BJI History Part 7 — Riding the Crest of Bowling’s Boom

by Bob Johnson 0


AS THE INDUSTRY BOOMED in the late 1950s and early ’60s — largely because of widespread sales of automatic pinsetting machines and changing public perceptions about bowling — Bowlers Journal really flourished.

AMF, which leased machines to proprietors, touted its business model in many two-page spreads. Brunswick sold its machines outright, likewise ballyhooing this “advantage” in elaborate advertising campaigns. The magazine’s page count grew steadily as bowling companies became more prosperous. New suppliers emerged, old ones expanded and non-bowling companies tried to catch a piece of the action.

The total of U.S. bowling lanes exploded from 65,000 in 1957 to nearly 160,000 in 1962. Bowling was the hottest industry in America. I wrote a piece for the Associated Press national wire which pointed out that AMF and Brunswick had the greatest increments of all stocks on the New York Exchange. Bowling TV shows enjoyed huge audiences.

I admit that it was pretty easy to be a publishing genius in this environment. As advertising revenues poured in, the size of the magazine increased and we ran a lot more photos and artwork. I studied the major magazines of that era — particularly Life and Look— and tried to emulate their look and feel.

Akron attorney Eddie Elias founded the Professional Bowlers Assn. in 1958, thereby providing lots of fresh fodder for our expanding editorial space. Where we previously depended on the ABC and a handful of other once-a-year tournaments to fill our pages, we soon had dozens of new competitions and an entirely new cast of celebrities to write about.

A group of eccentric (or so it seemed to me) millionaires lent more fuel to our editorial fire by launching a so-called National Bowling League. They built fancy stadiums (or converted existing theaters and other commercial buildings) across the nation and attempted to compete with the PBA for the best talent. The NBL lasted just one season and then died, largely because the owners weren’t able to sign a major TV network contract.

After Ernie Ahlborn died of cancer, I began scouting for a new editor to handle our growing workload. Dick Denny, a member of the Chicago’s City News Bureau, had been freelancing for us for years, and I admired his work. I offered him the job and he astonished me by accepting.

With Denny carrying much of the Bowlers Journal editorial load, I felt emboldened to expand our publishing horizons. It had always puzzled me that the bowling industry had no classified directory of products and services. Just about every business in America had its own little “Yellow Pages” directory, but not bowling. A directory would have seemed a perfect fit for the BPAA’s publications office, but its leadership was preoccupied with palace intrigues and battles with the American Bowling Congress.

Our once-a-year Bowling and Billiards Buyers Guide, which was mailed free to every U.S. proprietor, was an instant hit. The first issue weighed a pound and contained more advertising than any periodical in the history of the sport up to that point. It my not have been very glamorous, but the Buyers Guide was one of bowling’s most successful periodicals for many years.

Then Came the Bust

Bowling’s meteoric growth suddenly hit a brick wall in 1963. Too many centers had been erected, too many lanes and machines installed. The industry was clearly overbuilt. The public fell out of love with bowling and linage dropped drastically. Bowling centers began closing their doors. AMF and Brunswick stock went into a swoon. Several notable industry characters committed suicide.

All of this had a huge impact on Bowlers Journal, of course. Our ad revenue dropped like a stone. We reached a sad nadir with an issue that contained a measly 14 pages of advertising. Our “gala” 50th Anniversary Issue in 1963 contained merely 86 pages and not much advertising.

Denny returned to his newspaper roots in Indiana and our tournament manager resigned. I was basically running a one-man operation. Happily, the Bowlers Journal Championships and the BJ Press Service soldiered on, providing just enough revenue to keep our little ship afloat. I was discouraged, of course, but the thought that old Dave Luby’s enterprise might finally collapse never entered my mind. I guess I was too busy grinding out copy and trying to sell ads to the few suppliers that remained.

A few positive developments helped sustain us during the depths of this nadir. Thanks largely to the lobbying efforts of Remo Picchietti of DBA Products Co., I was elected president of the Billiard and Bowling Institute of America. The prestige of the office apparently convinced some other people that Dave’s grandson was finally ready for prime time. I was soon elected president of the Bowling Writers Association of America and named to the boards of several other bowling organizations.

All through the drought of the late 1960s, I remained confident about the incredible resilience of the industry. Whenever a segment of the industry sagged, something new always seemed to come along to prop things up again.

In the mid-’60s, the fresh impetus came from overseas. Suddenly, international tenpin bowling was hot. Olympic medalist Bruno Soderstrom had introduced tenpin bowling to his native Sweden around 1913 and encouraged the development of centers in the neighboring Scandinavian countries. But tenpins didn’t penetrate the rest of Europe until the early ’60s, when an incredible boom spread over Great Britain and then spread across the continent.

Europe’s sudden fervor for bowling, however, paled in comparison to the sport’s volcanic rise in Japan. From practically zero, the Japanese bowling industry soared to a peak of 3,770 centers with 123,000 lanes. After a long malaise in the domestic market, Brunswick and AMF factories began humming again. And advertising surged in the pages of Bowlers Journal. The explosion of the overseas market also gave us more to write about.

After ignoring the international market for years, the American Bowling Congress and Women’s International Bowling Congress finally joined the Federation Internationale des Quilleurs and sent a U.S. team to the 1963 World Championships in Mexico. I covered the event for the Associated Press, and thus launched a long string of international adventures.

During a break in the action at Cuernavaca, I encountered a tall Englishman who was having problems exchanging his British pounds for Mexican pesos in the local banks. His name was Keith Hale, and he was in Mexico on assignment for a new British bowling magazine. I asked one of my Mexican friends to help Keith convert his pounds to pesos. We became fast friends, and he has been writing for our magazine for nearly half a century.

Bill McDonald, who was still AMF’s spinmeister, called me a couple of years later and made a proposition: If I could guarantee coverage on the Associated Press wire, he would pay all of my expenses to cover a new international tournament in Ireland. I called AP Sports Editor Ted Smits in New York and convinced him that this new International Masters Championship (it’s now dubbed the QubicaAMF Bowling World Cup) was an event of epic importance.

My journey to Ireland was, in many ways, a turning point for our magazine and myself. After talking to bowlers, journalists and promoters from two dozen countries, it dawned on me that international bowling was not just a fad. Tenpin bowling had universal appeal among people of just about every heritage and culture. A lot of smart businessmen in countries around the world had obviously recognized the commercial opportunities of this imported sport from America.

It became clear to me that bowling would eventually become a huge global industry, and I wanted Bowlers Journal to become an integral part of it. Until my retirement a few years ago, I covered nearly every edition of the World Cup. I’ve visited more than 80 countries while chasing down stories for our magazine and the AP. International events became a key source of circulation, as we’d often set up a subscription sales booth at major events.

Bob Johnson

Bob Johnson has received more national writing awards than any other bowling writer — close to 70 over the course of his 40-year career. He began at age 16 as a staff writer and then assistant editor for the weekly Pacific Bowler newspaper in his native California, and within three years was writing feature stories for Bowlers Journal. He has written for the magazine ever since, except for a five-year span when he was hired as the founding editor of another magazine. He moved to Chicago in 2000 and spent 13 years in the Windy City, including five as Bowlers Journal’s Editor. In 1975, Johnson received the Robert E. Kennedy Award as California’s top undergraduate high school journalist. Five years earlier, on the lanes, he had shared the Bantam Division Doubles championship in the Orange County Junior Bowling Association Championships. Today, he continues to work full-time for Bowlers Journal as its Senior Editor, to write his popular “Strikes Me” column, and to edit Luby Publishing Inc.’s weekly business-to-business Cyber Report.

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