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MIKE J. LANESIDE: One Giant Leap for Belmonte

The way I see it, sports fans have spoken. Collectively, sports fans. You know -- the ones that are needed take a serious interest in professional bowling to fuel growth?

On July 13, 2011 history was made at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles. 27-year old Australian Jason Belmonte earned the ESPY Award for “Best Bowler.”

For a moment, c’mon, just for a fleeting moment, take a look at the bigger picture with me. It’s just a little hop forward, one small step for a bowler, perhaps one giant leap for bowlingkind?

For the first time in the 18-year history of the “Best Bowler” ESPY Award, a player under the age of 30 won the award. For the first time in history, a two-handed player won the ESPY. For the first time in history, a player born outside the United States of America won the ESPY.

In my opinion, all positive for the future benefit of professional bowling; and here’s why:

A generation ago, beginning his second decade as a pro bowler, Norm Duke enjoyed a truly great season in 1994, earning four titles on the way to his second major at the 1994 PBA Tournament of Champions. That momentum thrust the future PBA Hall of Famer to the first two “Best Bowler” ESPYs at age 30 and 31 in 1994 and 1995.

Duke, the youngest bowler ever to win a PBA Tour title, won his first title in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1983 at the age of 18. Then, the cries of “Duuuke” ignited a new generation of pro bowling fans, the echoes of which can still be heard today.

A contemporary player, Duke burst onto the PBA Tour scene in the mid-80s and won the attention of the sporting public at large to take home the first two ESPYs. Since those first two years, no player under the age of 35 has ever won an ESPY “Best Bowler” Award. The ESPY for “Best Bowler” has been completely dominated by players winning their first ESPY over the age of 35: Bob Learn Jr. (35), Mike Aulby (36), Parker Bohn III (36), Walter Ray Williams Jr., (38) and Pete Weber, (39).

It clearly takes pro bowlers over a decade of accomplishment to enter the minds of most sports fans who vote for the ESPY. Belmonte just jumped the learning curve and conventional wisdom.

Across all sports, new players generate new interest and new fans. The NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball drafts all provide entry level for new talent and new interest every year. On the tennis and golf scene, new and younger players drive new interest, new fashion, new equipment and new ways of playing the games.

Perhaps the interest level for high school, collegiate and international bowlers to compete on the PBA Tour is now bolstered by success from one of its peers. The idea that somebody under 35 can compete and have success is powerful -- for the first time in nearly 20 years, many more younger players may decide to compete as a member of the PBA. The PBA is the only place to get this kind of recognition.

Only PBA players are included on the ballot, no one that is not a member of the PBA will ever win an ESPY. Jason Belmonte previously won tournaments all over the world; it was only after Belmonte joined the PBA that he could possibly be considered for an ESPY.

The ESPY Award is for “Best Bowler”, fans vote for all ESPY award categories including pro bowling. Sometimes voters pick the PBA Player of the Year from the previous season, sometimes they do not. Pete Weber has never won PBA Player of the Year, yet PDW has two ESPYs, did Weber “deserve” those ESPYs?

There has been much conversation about whether Belmonte “deserved” to win the 2011 ESPY Award for “Best Bowler”. Mika Koivuniemi won $250,000 at the PBA Tournament of Champions, PBA Player of the Year and made the telecast at each major last season. Chris Barnes has been dominant from Thursday-Saturday taking his chances on Sunday for over a decade and Bill O’Neill is emerging as another budding under-30 star and major champion on the PBA Tour. All “deserving”. Why did the voters do what they did? Could “Best Bowler” mean more than just what happened in the last calendar season?

Belmonte proved he belonged with “The Greatest Bowlers in the World” when he won his first PBA Tour title in the 2009-10 season. Belmonte didn’t win a title on the 2010-11 PBA Tour, but what he did do was generate considerable national and international mainstream media interest. He competed and contended while bringing a new, revolutionary style to the PBA Tour. Belmonte brings a fresh new energy to the competitions and a cheeky manner that is attractive to a new generation of bowlers. Jason clearly provides a needed spark to move pro bowling forward to engage new viewers, members, bowlers and competitors.

An important youth movement, a new attitude and an international resume as the PBA Tour will meet the new World Bowling Tour at the 2011 PBA World Series of Bowling. If you have the view that the “Best Bowler” ESPY Award should only go to the reigning PBA Player of the Year, I wouldn’t want to be the one to inform Pete Weber that he has to give his two ESPYs back.

Have you ever enjoyed debating who was left off the All-Star Game roster of your favorite sport? Have you ever enjoyed debating what team did or didn’t make the NCAA Basketball Tournament? That’s what sports fans do.

Like it or not, sports fans voted for Jason Belmonte as the 2011 ESPY Award winner for “Best Bowler”. Maybe the ESPY voters voted for the future of the PBA Tour, not the past for the very first time. And if they did, maybe, just maybe, the PBA Tour is moving in the right direction after all – forward.

By Mike Jakubowski