An Easy Choice Choice: Why PBA CEO Tom Clark is BJI’s 2018 Person of the Year

by Gianmarc Manzione 0

New Day: Tom Clark’s bold decision to steer the PBA away from ESPN carries with it a hope for this sport’s future that the industry has not always enjoyed in recent years.

As the editors of any magazine that annually selects a Person of the Year know, it is the kind of initiative that, most years, invites controversy. We think this will not be one of those years. In fact, we almost were taken aback when our Person of the Year selection for 2018 so quickly struck us as an open-and-shut case requiring little debate.

Deliberations over a Person of the Year selection rarely are that simple. As Time magazine, whose annual Person of the Year initiative inspired the inception of BJI’s in 1987, explains, “Editors are asked to choose the person or thing that had the greatest impact on the news, for good or ill — guidelines that leave them no choice but to select a newsworthy — not necessarily praiseworthy — cover subject.” They mean it; in 1938, Time’s Person of the Year was Adolf Hitler. (Don’t believe us? Go here.)

When the Salt Lake Tribune chose longtime Utah Senator Orrin Hatch as its Person of the Year for 2017 and listed among the reasons why “His utter lack of integrity that rises from his unquenchable thirst for power,” the first line of the story was, “These things are often misunderstood.” Indeed.

BJI has not been immune to selections that stoked some controversy or, perhaps more accurately, misunderstanding about what “Person of the Year” actually means. In 2014, former Brunswick CEO Dustan McCoy, who that year had rocked the bowling world with his decision to rid the company of its bowling arm, was chosen as BJI’s Person of the Year not because that decision made him the most popular guy in bowling but because no single decision made that year had anywhere near an equivalent impact. A Person of the Year selection is not a popularity contest; it is a measurement of influence.

While those are the nuances with which BJI editors grapple each year when the time comes to select our Person of the Year, there was remarkably little nuance to ponder when PBA CEO and Commissioner Tom Clark emerged as the honoree for 2018. This choice was as clear as it gets.

Here’s why: Clark’s bold decision to steer the PBA away from ESPN after a nearly 40-year partnership with that network and bring its brand to FOX — and the new audience it promises — carries with it a hope for this sport’s future that the industry has not always enjoyed in recent years.

The impact of that decision, like McCoy’s tough call about bowling’s future with the Brunswick Corporation in 2014, is inarguable. The difference? McCoy’s decision left the industry in a soul-searching state of anxiety about a foundational relationship it had lost; Clark’s decision emboldened the industry to dream about the potential of a promising new relationship it had gained.

While the ultimate, measurable impact of the PBA's new TV deal with FOX Sports remains to be seen, it already has guaranteed 60 combined hours of TV coverage for pro bowling in 2019, more than the PBA ever enjoyed on ESPN or, by the way, on ABC during the PBA’s Pro Bowlers Tour heyday.

As Dave Schroeder, the PBA’s Vice President of Media, noted in an email exchange with BJI, “ESPN never featured 60 hours of coverage in a season … As a matter of fact, the 60 hours of coverage might be the most in the history of the PBA.” That 60 hours of combined coverage nearly doubles the amount of TV exposure the PBA Tour enjoyed on ESPN in 2018.

“The 60 hours on FOX/FS1 in 2019 compares to 32 hours last year on ESPN,” Clark explained.

The FOX deal also already has ensured more money in prize funds for the players. As Dennis Bergendorf reported in the cover story for last month’s issue of BJI, “first place in The Players Championship will go from $40,000 to $50,000, and ‘animal pattern’ events will pay $20,000 on top.” The winner of the PBA Playoffs, a match-play elimination event among the tour’s top 24 players that will unfold over nine weeks on FOX and FS1, will earn $100,000.

“That’s a pretty exciting piece to this whole puzzle,” Clark told BJI in March. “It will be highly sponsorable, a great prize fund, and something players and fans alike will be watching through the year to see who makes it into the playoffs.”

And let us not forget that the news of the PBA’s next chapter with FOX was followed up with the announcement of a $1 million bonus available to a player who shoots 300 in the title match of any of four select events on the 2019 schedule — the Tournament of Champions, the Players Championship, the Go Bowling! Indianapolis Open, and the PBA World Championship.

Additionally, the deal restores the PBA to network TV through the numerous FOX telecasts the tour will have this year. As Clark explained, “The scheduled 10 hours on broadcast FOX [in 2019] is [more than the PBA has had] on broadcast network TV in 20 years.” Only once in the past decade has the PBA enjoyed network TV exposure — the 2011 PBA Tournament of Champions, which aired on ABC that year.

Clark's move breathed new life into the PBA, generated more buzz for pro bowling than this industry has seen since the PWBA's relaunch four years ago, and seems poised to bring fresh ad revenue into the organization as FOX itself will sell sponsorships and advertising for PBA shows. (ESPN, for its part, had left that to the PBA.)

“When FOX succeeds in selling sponsorships and advertising, the way we will share that revenue over and above their initial investment is where we can grow, improving our prize money and overall number of events,” Clark said. “So the chances to get the financial end of things on the upswing have improved dramatically.”

These are great things not just for professional bowling but for the industry at large, and they are the reasons Tom Clark, who previously had earned the honor in 2005, again is our Person of the Year for 2018.

John LaSpina with performers N’Kenge (left) and Bernadette Peters (right) at the 2018 Fight for Sight gala.

Just as there was no doubt among BJI’s editors about who should be our 2018 Person of the Year, there also was little doubt that longtime proprietor and former BPAA President John LaSpina deserved an honorable mention. An unrelenting force for charitable initiatives, LaSpina’s work as Chairman of the Bowlers to Veterans Link has seen the raising of millions of dollars on behalf of military veterans in need, most recently culminating in the presentation of a $1.1 million check to the Department of Veterans Affairs in November. LaSpina, whose mother lost vision in one eye after being struck by a baseball, also continues to be a tireless advocate for the Fight for Sight organization for which he serves as a board member. His “Strike for Sight” bowling fundraiser each November raises thousands of dollars for vision research. This is a man who embodies what bowling has been about for a long time: Using the sport’s unique power as a charitable tool to help those who need it.


All-Time BJI Persons of the Year

1987 - Pete McCordic

1988 - Jack Reichert

1989 - Ted Clarkson

1990 - Jim Bennett Jr.

1991 - Del Ballard Jr.

1992 - Mike Connor

1993 - St. Anthony’s Women’s League

1994 - John Falzone

1995 - National Bowling Stadium

1996 - Bill Goodwin

1997 - Doug Stanard

1998 - Asian Economic Crisis

1999 - Don Harris

2000 - Mark Gerberich

2001 - Carolyn Dorin-Ballard

2002 - Pete Weber

2003 - Madeline Dotta and Frank Britt

2004 - Therese Abair

2005 - Tom Clark

2006 - Kelly Kulick

2007 - Jeff Bojé

2008 - John Berglund, Jeff Bojé, Mike Carroll, Joe Schumacker, Jim Sturm

2009 - Jason Belmonte

2010 - Kelly Kulcik

2011 - Kevin Dornberger

2012 - Joe Kelley

2013 - Chris Hardwick

2014 - Dustan McCoy

2015 - PWBA

2016 - Chris Chartrand

2017 - Trevor Kling

2018 - Tom Clark


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