BY LYLE ZIKES
For better and worse, bowling has long been touted as the sport of Everyman — i.e., a typical or ordinary person. Results from this season’s Lumber Liquidators PBA Tour amplify the notion that all sorts of bowlers from a wide range of backgrounds can achieve great things in the sport.
Kelly Kulick’s victory at the Tournament of Champions also clarified that the sport of Everyman also includes Everywoman.
As the mean age of the U.S. population steadily increases, seasoned veterans Walter Ray Williams Jr. and Brian Voss mustered enough effective ball speed to produce winning efforts despite their eligibility for the Senior Tour and AARP. In general, success on the tour continues to trend to the older. If it’s not guys over 50 winning tournaments, it’s often late bloomers, such as Mike Scroggins and Jack Jurek, doing their best bowling well into their 40s.
Other story lines have been tied to the personal tolls exacted by the worst economic conditions since the Depression. Thomas Smallwood, rendered unemployed by GM, launched a full-time pro bowling career as a somewhat desperate career alternative... and won the PBA World Championship. Mike DeVaney, one of the “new” PBA’s charter exemption holders, found his financial situation so dire he was basically homeless... then won the Scorpion Championship.
It makes you wonder. Does a young stud, brimming with talent, agility and strength — bolstered by a reasonable amount of experience and financial backing — have a chance to prevail in pro bowling tournaments anymore?
Yes, there are some who fit that profile — most notably Bill O’Neill, winner of two titles this season, including the U.S. Open. Throw Rhino Page and Michael Fagan into that category for good measure.
Otherwise, it has been the season of diversity and surprises. Based on the famous poem inscribed at the Statue of Liberty, the PBA could proclaim: “Give us your poor, aging, tired, gender disadvantaged masses yearning for a championship banner...”
There is a higher volume of press coverage anytime a non-traditional winner is handed a championship check. In the cases of Kulick and Smallwood, the extra media generated after their victories was substantial compared to the attention that their respective victims, Chris Barnes and Wes Malott, would have received had they prevailed, even given their “superstar” status within the sport.
One of the nation’s more famous sportswriters, Rick Reilly, penned a piece for ESPN The Magazine chiding his media cohorts — as well as marketing executives and even the White House — for not truly recognizing Kulick’s breakthrough. If his opinion is not isolated, and he’s tapping into a viewpoint shared by others with his influence, Kulick’s accomplishment may begin to resonate far beyond its initial splash.
It’s crucial to the future of pro bowling that something enables the PBA to connect in a productive way with corporate America and in a more meaningful way with a higher percentage of the 60 million people who bowl at least occasionally each year. On the marketing front, progress in one area leads to more progress elsewhere, but getting the momentum started sometimes seems to require divine intervention.
In the end, there is one good reason to have confidence that bowling ultimately will improve its status, gain respect and flourish, particularly among the middle class in which you’ll find the most people.
It’s too good of a sport not to.
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IN THE MAGAZINE: In the April issue of BJI, Lyle Zikes takes a look at "The Greying of the Tour," providing the average age of PBA champions in 1970, in 1990 and this season. Also listed are the youngest and oldest champions in each of those seasons. You'll find that interesting — and telling — information on page 37.