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WRITTEN BY RICHARD SEVEN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER
Can software millions and hip marketing make America love bowling again?
FROM THE WOODEN bleachers erected inside Highlands Bowling Center in Austin, Texas, Chris Peters' vision of resurrecting the professional tour and making Fred Flintstone's sport cool again looked as iffy as the dreaded 7-10 split.
There was nothing wrong with the bowling. The 24 pros left in the qualifying round of the Columbia 300 late last fall - including the sport's top names - were throwing strike after strike.
First, there was the numbing metronome: the thump of a 16-pound ball hitting the lane, the growing rumble as it spun its way down the oily 60-foot lane, and the distant, hollow clatter of pins getting knocked over
Each, taken on its own terms, was music. But multiplied simultaneously across 12 lanes, carried out with engineer's precision by indistinguishable men with the same short haircuts and loose polo shirts, it became Muzak.
The crowd, sparse and silent, was no help, either. But then, the whole event seemed to be something of a secret. There wasn't even a sign out front to let passers-by know that the world's best bowlers, from the Professional Bowlers Association, were inside. There were no fan-friendly graphics or replay monitors, just a dim tally sheet of aggregate scores projected on a far wall.
Then there was the qualifying format itself. It rewarded stamina and consistency at the expense of any drama. There were no sudden-death matches that would dictate who moved on and who was eliminated. Each bowler rolled one match against each of his 23 competitors, adding points as they went until the top four finishers moved on.
And it all felt like the 1950s. Fuzzy banners bearing the bowlers' names hung above the pins. The concession stand served greasy hamburgers and bad coffee. The only PBA-related merchandise for sale was stuff one of the bowlers brought with him.
"This is a time capsule," said the unfazed Peters, who made millions as a Microsoft programmer and manager before buying the PBA and becoming its chairman and its possible savior. "Things will change."
Bowling appeals to Peter's honed sense of detail. The fact that the PBA can hardly do anything but improve attracted the venture capitalist in him. One year ago the PBA essentially had no advertising, promotion or marketing budget, but plenty of debt.
In fact, it was on the verge of bankruptcy when Peters, 42, bought it with two other Microsoft alums, RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser and high-tech entrepreneur Mike Slade. They tossed in $5 million - less than it would cost to own some minor-league baseball teams - to buy the whole entity, pay off debts and bolster dwindling prize money.
To them, it is a start-up, but one with a 42-year tradition, name-recognition and skilled labor. They believe they can resuscitate it with ideas and attention. In short order, they transformed it from a nonprofit, membership-run organization to a private corporation. Then they made the PBA the first professional league to give stock options to its players.
If all that isn't enough of a shock to the sport's Midwestern system, than how about this: The epicenter of the professional bowling world is no longer in a wood-paneled basement smack in the middle of an Akron, Ohio, commercial strip. It now resides in a 28th-floor downtown Seattle office, next door to an investment firm and with full view of Elliott Bay.
THE PROFESSIONAL Bowlers Association was saved by perhaps the most fortuitous reporter's error in sports history. A Wall Street Journal article on how Microsoft retirees were spending their money reported that Peters had not only taken up bowling, but dreamed of being a professional.
"It's an awesome story," Peters told me. "The only problem was it wasn't true."
Peters had said he wanted to roll a game of 200 in easy conditions (not on the heavily greased lanes pros must navigate) and someday make it his average score. The reporter, Peters said, made the faulty connection that he wanted to become a pro because a 200 average is enough to gain entry to the PBA tour.
"If you had a 200 average on easy conditions and entered a PBA tourney you would be utterly destroyed," Peters said. "You would not win a penny. It was a lack of respect for the sport."
But the 1999 article made its way to PBA commissioner Mark Gerberich, who had been praying for a miracle as the organization sank deeper into debt, lost membership and became increasingly irrelevant. Gerberich sent Peters an e-mail offering bowling help. Peters responded by offering to serve on the PBA board. Soon, Peters learned not only that the association was for sale, but that all pending offers were at bargain prices.
He called his friend, Glaser, who is such an avid bowler that he installed two lanes in the basement of his company's headquarters. "I think the PBA is for sale and it's really cheap," Peters told him. After 10 minutes, and once Glaser was assured that his detail-oriented friend would shepherd the investment, he said, "Let's buy it."
Slade, the former CEO of Starwave and driving force in launching several sports-related Web sites, including ESPN.com and NFL.com, jumped aboard.
"We sat down and reviewed our three options," Peters said. "We could limp this thing along like a little toy; do a little improvement; or do it big. Because we're all Microsoft-type personalities, we went for the extra jumbo size."
