This time they've gone too far.
For years, I've ignored the snickers and turned the other cheek when my favorite sport was ridiculed. But something finally has pushed me too far: television demographics. The quest for a different class of viewers threatens everything aesthetically pleasing about offbeat sports and affects their struggle for precious air time.
Never has there been a marriage as sweet as sports and TV. And one of the first sports to be broadcast was bowling. For more than 40 years, it has been a cornerstone of American television.
People huddled around the tube to watch the greats such as Dick Weber, Don Carter, Carmen Salvino, Earl Anthony, Mark Roth and Marshall Holman. They watched because they could relate and yet marvel at the same time. A love for bowling made them tune in every Saturday, not a flashy concept or gimmick designed to catch their eye. They wanted to see Weber's body English, Anthony's smooth approach and Roth's dominant cranker style.
But all that's changing. Because somewhere a board of directors is unhappy with who's watching and who's not. So it hired a marketing firm to try to make bowling a "cool" sport that will grab the attention of channel-surfers _ in the 18-35 age bracket, of course. Can't forget those demographics!
Hey, I'm all for change. But there's a fine line between improving a sport and embarrassing an institution. Bowling, considered an American icon for so long, has been reduced to a sideshow.
Maybe you haven't seen this circus yet. During the winter season at selected stops, the Professional Bowlers Association and ESPN decided to change the tour's format. No more will you hear commentators whisper:
"Walter Ray Williams needs two strikes and a good fill in the 10th frame to win the U.S. Open."
Now announcers are too busy yelling over the raucous crowd. That's right. When Williams heads to the foul line, he's greeted by camera flashes and screaming fans _ and this is encouraged. Because ratings improved a little, the format will stay.
Does the PBA really believe this is why the ratings were up and that distracting bowlers is going to make Joe Observer a lifelong fan? The drama and intense pressure that make the sport exciting are skimmed away, leaving a pool of PR tricks and pseudo-enthusiasm. Nothing like having an applause sign hanging over the ball return.
Did I mention they've made the pins heavier and painted them gold for the championship round? Now that's entertainment. The shiny gold flecks will lure the common denominator for about, oh, three seconds. What's next, Cosmic Bowl? And they're making it harder to knock the pins over. Yeah, like I'll tune in to watch Brian Voss beat Parker Bohn III 158-154. We want to live vicariously through the pros, not watch them struggle. If I want to watch frustrated keglers, I'll head to my local center.
Some will say bowlers are used to noise because during qualifying rounds there are plenty of loud fans. But that's different. These changes have fans on the lanes 6 feet from either gutter, constantly clapping and distracting the bowler. It's a disgrace. When golfers putt, fans don't run onto the green and scream, "C'mon, Tiger, you can sink it!" In tennis, people don't blow foghorns when Pete Sampras serves.
Bowling gets better ratings than the NHL, WNBA and MLS. But you don't see those leagues panicking. Sure, Fox uses that funny puck that shows up like a comet on your TV when there's a slap shot, but that doesn't affect the players. Can you imagine what MLS would pay marketers to come up with if a Mutiny-Wizards match didn't win its time slot against Newhart reruns and a Martha Stewart special?
"Okay, we have this great idea. What about adding another soccer ball? That should spice it up a little."
Maybe the WNBA would make players sit in a penalty box for a personal foul like on MTV's Rock "n' Jock games. Let's just hope the president of CBS _ the new home of the PBA _ doesn't see that NHL commercial in which a woman bowler checks her opponent into the next lane.
Bowling doesn't need rah-rah. It needs promotion. And that starts at local centers. If it's going to survive on TV, it has to thrive on the lanes. Get children there. Let them join a league. Bowling isn't about beer drinking and cigar smoking; it's good exercise while having fun. If children love the sport, they'll love watching it, and the foundation will be laid for bowling and TV to prosper.