A day after the bowling world learned that the sport once again will find itself on the Olympic sidelines when the Paris 2024 Games get underway, World Bowling CEO Kevin Dornberger gave Bowlers Journal International a wide-ranging and at times brutally honest interview about the sport's Olympic prospects going forward. For our report on yesterday's announcement, go here.
The bowling industry veteran discussed why a campaign to get into the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles may not necessarily be a practical avenue to pursue for the sport at this time, why yesterday's Paris 2024 announcement that breakdancing, skateboarding, rock climbing and surfing will be recommended for the 2024 Games means that traditional sports like bowling "are in trouble right now if they're not already in the Olympic program," and much more.
Dornberger does not beat around the bush in this interview. This is an honest look at bowling's future, not just as an Olympic prospect, but as a sport in the 21st century. Here is his full conversation with Bowlers Journal International Editor Gianmarc Manzione . . .
The 29-page press kit the Paris 2024 organizing committee released yesterday explaining the reasoning behind the four sports they chose to recommend for inclusion in the 2024 Games asserts that “elevating the status of traditional sports” is valued part of the “Olympic mindset.” But given that bowling and baseball both are traditional sports and both find themselves on the Olympic sidelines for 2024, does it seem to you that elevating the status of traditional sports really is a concern for Olympic officials in the 21st century?
If they really believe that, then I think, unfortunately, they may be referring to some of their traditional sports that have been in the Olympics for a hundred years that some people would argue are no longer relevant to society and never will be. Maybe the theory is that they can resurrect interest in those sports. If that’s the theory, that’s a pipe dream.
You mention “relevance.” That is a word that comes up repeatedly in the press kit, which expresses an interest in sports it describes as “culturally relevant.” Is bowling culturally relevant?
I am not sure what their definition of “culturally relevant” is but it sounds to me like something that the culture embraces and participates in, and I don’t know you can say that bowling is not that. We may not be some other things, but we are that.
The press kit also repeatedly vaunts what it calls “sustainable games.” What is your understanding of the meaning of that term?
That probably refers to legacy. They want sports that improve their culture and society long-term.
Those seem like lofty ambitions; in what ways does a sport stand a chance of doing those things? Heightening the culture of a society, for instance?
In general, it means they want sports that generate physical fitness and being outside, being healthier, eating well, healthy lifestyles, embracing the Olympic ideals of friendship and helping other people, etcetera. Now, how a sport does that after leaving an Olympic venue is an issue, and they’re struggling to figure that out, how a sport does that on a continuing basis.
Yes, the kit underscores sports that promote fitness, bodily health and wellbeing. To the outside observer who at best has a casual knowledge of bowling, can it be tough to make the argument that bowling is a form of exercise?
No, I don’t think it’s tough. I just don’t think we’ve done a very good job of that. I think we didn’t realize that our image among those outside the sport is what they see when they go into a commercial bowling center.
So then what more, if anything, can bowling do to educate people about the fact that the highest levels of competition in our sport involve a very different dynamic than that the casual bowler might see going into a local bowling center on a Saturday night?
That still is one of the main purposes of the arena finals in next month’s World Bowling Junior Championships in Paris. We’re going to have young and, hopefully, fit athletes on stage in an arena setting in a professionally done manner competing in a manner that is not like commercial centers at all. Now, will anybody watch? I don’t know. We’ve decided that, rather than selling the broadcast, which we did in Hong Kong and had quite a revenue stream, we’re going to give this product away for free to every outlet in the world so that whoever wants to pick it up can show it and people can see what bowling can be, and is, at that level.
You mention spectators and whether people will watch, does bowling necessarily need to demonstrate that it can generate spectators? Won’t people want to go to the Olympics anyhow because it’s the Olympics, and won’t they buy tickets to go see whatever’s there because, again, it’s the Olympics?
It’s important for a sport to demonstrate that they’re going to bring viewership, whether that’s in the stands or on TV or both. If they can’t demonstrate either, then they’re never going to get in. Some sports are better at putting fans in the stands and some are better at getting viewers to watch on TV. In London, which was a fantastically successful Olympics [in 2012], they had to give away tickets to some events. Even to soccer.
