Chris Schenkel—having just finished telecasting the finals of the $125,000 Firestone Tournament of Champions Bowling from Fairlawn, Ohio—lit a cigarette, took a drag, smiled and said in his own jelly-sweet tones: "Another year of bowling broadcasts is over. Twelve years in a row I've done them, and it's been amazing. I get more feedback from these shows than from anything I've done except the Munich Olympics. It's amazing the number of people—a lot of them doctors and other well-to-do individuals—who watch bowling. They love it and they tell me it's because it's live, in color, for a lot of dough and 'I don't have to think about what's going on.' "
It is slightly amazing. Somehow in the last few seasons bowling has gained for itself a vast, almost subterranean acceptance despite the fact that it lacks most of the ingredients that seem to be necessary for TV sport these days: an offense and a defense, physical contact, contract jumpers, loud arguments, court cases, record setting, feuds, holdouts, playbooks and exotic equipment. Bowling has none of these. It is an absurdly elemental game in which men heave 16-pound balls at unprotected arrays of 10 stationary pieces of plastic-coated wood that look like overweight penguins. Do not be deceived, though. Bowling is on the way up.
To appreciate bowling's present emergent status, one should understand that in its past the sport has gone through some vivid ups and downs. In 1366, for instance, Edward III of England became worried that bowling might surpass archery in his countrymen's favor. Since he couldn't see his troops winning battles armed only with bowling balls, he banned the game. Another bowling crisis occurred in 1840 when Connecticut's legislators, upset because it seemed to them that all manner of people were bowling when they should have been working and because citizens were wagering on games and even fixing a few of them, declared the game of nine pins illegal. As always, though, bowling was resuscitated, this time by circumventing the law in the simplest way possible—by adding a 10th pin.
Simplicity, in fact, is one of bowling's prime virtues. Whether at the lanes or around TV sets, fans are not befuddled by what is going on. There are no complicated rules, no controversial calls by referees, no problems of weather or of time running out on an off-camera clock. And television's king-of-the-hill format for the finals ensures drama, plain and simple. It begins with the No. 4 and 5 qualifiers in the tournament squaring off, the winner then playing No. 3—and so on until the No. 1 qualifier faces the lone survivor for the title. At the Firestone the final match was between the week's leader, Barry Asher, and No. 2 Jim Godman, two men who used to play hooky from their California high schools so they could bowl. Both got caught, but last week there was no catching Godman, who is sometimes called Tarzan or Animal because of his musculature. He outbowled Asher in their one-game-showdown 224-200 to win the biggest paycheck in bowling—$25,000.
Conditions at the Firestone may have been ideal for Tarzan, but they were less than that for the fans. There was limited seating at the alleys, the air-conditioning was clearly inadequate for large crowds and cumulo nimbus smoke clouds engulfed everyone. A book of tickets for all seven sessions cost an average of $30, but as is true at almost every stop on the Professional Bowlers Association tour all the seats—1,150 of them—were sold.
Obviously, bowling fans are as rabid as those in other sports. At the Firestone many kept their own score books in which they jotted down the results of each ball thrown by their favorite performers. They did this even though a glance at the electronic scoreboards above each set of lanes provided them with the most thorough scoring breakdown in any sport. But the true bowling buff is as interested in statistics as any nutty devotee of football or baseball, and is quick to let you know that so-and-so has rolled 16 strikes in the past three games or that he has left the four pin standing six times.
The most interesting statistics about bowling to a bowling fan, however, are those that help substantiate the popularity of the game. Last November the Lou Harris pollsters asked people what sports they followed. Right behind the perennial big three—football, baseball and basketball—came bowling. Ned Steckel, producer of the ABC bowling shows, claims that they "always beat golf 2 to 1 in the ratings. And this year we murdered the CBS Golf Classic." Steckel was referring to the Nielsen ratings for Jan. 13, which revealed that 3,050,000 homes per average minute were tuned in to the golf, that 2,980,000 were following the NHL game on NBC and that the Don Carter Bowling Classic equaled the two combined with 6,030,000 homes. What's more, Nielsen has found that for each program there is an average of 1.1 viewers for golf, 2.7 for football and 2.9 for bowling. All of which translates into almost 17.5 million viewers being tuned in to the bowling during any given minute.
To be sure, advertising time for bowling, which sells for $17,500 a minute, does not approach the $30,000 to $75,000 commanded by the major sports. There are two principal reasons for bowling's cut-rate price. One is that the cost for the rights to broadcast 13 bowling events is only a fraction of what TV pays for football, baseball and basketball games. It also costs less to produce a bowling show. ABC uses almost 200 men and batteries of cameras for a big golf tournament but can cover bowling with five cameras and 30 men.
As for who all those people are who watch all that TV bowling, surveys show that the audience profile tends to be almost identical with that of late-night talk shows: upper-middle class, from larger households, from metropolitan areas and from well-educated families. One of the more esoteric statistics about bowling concerns the postal system and, if nothing else, reveals that bowling fans can, on occasion, demonstrate the extent of their loyalty in a novel way. Two years ago a commemorative bowling envelope was issued. The sales of these covers on the first day reached 281,242—the highest ever recorded in the U.S.
The PBA was formed 15 years ago by Eddie Elias. In his stable were 33 bowlers, and their first "tour" consisted of three stops—Albany, N.Y., Paramus, N.J. and Dayton—with total purses of $49,500. But although the PBA now has more than 1,000 members, a tour with some three dozen events and prize money up to $2 million, the sport—to the chagrin of its devotees—has never managed to attain the star status they believe it deserves. Pro bowlers don't make the covers of the big magazines and they don't get lavish endorsement money. Even top bowlers like Dick Weber, Carmen Salvino, Johnny Petraglia and Don Johnson have hardly become household names, though they are as dominant in their own sport as the Namaths, Chamberlains and Benches are in theirs. Everyone is waiting for just one of those names to be taken in jest by a comedian. Then, surely, bowling will have arrived.
Bowling fans are meanwhile making clear their desire for more coverage of their sport by flooding ABC with mail, and by writing and calling sports editors to demand more tournament results and stories. At Fairlawn 75 media men from coast to coast showed up at the alleys to cover the tournament, one even being on hand to file stories for El Mundo, the Puerto Rican newspaper. And the intensity of the bowling fan's allegiance to his game is illustrated by the story of what happened at last year's Tournament of Champions. During the climax of the competition a man in the stands got a telephone call notifying him that his house was burning down. So he left the lanes and rushed home, right? Wrong. He decided he was enjoying the tournament so much that he stayed right in his seat until the last ball had been rolled. Then he went home to inspect whatever was left of his house. In its own way, bowling has been going like a house afire in recent years—and a lot of people out there have been watching.