, so the bowlers were miked up. And they were encouraged to get loud and vocal. It didn’t work. It felt artificial and stale.
Look, don’t get me wrong. Bowling is a fun sport. It’s a combination of athletics and mental acumen. And it’s a great night out with your date. But it’s not what it once was. It may never get back to that level.
And this is what has happened to other sports – tinkering with the rules, adding challenged that didn’t exist before, trying to satisfy the short attention span market. Overtime shootouts in hockey, for example. Twenty20 cricket, that’s another.
Today, I’d like to go to my local bowling centers. But all the bowling alleys and lanes in my home town are closed. Some are demolished, others were repurposed for other businesses or entities.
Which … in itself … is a shame.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go outside and yell at the clouds. 😀