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Is a Little Fun Really the End of the World?

A lively atmosphere with fan interaction, popular music and vuvuzelas, not unlike your typical NBA game, almost ended the world on April 17, live on ESPN at the Dick Weber PBA Playoffs. At least that’s what some bowling fans would have you think.

Wait, I’m not talking about professional bowling yet, vuvuzelas were recently heard at an NHL Playoffs game. Thundersticks were recently pounded behind the basket at an NBA Playoffs game as a player shot a free throw. The MLB game on television cut to shots of female fans with foam fingers and rally hats in between pitches every night of the week. In many sports, thumping new music rings through professional sports venues.

Many other professional sports combine entertainment elements within the sporting event, why can’t professional bowling? Each of the sports mentioned above have ‘purists’ that decry anything other than straight sports coverage as ‘degrading’ or ‘disrespecting’ the sport. Do entertainment elements ‘disrespect’ the National Hockey League, National Football League, National Basketball Association or Major League Baseball or do they entertain most fans in attendance?

The last time I was at Miller Park in Milwaukee, the famous racing sausages were still running around the warning track to a standing ovation in between innings. Didn’t seem to hurt the ‘integrity’ of Ryan Braun or Prince Fielder.

Only a very small percentage of the audience in each sport sits in their seats the entire game or watches the entire telecast at home, watching every nuance, digesting every statistic, interpreting every announcer utterance. A very small percentage, the rest are there to have fun.

They had fun at the Dick Weber PBA Playoffs at Woodland Bowl April 17. Not a single, solitary backswing by Dick Allen, Chris Barnes or Randy Weiss was interrupted by an enthusiastic vuvuzela player. Not even one. No one on site was offended by three cheerleaders on hand to lead the cheers for players and to coordinate prize giveaways. Not a single fan returned any of the prizes offered by PBA’s product-registered companies and distributed by the cheerleaders.

The 2010-11 Lumber Liquidators PBA Tour season brought many changes to the sport of professional bowling. The season-ending Dick Weber PBA Playoffs produced a champion live on ESPN April 17 and a wave of social networking criticism.

Paraphrasing comedian Jim Gaffigan, “99% percent of the population doesn’t take professional bowling seriously, the rest takes it way too seriously.” The world of sports entertainment has changed by leaps and bounds over the last generation, while some professional bowling fans cling to the notion that presenting professional bowling the exact same way it was presented 30 or 40 years ago can engage a new generation of fans brought up on computers, video games, cell phones, texting, 500 television channels and the Internet – and most importantly, sponsors to support the sport.

What other sport is presented the exact same way it was presented 30 or 40 years ago?

Bowling, dignified? Have a laugh with comedian Jim Gaffigan, this is what the vast majority of people think about bowling.

Bowlers can laugh at themselves, yet as a group we are not big enough to have some fun with non-fans and invite them to have fun and compete with us? Every non-bowling fan I have ever invited to a PBA event has left with a positive impression of pro bowling. Fans of Bowling For Soup that attended the PBA Tournament of Champions solely to see the band reported thoroughly enjoying the actual bowling competition.

Many bowlers and fans of pro bowling are desperate for sports fans or SportsCenter anchors to ‘respect’ the game and the people who play at its highest level. The ‘purists’ will point to pro tennis or golf as the model for pro bowling. If only the PBA were presented as a modern day chess match with ultra-serious announcers and not an ounce of fun. Want to pick a sport that more closely resembles pro bowling by audience? Try motor sports.

Pro bowling is starting to resemble professional wrestling? Good, it’s about time. I will take their television ratings, their merchandising outlets, their live audiences, their pay-per-view revenue and their sponsorship opportunities.

Professional bowling never was, and never will be professional tennis or professional golf; no matter how desperately some bowlers or fans want it to be. Selling those models to a public that doesn’t buy it will never, ever work. Ever. No matter how often ‘purists’ post to Facebook or opine on message boards.

I am proud to be associated with the Professional Bowlers Association and the sport of professional bowling. Many are not. They just wish to be magically held in the same regard as professional tennis players or golfers and cash the same checks. Not going to happen, ever. What you get in life is what you earn, not what you think you deserve.

This is the new world of instant social networking, smart phones and reality television. Instead of pining for something we can never be, how about we lean into what we really are? You know what sells? Authenticity. Let’s start acting on ESPN like we do on Xtra Frame, that would be a refreshing start and much more compelling product to watch.

Tennis clubs are not bowling alleys; golf courses are not bowling centers. Never have been, never will be.

I will take bowlers, professional bowlers, PBA Regional managers, Tommy Hess, bowling center owners, operators and volunteers, every day of the week. We work hard, we play hard, we laugh often, we give each other the business, we talk some smack, we occasionally misalign a ball return, we enjoy beer/wine/spirits, we stay out too late sometimes, we have families, we try to beat the heck out of our opponents, yet we still shake their hands after a tough match.

I was a massive fan of professional bowling in the heyday of the 1970s and 1980s. Going back to that model will not work. Continuing to offer a product precious few want is not how to run a business, no matter how badly some bowlers or fans want to peddle that product. League bowling continues to decline, tournament scratch competition continues to decline. The PBA Tour had to cut back on the number of tournaments competed because the revenue continues to decline.

I personally witnessed youth bowlers, high school bowlers and collegiate bowlers having fun with vuvuzelas, music and cheerleaders at the Dick Weber PBA Playoffs finale on April 17. The bowling competition was not interrupted, disgraced or diluted, only enhanced. Bowling needs to appeal to new fans and sponsors to build its audience, going back to the way it was means bowling faces an even steeper decline in the future, no matter how many message board posts passionately state otherwise.

98.5% of the Dick Weber PBA Playoffs was pure professional competition treated as such by Rob Stone and Randy Pedersen. Watch the show again on your DVRs and focus on the action. Drama, heartbreak, joy, pain, pressure, thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

The other 1.5%? Hambone! Honk! What was the name of that cool song? Did you get Ashley’s, Lindsay’s or Katelyn’s phone number or E-mail address? Let’s go Dick!

End of the world, purists and bowling fans? Or is it worth watching, talking about and sponsoring?

By Mike J. Laneside
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