PBA back on ABC… and so is Bo

by Bob Johnson 0

There will be a familiar voice on ABC Sports when professional bowling returns to the network in January.

PBA Hall of Famer Nelson "Bo" Burton Jr., who served as color commentator for "Pro Bowlers Tour" telecasts on ABC for 23 seasons from 1975-1997, will return as a special guest commentator during the network’s live broadcast of the record $1 million PBA Tournament of Champions Saturday, Jan. 22,  at 2:30 p.m. Eastern from Red Rock Lanes in Las Vegas.

The Tournament of Champions finals, which will pay a record $250,000 to the winner, marks the return of the PBA Tour to ABC for the first time in 14 years.

“Bringing the Tournament of Champions back to ABC is outstanding,” said Burton, a 17-time Lumber Liquidators PBA Tour titlist who formed a memorable announce team with legendary broadcaster Chris Schenkel throughout Burton’s time on the network.

The PBA said that Burton will set the scene during the telecast’s opening and introduce feature items throughout the presentation of the stepladder finals. ESPN’s Rob Stone will handle play-by-play duties and newly elected PBA Hall of Famer Randy Pedersen will provide color commentary.

“Long-time PBA fans will be thrilled to hear Bo will be involved with this historic event,” said PBA Deputy Commissioner and COO Tom Clark. “He’ll be right back where he belongs, talking bowling on a Saturday afternoon on ABC as part of the greatest tournament ever.”

Burton joined Schenkel on PBA Tour telecasts in 1975 at a time when bowling's ratings on ABC were at their highest, generally ranging between 8.0 and 9.0, or approximately 9 million homes.

“Working with such a great professional like Chris, I was really just along for the ride,” Burton said. “The bigger the stage, the better he was. For a broadcaster, the prestige of that tournament was just phenomenal.”

Schenkel, also a member of the PBA Hall of Fame, died in 2005.

Tournament of Champions telecasts have been the scene of some of the most memorable moments in bowling history, such as the 1970 event in which Don Johnson came within one pin of perfection, rolling a 299 en route to capturing the title. The T of C produced another historic moment last season when Kelly Kulick became the first woman to win a PBA Tour event during an ESPN telecast that attracted a five-year-high 1.7 million viewers.

Those moments are among Burton’s fondest Tournament of Champions memories, but others that stand out to him as a competitor, color analyst and bowling fan include:

• 1965 – “Billy Hardwick defeating Dick Weber inspired me and a lot of the new young guys to believe that we could compete with the established superstars of the era.”

• 1967 – “Jack Biondolillo rolling the tour’s first televised 300 game. In general, 300s were very rare back in the day and to do it under pressure on bowling’s biggest stage was unreal.”

• 1975 – “My first Tournament of Champions as an announcer had two of my former roommates and good friends —Barry Asher and Dave Davis — battling neck and neck in the championship match and Barry leaving a solid 8-pin in the 8th frame would ultimately cost him the match. It was also a telecast where Chris taught me my first broadcasting lesson — try not to pull for one player over another as the audience will resent it.”

• 1976 – “Marshall Holman arrives!”

• 1978 – “Making the telecast myself and blowing the semifinal match against Teata Semiz by missing the 3-10 split.  I felt like the tournament was mine if I got past that game.”

• 1981 – “Steve Cook bowling the best and most aggressive game I ever witnessed. Bowling 287, he put everything he had into every shot with that super strike ball that he possessed.”

“Two other memories I have were Mike Durbin winning the Tournament of Champions with three different bowling styles (big hook, full-roller and straight shot), and it still amazes me that three of bowling greats — Mark Roth, Dick Weber and Walter Ray Williams Jr. — don’t have the Tournament of Champions on their resumes.”

Originally conceived as a showcase for recent tour champions, the Tournament of Champions is now open to all PBA titlists (national tour, Senior Tour and regional) and will be a week-long competition that runs Jan. 16-22 at the Red Rock Resort and Bowling Center. The inclusion of all PBA titlists will make the tournament even more challenging, according to Burton.

“With its record prize fund and the addition of all the PBA titlists, it adds an enormous amount of prestige to the tournament,” Burton said. “With so much talent in one event, I think it will be one of the hardest tournaments of all time to win.”

Burton recalled the prestige of the Tournament of Champions during his run on ABC, and how the PBA’s signature tournament was recognized by many of ABC’s top executives.

“Bob Iger (now Walt Disney Co. CEO) and Dennis Swanson (former President of ABC Sports) were often in attendance for the TV finals and, of course, Harvey Firestone, who was CEO of Firestone at the time was there as well,” Burton said. “Naturally, it was a huge event that sometimes had live entertainment. I remember jazz great Pete Fountain and his orchestra performed live one year on the lanes adjacent to the TV pair.”

ABC’s renewed coverage of the Tournament of Champions is part of the PBA’s three-year extension with ESPN that will run through 2013. The PBA has a long-standing relationship with ESPN, which began when the network launched in 1979. For the past seven years, the Lumber Liquidators PBA Tour finals have aired Sunday afternoons on ESPN.

In addition to his return to the Tournament of Champions, Burton also will host the PBA Hall of Fame ceremonies the evening of Jan. 22 at Red Rock where Pedersen, Dale Eagl and Len Nicholson will be inducted into the Hall.

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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