The three men knew they were buying an established sports entity that still held warm nostalgia from its days as a staple of Saturday-afternoon television. They were also getting an investment with few strings attached. It was unburdened by agents, competing team owners or players who would resist changes.
"We felt we had the opportunity to create a situation where we could have a lot of control," Slade said. "We had to get the players interested first, but that was like saying, `We're all in the middle of the Sahara Desert and we have the only chance for an oasis the next 1,000 miles. Any of you interested in helping us get there?' "
Peters left a venture capitalist group he was part of and is managing the PBA as he would any other investment. The bottom line, though, is he believes bowling is cool.
THE MERE PRESENCE of the Seattle money has already brought the PBA more mainstream attention in a year than it has had in perhaps a decade. Yet Peters was little more than a face of the crowd in Austin. He was dressed in blue jeans, a jeans jacket and tennis shoes, which along with his boyish face and laugh made him seem far younger than his age.
He took me into a semi-trailer parked on the side of the building to show how technicians drill the players' resin-based balls to fit their grips and install weight blocks that influence how a ball curves. He took me to the locker room, known as the paddock, to introduce me to players milling between high rows of bowling bags.
Then he sat in the middle of an almost empty set of stands to watch bowling.
As Bohn and budding star Chris Barnes went at it, Peters showed off firm knowledge of bowling history, trivia, strategy, technique and nuance. The physics of the sport appeal to him: propelling an orb at certain revolutions so it negotiates through 42 feet of oil before hitting the last relatively dry patch of polished wood and snapping precisely into the pins at the right point and angle. That exactness and focus are the same attributes that made him a successful programmer and manager at Microsoft, where for 16 years he helped develop some of its most successful software such as Word and Excel.
He was born in Akron, the former headquarters of the PBA, and remembers being impressed by his father's bowling trophies. The family moved to the Northwest when he was young and after graduating from Bainbridge Island High School and the University of Washington, Peters became one of the early Microsoft employees.
He is not especially athletic and, in fact, began bowling in earnest only in about 1998 as he was leaving the Microsoft grind. He took up bowling partly because everyone was golfing. Although he hit his goal of bowling a 200-plus game, he averages only about 165 now and admits to being the weak link on his three-man weekly bowling team.
"It turned out I was better at reading about bowling than actually bowling," he said, laughing. "I spent a lot of time thinking about bowling."
What Peters learned is that the PBA has a rich history and was once wildly popular. The problem is that its history is bigger than its present. More people have heard of the Tacoma bowler Earl Anthony, who retired from the pro circuit many years ago, than current stars like Walter Ray Williams Jr.
Williams has been one of the top bowlers for more than 15 years and has won more money than anyone else on the tour. He didn't make the qualifying round in Austin, however, and watched the competition standing behind the bleachers. He not only is one of the top money-winners on the tour, but a six-time world horseshoe champion.
"I've made $2.5 million in winnings," he said, his eyes narrowing. "You think I need a job?"
I didn't think that, but his point was clear: Pro bowlers suffer a lack of respect and are often mocked in mainstream media. Movies and TV typically paint them as slackers, squares or losers like the pot-smoking, late-sleeping bowler "The Dude" in the movie "The Big Lebowski." Many folks don't see them as athletes or consider bowling a true sport. Even many recreational and league bowlers don't appreciate how much harder pro lanes are to negotiate.
Winning a pro bowling tournament requires rolling a fairly heavy ball across grease 700 times or so and doing it with steady precision. If the Microsoft and Nike guys can't explain this or get exposure for the sport, Williams said, then everyone in the PBA might as well just go home.
For now, though, Peters' group is focusing on Marketing 101, basic things that hadn't been done in a long time. During lunch at a rib house behind the bowling center, Peters kept telling the Highlands Lanes general manager that he should expect to make money from future tournaments. That this was a radical concept showed how far the PBA has to go.
A PROMOTER named Eddie Elias started the PBA in 1958, in the midst of the sport's golden era, by persuading 33 of the country's best bowlers to kick in $50 apiece to start a tour.
He knew from the start that the sport needed television's money and exposure. In 1961, he secured a contract with ABC. Bowling became a Saturday afternoon staple and the relationship between the league and network lasted 36 years.
But bowling's popularity worked against the pro tour. It became more recreation than sport. Proprietors of the centers made lane conditions so easy that just about anybody could roll a decent score and want to return. Suddenly, amateurs were throwing comparable or even better scores than the pros. Nobody seemed to realize - or care - that the oiled lanes pros deal with take about 40 pins off a score.
