Winner Luis Gonzales called it “life-changing.” Runner-up Kyle Troup called it “the toughest loss of my career so far.” One thing everyone can call it is “historic.”
The $270,000 awarded to Gonzales for his 237-226 victory over Troup in the single-game championship match of the inaugural Bowlero Elite Series, which aired on NBC Sports Network on April 9 after being taped at Bowlero Romeoville on April 2, amounts to the largest single prize check awarded in the history of competitive bowling. The closest approximation to that prize was awarded in 2011 when Mika Koivuniemi won the $250,000 top prize in the PBA Tournament of Champions.
“It’s something that I never expected to happen,” said Gonzalez, a left-handed league bowler out of Brunswick Zone River Grove in Chicago, Ill. “I’ve put so much work into my game physically and mentally, and just to see it finally pay off is a big confidence booster for sure.
“It helps me build a future for my family and son (3-year-old Logan), hopefully get a house and get him through school and some of my schooling,” added the pharmacy technician, who currently is earning a degree in business management.
In a tight match that required Gonzalez to mark in his 10th frame to secure by far the biggest prize of his life as a bowler, he stepped up and tossed a strike.
“I was pretty nervous,” said Gonzalez, who never before had bowled on television, “but I was trying to keep calm and stay focused and remember it’s just one shot at a time. All I was doing was breathing, just taking my time, and not thinking about too much other than just trying to make a good shot.
“But, at the same time, there is all this money on the line and I am up against Kyle Troup, so I’m focused on that shot and not giving him a chance because I knew if he had a chance to step up and win, I am ninety-nine percent sure he would have sealed the deal.”
Troup, a three-time champion on the PBA Tour, certainly would have liked to seal the deal. His failure to do so lingered painfully with him for days.
“That was a life-changing moment right there,” said Troup, who took home $80,000. “I still won the most money I’ve ever won in one day, but I still had the biggest loss of my career. The thing that hurt me and what’s got me so upset about the loss — I’m fine now, but it took me three days to shake it — was that my family could have been set. If I win that extra $270K, then I can give my family some money, just thank them for everything and they don’t have to worry about anything.
“My mother’s had cancer and once that happened, they were dealing with bills forever. That’s kind of how cancer works. Car payments or house payments, whatever it is, just to make it easier for them so they can relax. Whatever they would have used the money for would have been fine with me.
“I mean, I don’t cry in bowling, but I cried for a couple days in a row whenever I stopped and thought about it for a second,” Troup added.
He gave Storm ball rep and USBC Hall of Famer Tim Mack a call for some help changing his perspective on the experience. Perspective is precisely what he got.
“I told him that he’s playing on house money because he’s one of the invites,” Mack said. “He didn’t lose anything; he didn’t have anything in the first place. He had everything to gain. Okay, you get to the title match, yeah, you want to win the big number. But he still made $80,000 for the week. That’s not a bad four games.
“This week [in the PBA Playoffs] he has an opportunity to bowl for $100,000, and he’s got the league coming up, there’s a lot of things coming up. Everybody wants to focus on the negative; you’ve got to look at the positive. There were a lot more positives than negatives.”
Troup also had his mind on the PBA Playoffs in which he put on a fiery performance on FS1 on April 8 against Chris Barnes, whom he defeated to advance and bowl No. 1 Jason Belmonte in the next round.
“Now I’m using [the loss to Gonzalez] as motivation going forward for everything,” he said. “I am more hungry and fired up now. I’m changing the game. I’m going to be the next smack talker. Belmo, I’ve already been giving it to him all morning. And he’s chirping back and he’s good at it, which should make for a good show.”
Indeed, the usually affable Troup cut a menacing presence on the PBA Playoffs show, at one point flashing Barnes what one observer on Twitter described as “the stare of death.”
Asked if losing to a so-called “amateur” necessarily made the loss any more bitter a pill for him to swallow, Troup said, “Yeah, I’ve seen comments and stories about how it’s bad for the sport. Honestly, that doesn’t matter to me. The guy’s good. He throws it good. If you watched the show knowing nothing about bowling, you wouldn’t be able to tell who was the pro and who was the amateur. It’s not like he’s a bad bowler. And honestly, he’s a lefty on a house shot. He’s gonna shoot a number. We all know it’s coming.
“I don’t think anything is bad for the sport,” he continued. “We gave away $270,000. What’s bad about that? Who cares about a pro losing to an amateur or an amateur can beat a pro? Yeah, I can beat Tiger Woods one day on hole 14 maybe, but of course he can beat me. I don’t get involved in the arguments. It’s just dumb. But of course people are going to blow it up and make it bigger than it is.”