The kit straightforwardly identifies the four values the committee held dear as it deliberated over what sports to recommend for 2024. They included youth appeal, elite performance, spectacular experiences and inclusiveness. Does bowling fit that bill?
Inclusiveness, for sure. Appeal to youth, to me that’s number 1 and 1A. What is our image? It goes back to the bowling-center image. Elite performance, same thing. What are bowlers perceived as looking like? Spectacular experience, that’s an educational issue. We’ve got to show, and a main part of our Paris presentation was showing them, that competition doesn’t have to be in a bowling center with no crowd and poor broadcast angles.
What “spectacular experiences" brings to mind for me is sports that are “spectacular experiences” in the way that surfing might be, or breakdancing, or rock climbing, where they are participating outside in sports anyone can do in the streets of their neighborhood or at the beach, environments that, at least in theory, are attractive to young people. Rock climbing provides the nail-biting experience of watching people perform what basically are gravity-defying maneuvers. How does bowling compete with the X Games factor that those sports will bring to the Olympics going forward?
I think that’s the real nut of the whole thing. It sure looks like, given Tokyo’s eventual choices, and the carry-over to Paris and those that were dropped off, that the so-called “traditional” sports are in trouble right now if you’re not already in the Olympic program. They want younger, X Games style stuff. I get that. I don’t know if their strategy is good or bad but at least they have a strategy. They know their demographics aren’t what they need them to be and they’re trying to work on it. Fine. The real issue is that they’ve got some out-of-date traditional sports in the Olympics now. If those sports weren’t in there, I think the problem could be solved. They could add youth sports and they could add more modern traditional sports.
Is it not ironic that the Olympics are asking sports like bowling to demonstrate their youth appeal when the Olympics themselves are struggling to demonstrate that?
It’s ironic, but you need to understand what’s driving this. There are about 110 people on their board. They’ve known each other forever. That’s a slight exaggeration, but not much of one. They’ve sat around the same breakfast and dinner tables forever, and they’re having a very hard time kicking any of their friends out. That’s where we’re at. I am not going to talk about individual sports. People can look at the list and say, ‘Wow, when’s the last time anybody ever did that?’ But there’s no point in going through that exercise because I know why it’s happening. Does that mean it will never change? I don’t know. To me, that’s the long-term solution, that some of those irrelevant sports go away. Out of the Olympics, anyway. If you’re irrelevant, you’re irrelevant. Why are we keeping the dead horse alive, if you will? The reason is they don’t have the heart to kick their neighbors out. Probably someday that will change, just because I think they really are serious about changing the viewership, and they know they’ve got this issue, they just don’t know what to do about that part of it. It’s easier to bring in these X Games-type sports than it is to throw your neighbor out the window.
Compounding the problem that you just described is the restriction on the overall number of athletes allowed to participate in the 2024 games, which is 10,500. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for new sports to come in, particularly when they are refusing to nudge out older, less relevant sports.
Correct. It means they’ve got to reduce the number of athletes and/or participants of the existing sports. It was only a year or two ago when the IOC (International Olympic Committee) said, ‘Hey, you know, there’s too many swimmers.’ Well, there probably are. But swimming is a powerful sport in the sports industry. They have a lot of friends. Good luck reducing their numbers substantially. I didn’t realize that there’s more than 1,100 swimmers that show up at the Olympics. Think about it. The 15-meter freestyle, the 100-meter freestyle, I think there’s now even a 25-meter freestyle, a 200-meter freestyle, a 400-meter freestyle. Are you kidding me? I am not denigrating swimming; it’s a great sport. But they probably have more than their fair share of athletes. How you reduce that number, I don’t know.
Well, if more than a thousand swimmers are participating, that’s ten percent of the allowable number of overall athletes at the 2024 Games.
Yes, it is. That’s a lot.
Comparatively, I am struck by how few breakdancers there will be in the 2024 Games. Only 32 total between men and women.
