Sports records are made to be broken, so the cliché goes, and virtually all such records are based on numbers.
In football, we think of the number of touchdowns thrown, or the number of yards gained. In basketball, we look at the number of points scored, or the number of rebounds grabbed. In baseball, the focus tends to be primarily on home runs and runs batted in.
Even in the so-called minor sports, numbers matter. Golf is all about sinking the ball in the fewest number of shots possible. In tennis, players win games by points, and matches by accumulated games. In racing — bicycle, horse, human — it’s a race against the clock as well as fellow competitors.
And so it is in bowling, perhaps the most numbers-focused sport of all because of the way the numbers can be manipulated, and the fact that there is a cap on scoring.
To the latter point, even the most casual of bowlers or bowling fans knows that a “perfect score” in bowling is 300. They may not think beyond that to a 900 series (thank goodness), but for entire generations of bowlers, a 300 represented the ultimate accomplishment.
During the 1968-69 season — 50 years ago — the combined membership of the American Bowling Congress and Women’s International Bowling Congress was approximately 7.3 million, and a then-record 918 perfect games were rolled in sanctioned play.
Over time, the number of 300s rolled each season began an ascent similar to a Saturn V rocket’s. There were many reasons, including equipment technology and proprietors giving in to bowlers’ demands for easy-scoring lane conditions. When league bowlers represented 80 percent or more of a bowling center’s business, they had the power to, effectively, extort owners, particularly in marketplaces with lots of centers. In some areas, proprietors put out challenging lane conditions at their own peril. It was little wonder that scores soared.
Keeping customers happy by helping them achieve high scores proved to be a double-edged sword for center owners, however. With the benefit of historic perspective, we now know that this benevolence may have cost proprietors as many league bowlers as it retained, while simultaneously damaging the bowling center business model.
For many bowlers, a 300 game was not only the ultimate achievement, but a lifelong pursuit. Once it was achieved — because of the changing scoring environment and the sport’s “ceiling” on perfection — a bowler required other motivation, and many could not find it. In many cases, once-avid bowlers became former bowlers.
That more-forgiving scoring environment impacted centers in another way. As league bowlers at one level sought perfection, and at another level worked to increase their average, the need for practice was diminished. Blocked lanes virtually eliminated the need for precision shot making, a skill formerly honed only through regular practice. Lanes once filled on weekends with bowlers working on their games stayed dark until proprietors devised other ways to bring in customers (through children’s birthday parties, food-and-beverage specials, et al).
As high scores became the norm rather than the goal, the scores themselves became less relevant. A 300 game no longer carried the cache it long had. Even an 800 series, the gold standard among high-level bowlers because it required precision shot making for not just one game but three, lost prestige.
Long-held and revered records began to tumble. The record five-man team series record of 3858, set by a team of future hall of famers known as the Budweisers, stood for just shy of 36 years before it was broken in 1994. It has since been topped numerous times, and most bowlers could not tell you what the current record is because, as we have noted, bowling scores have become increasingly irrelevant. (The record is 3986, in case you were wondering.)
The scoring genie has been out of the bottle for a long time, and nobody can envision putting him back in. So, what does all this mean for bowling?
To me, it means that the sport many of us grew up with — one built on accuracy and converting spares — is long gone and not coming back. Thus, each of us has a choice to make: join the millions who have left the game, or learn to adapt with the help of a qualified coach. I hope you’ll choose the latter.
This was the October edition of Bob Johnon's "Strikes Me" column, which appears each month in the print edition of Bowlers Journal International. To subscribe now, go here: https://www.bowlersjournal.com/bowlers-journal-subscriptions/