Colie Edison, Bowlero’s Chief Customer Officer and President of the Bowlero Elite Series, agreed, saying that, “While some purists may be upset about it, the truth is we need the next generation of bowlers, we need league bowlers to be given this opportunity, we need people to know that they can go far and they can win huge sums of money if they bowl in a Bowlero league.”
Troup said he and his fellow pros on the show — Belmonte, Sean Rash, Andrew Anderson, Gary Faulkner Jr., Daria Pajak, Danielle McEwan and Shannon O’Keefe — presumed a house shot would be applied “because it’s pros versus amateurs so yeah, they’re not going to make these league bowlers bowl on a PBA pattern.”
Edison told Bowlers Journal that the choice of the house shot for the show arose from a desire “to even the playing field a little bit. The thinking was that the pros would still bowl very well and the amateurs would bowl on something they are familiar with because they are league bowlers. We felt it was more representative of who Bowlero is to have the house pattern out there.”
Gonzalez agreed that the house pattern, along with being the only lefty to make the TV show when Faulkner lost his first-round match to Pajak, 268-235, both played to his advantage.
“I made small adjustments with my ball speed, but I was able to stay in the same part of the lane the whole time,” said Gonzalez, who began bowling around age 3 when his father owned two bowling centers.
Gonzalez’s father, also named Luis, died 11 years ago. These days, he bowls with his son as a way of continuing the family legacy of father and son bowling together. Asked how he thinks his father would have reacted to his Bowlero Elite Series performance, Gonzalez said, “I could just picture his big smile. Everybody who knew my dad knows he had the biggest smile ever.”
In other preliminary matches in the event’s single-game elimination bracket, Rash defeated Belmonte, 258-227, Troup defeated O’Keefe, 258-227, and Anderson defeated McEwan, 290-255. Troup edged Rash in the second round, 268-249, while Anderson held off Pajak, 230-212, before losing to Troup 256-214 in the semifinal match of the professional bracket.
In the amateur bracket, Gonzalez defeated Larry Chilton, 276-247, Kara Mangiola survived her match against Irene Wilson with a 219-214 victory, TJ van Gorden defeated Wes Soper (no relation to PBA Tour champion Butch) 223-194, and Tyler Troup, Kyle’s brother, lost to Alexander Jensen, 201-227.
Gonzalez went on to defeat Mangiola, 235-214 while Van gorden defeated Jensen, 245-204, before losing the semifinal to Gonzalez, 235-192.
Barnes handled color commentary along with NFL Hall of Famer and Pittsburgh Steelers legend Jerome Bettis, notably a lifelong bowler himself. NBC’s Todd Harris was on play-by-play duty.
Amateurs were chosen to compete based on two factors: skill and personality. They were provided the opportunity to showcase those attributes for a chance to be selected by submitting a 60- to 90-second video along with an application. The eight pros also bowled upon invitation from Bowlero.
“We wanted to get pros who represented different aspects of the sport,” Edison said. “We wanted to include men and women. We wanted to include people who are at the top of their game now, and people who previously have been at the top of their game. We were looking for a diverse crowd and we were looking for the best of the best — pros who had proven themselves to be the future of where professional bowling is going.”
Edison believes the Bowlero Elite Series itself will serve as a beacon shining light on bowling’s future, saying that “The Bowlero Elite Series is an opportunity for the world to see that bowling is modern, it’s relevant, and it is here to stay.”
Edison added that the BES “is going to show that a Bowlero league bowler can win, which is going to disrupt the sport a little bit, and we need to be ready for it. I think we have a lot of talented bowlers out there but somebody like Luis, he’s in school, he’s supporting his family, he’s a pharmacy technician. He can’t afford to stay on the road. He’s never going to get the chance to break through within the pro system.
“We wanted to disrupt that. We want to be the game-changers that we are and do [with the BES] what we’ve done for the bowling business, which is reinvent it, revitalize it, just make it relevant to a new set of people. By putting $500,000 on the table, are we getting more people to bowl? I think so. And isn’t that what this is all about? Getting people to bowl?”
One way to achieve that disruption, Bowlero believes, was to go its own way with an event like the BES rather than invest the event’s generous prize fund in established tours such as the PBA or the PWBA.
“We wanted to offer this prize fund not just to pros in the pro system but to great bowlers in general,” she said. “We really wanted to open the playing field.”
Edison said ratings for the April 9 show, whether great or poor, will have no bearing on planned BES shows in September and December. (For more details on those forthcoming shows, go here.)
“We are one-hundred percent committed to our promise of paying over one-million dollars for the first year of the BES,” Edison said. “We’re putting on our three shows this year no matter what happens with the ratings. We hope they are high but we will take it as it falls.”