That’s part of their selling point. Our proposal was that we would like to have 64 athletes, but we can get by with 32. You had to know your numbers couldn’t get too large or you had no chance.
I am certain most sports gladly would take 32 athletes versus remaining on the Olympic sidelines.
The kit also says that the Paris 2024 committee seeks to ensure that their Games “reflect their times.” What does that mean to you?
That they’re modern sports and not dying sports, I guess.
Well, it’s funny, you use that phrase ‘dying sport,’ and yet there’s that commercial that has run on pro bowling telecasts over the past year featuring the likes of Parker Bohn III and other stars chuckling at the notion that bowling is a “dying sport.” Is there at least a bit of irony there?
Well, it may be perception versus reality. Remember, in the United States, where most of the bowling media is located, we have our perceptions skewed by what we see here. That doesn’t necessarily reflect the rest of the world.
The kit explicitly says that the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires was an inspiration the 2024 committee drew from as they were making these decisions. Breakdancing was among the sports featured in those Youth Olympic Games. Are bowling’s chances of gaining inclusion in the Youth Olympic Games any better than getting included in the Olympics themselves?
I doubt it. I mean, if we’re not seen as a youth sport, and right now I think you’d have to conclude that, how are we going to be better off getting into the Youth Olympics?
I was struck by how many times the kit mentions youth appeal; it’s all over the document.
I’ve had a lot of correspondence on this, a lot of suggestions and daily conversations with people who’ve helped. And now and again someone will say, ‘Well, let’s do this, let’s do that.’ I don’t know how many times I’ve said—because I’ve learned this lesson—no, youth appeal is number one, and youth appeal is number two. If we don’t get that right, we’re not going anywhere. You can have everything else lined up perfectly. So what?
Do you think bowling has youth appeal today, or do you think the demographic bowling appeals to still skews older?
I think bowling has a lot of youth appeal. Again, go to the bowling centers. But, I think where we struggle is converting that enthusiasm to competition. Think about it. There are as many bowlers today as there ever were, as many youth bowlers today as there ever were, but they’re doing birthday parties, not Saturday morning for three games for two hours. They’re doing it when they come in with their parents and grandparents. Society’s changed and not everybody has the same competitive drive they used to. Kids are on the internet and mobile devices rather than being involved in actual sports. So, maybe there’s nothing we can do about it, maybe there’s something we can do about it. I don’t know that answer today.
We’re always talking about how something like 66 million people bowl annually, but the kit expresses amazement that one million “practitioners” engage in breakdancing here in the United States. Which number is more substantive, our 66 million bowlers, the majority of whom bowl recreationally once or twice a year, or those one million apparently devoted “practitioners” the kit says breakdancing has in the U.S.?
We have an inherent deficiency in the current model that the IOC is looking for in that our sport can be competed in without being in physical shape of any kind. To the contrary, breakdancing, rock climbing, etcetera, it would be pretty hard to not kill yourself if you were a hundred pounds overweight and never exercise. Try climbing that wall in that kind of shape. Secondly, I think the assumption is that those one million breakdancers are all athletes, or all athletic at least. In bowling, we’ve got a million-and-a-half members in the USBC but that doesn’t mean they’re athletic. Thirdly, both from a competitive and from a fan standpoint, we’ve got kind of a complacent attitude. We’ve got a lot of participants and a lot of fans, but most of them wouldn’t walk across the street to watch a competition. Sports with a lot fewer fans and participants draw people that come for a week, stay in a hotel, spend a lot of money to watch the sport that they follow. We don’t have that.
At the same time, however, look at baseball. They got into the Tokyo Games in 2020 largely because of that sport’s popularity in Japan, but they will be on the outside looking in for 2024. Who is going to argue that baseball doesn’t draw spectators? Millions attend baseball games each summer here in the States and a substantial number also attend baseball games in Japan. Look at baseball’s popularity in places like Cuba or the Dominican Republic, too. So why would a sport like baseball struggle to gain Olympic inclusion when it clearly draws a crowd?
