Proponents say bowling has put behind it several years of declining participation and fragmentation, and still remains one of America's biggest pastimes. The Professional Bowlers Association says one in three Americans bowls once a year, and participation is rising again with more than 6.1 million in leagues.
The sport's various bowling associations-previously operating independently and at cross-purposes-this year are joining together in a sportwide effort called Bowling Inc. to coordinate sponsorship and marketing activities.
"We want to do what the NBA and the NHL have done in turning their sports into real events with more entertainment elements, giving sponsors a fully integrated package of marketing opportunities when they work with us," said Mark Gerberich, executive director of the 37-year-old PBA, which organizes 26 annual tournaments annually. ABC televises most of the events.
Bowling Inc. encompasses the PBA, American Bowling Congress, Women's International Bowling Congress, Ladies Pro Bowlers Tour, USA Bowling, National Bowlers Association (African-American bowlers), Young American Bowling Alliance and Bowling Proprietors Association of America.
"Desperation breeds strange bedfellows," said Jim Dressel, editor of Chicago-based Bowling Journal. He explained that the groups were "fractionalized" for many years, but added: "Getting together could have a significant positive impact on the sport."
FROM ALLEY TO ARENA
Bowling actually began to turn the corner last year, when eight of the PBA's televised final tournaments were held in sports arenas for the first time, instead of local bowling centers. The move generated record crowds of 3,000 to 7,200 per event, and this year, 15 final-round tournaments will be held in arenas.
Tournaments this year will also begin to feature fan booths offering contests and giveaways to spectators, plus official merchandise and accessories for sale. The PBA plans to orchestrate more opportunities for fans to interact with bowling stars, including shoot-outs during tournaments between fans and pros.
The Akron, Ohio-based PBA will debut a new logo in March and plans to launch a licensing program for official merchandise. Anheuser-Busch's Bud Light currently sponsors ABC's televised tournaments, and the WIBC is shopping for a major sponsor.
BOOST FROM MOVIE
Another boost could come from a film called "Kingpin," starring Bill Murray as a Russian bowling star who becomes the bane of another kegler's existence, played by Woody Harrelson. The film is expected to be released in June.