The ratings on ABC dropped and the folks who were watching didn't match the demographic sweet spot, 18- to 34-year-olds, that advertisers want. The relationship ended in 1997. Prize money dropped along with membership.
The new PBA's model is NASCAR, which has gone from a bunch of race cars droning around an oval to a popular and lucrative television sport.
Ian Hamilton and Steve Miller, key figures in Nike's marketing heyday, are running the show. Hamilton is the commissioner. Miller is the president overseeing day-to-day operations. Both are smooth and glib, experts on how to build images and story lines in sports.
Hamilton was instrumental in creating campaigns for tennis stars Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. Miller, who coached on U.S. Olympic track teams, resigned from his position as global director of sports marketing at Nike a year ago, then was lured to Seattle by Hamilton and the prospects of building from the ground floor.
"All five of us came to our respective companies when they were in their formative periods," Miller said. "It's easy to say you're with Microsoft today, but Chris Peters was the 105th person. He started there when it was a nice little computer company. I was with Nike 27 years ago when it was selling shoes out the back of a car in Eugene."
The first order of business is to do the obvious. Develop a definable season with a schedule set 18 months in advance. Put the finals in a regular TV slot. Raise prize money. Sell merchandise. Attract sponsors. Tell people how hard it is to bowl well. Drive home the virtues of consistency and focus. Make tournament finals compelling and the qualifying rounds at least interesting. Appeal to younger fans without turning off your base. Look for new, exciting venues. Use the Internet.
Perhaps the most important thing, in this celebrity-driven age, is to make the bowlers interesting. Create heros and villains. Miller and Hamilton seem equipped to do it. They learned from a company that sold cross-training shoes before there even was cross-training.
Ultimately, the new PBA leadership wants to create a systemic change, so that more of the 50 million Americans who bowled last year aspire to bowl a 200 game, as Peters did. Then, they want those 100,000 or so with 200 averages to aspire to be part of the 3,000-member PBA. They want Chris Barnes posters up in bowling centers so young bowlers think of it as more than a hoot.
PBA membership rose 10 percent since the Seattle moguls bought the league, the first increase in seven years.
Miller also holds on to what he calls the "stars in alignment factor" - that there are forces at work that could help the mission. For one thing, bowling is square enough to be cool again. Bowling-style bags and shoes have found their way into fashion magazines. NBC has a hit show called, "Ed" that centers on a lawyer who drops out and runs a bowling alley. For whatever reason, it's back in the vocabulary.
Unlike the self-absorbed rich pro athletes, bowlers are people fans can relate to, but the trick is to make them three-dimensional so people care, too. For the first time, style is important in the PBA.
When Hamilton first addressed the bowlers in Erie, Pa., last fall, he told them the PBA would promote them, but they have to do their part and act like they deserve it.
"It sounds terrible," Hamilton said with a chuckle, "but we'll know we've had some success when these guys start to be jerks."
PETERS HAD returned to Seattle by the time the top four bowlers competed in the Austin finals, broadcast on ESPN. About 200 spectators sat in bleachers behind the bowlers and along one side. Former bowling great and Oregon resident Marshall Holman chattered away as color man behind Plexiglas as competitors knocked over gold-painted pins.
It was a good reminder that bowling is made for TV. It's compact, intimate, quick and the lanes gleam under bright production lights.
Danny Wiseman, a 33-year-old Baltimore-area resident, won. He opened with eight straight strikes and beat Barnes, 252 to 232.
Wiseman is made for the new PBA. He's looser than the other bowlers. He's got an attitude and shows emotion. He has a retro look, with a baggy black shirt and the hint of a doo-wop hairstyle. He once called the new PBA headquarters to ask if he could buck PBA rules and wear his name on his shirt during a finals match. He often listens to rock music to get psyched for a match.
And with every other PBA bowler I talked to, Wiseman is ready for whatever change comes. "The organization never let us show our personalities. But I think we'll be able to do what we want and put on a better show with these new guys in charge," he said. "Sounds good to me."
He has earned more than $700,000 in 11 years as a pro, but the Austin win was only his second in five years. During that stretch, he divorced and watched his father die of cancer.
He stood there, clutching his bulky trophy and a check for $20,000. His face was flushed with sweat. He fought back tears. "It's been so long," he said. "You just keep pushing and pushing yourself to keep going."
The crowd clapped and cheered. Wiseman was three-dimensional, a real guy who had doubted, but persevered and achieved. It was a moment the best marketing plan in the world couldn't produce. It was sports.
Richard Seven is a staff writer for Pacific Northwest magazine. Benjamin Benschneider is the magazine's staff photographer.
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