I think baseball has a stronger argument than bowling does, and I feel badly for them too because I love baseball. I get the MLB package and I watch a hundred games a year. But they’re a traditional sport. They are a not a so-called “youth sport.” No matter how they want to paint it, you look at what’s actually happening and it’s not hard to figure this out.
The kit expresses a preference for sports that are cheap, accessible and urban, activities that can be done just as well in the streets or the beach as they can be done in a more formal setting. Are those values beyond bowling’s ability to deliver?
If there were more bowling centers still in inner cities, no. But the bowling centers pretty much have left U.S. inner cities because of real estate values and they’ve pretty much left Paris, so, you know, if you’re a Parisian sports official you know there are very few bowling centers within Paris.
What in your opinion now ranks as the most urgent challenge bowling faces in its campaign for Olympic inclusion?
Youth appeal, youth appeal, youth appeal. In my mind, youth appeal has gone from being number one to now being number one, two and three. Look at the list. They don’t have to tell you what they’re looking for. Look at the list.
The kit also says the committee favored sports that demonstrated strong and active social media communities that can inspire millions of children to take up the sport. How much work do you think bowling has to do in that regard?
A lot. Jason Belmonte does a great job, and Sean Rash. I am sure I am leaving out some others, but not many. We don’t do a very good job at that, and we know that, we’ve started to try to make inroads at that in bowling, but it’s just time-consuming. We don’t have the manpower to drive those things. We have no tracking mechanism in place to determine how many youth followers we have. That’s an issue.
What is your response to those who think this is all about money, and unless bowling can bring a bunch of money to the table it will never get into the Olympics?
That’s the old way. It’s still all about money, but now it’s no longer about paying somebody money to get in. It’s about showing the decision makers that you can bring a value long-term. In this case, the value is viewership, which translates to money. That’s how they sell their ads and their TV station rights.
There is a demoralized sentiment throughout the bowling world in response to yesterday’s news, people who think we are getting left behind as the Olympics trends toward X Games-type sports. What is your response to that demoralized sentiment?
I’m feeling a little demoralized myself, maybe a little less today than yesterday, but I think that bowling needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and decide what we want in the future. Do we want to be in the Olympics? Is it worth the attempt? You’re probably surprised I am saying that. I don’t mean to say it in a negative sort of way, but where do we want to go with this sport? Some people would argue we are fine the way we are, we don’t need to do anything different. I have long been in the camp that if you’re standing still you’re losing ground. We have to figure out how—not if, but how—we’re going to improve our sport so that we can ensure that it’s a long-lasting activity. I don’t know the answer right now. If we’re an Olympic sport, yes, that’s part of the answer. But, just from a federation standpoint, now, every four years, we’ve got to stop what we do because we don’t have many employees. We have to take six months to a year to virtually put all of our energy and some money into a process that’s just like going to Vegas and spinning the wheel. I don’t know how that’s good for the sustainability of a small sports federation.
To what extent will there be a movement to try to get bowling into the Olympics in 2028 in Los Angeles, and if there will be an effort to do that, when might it start, and what might the content of that pitch involve?
This is a difficult issue. I am sure there will be people that will say yes, we need to try to get into L.A. because we have an advantage there. I have two concerns with that statement. Should we have an advantage in the U.S.? Yes, we should, but I normally hear that from good people in the bowling industry who never have spoken to a non-bowling sports official. This is all within the parameters of the bowling bubble that they live in, God bless them. They think it’s, ‘No, you just have to do this. It’s not that hard. You just have to throw money at it.’ No. That’s not it. I would ask, ‘Given the sports that have been chosen for 2020 and 2024, and the image of L.A., do we really have a better chance in L.A.? Or are they somehow not going to pick surfing and skateboarding and breakdancing?' Bowling is big in the U.S. Yes, terrific. Does it have youth appeal? I’ll go on record right now: If we aren’t seen as a sport that has youth appeal in 2023, I don’t care if everybody in the country bowls, we’re not getting into the Olympics.