And now bowling--yes, bowling--has gone high-tech. First there
was automatic scoring. Then came the Seattle guys, a former
Microsoft exec and his two buddies, who bought the Professional
Bowlers Association. Maybe you didn't think the PBA and its
tour, the tour made famous by Earl Anthony and Chris Schenkel
and ABC Sports, the tour that relieved school-year boredom in
Toledo and Indianapolis and Canandaigua, N.Y., was a commodity,
something that could be bought and sold. Chris Peters, the 105th
person hired by Microsoft, thought differently.
Maybe that's why Peters was able to help develop early versions
of DOS, Windows and Microsoft Word for Bill Gates. Maybe that's
why he was able to leave Microsoft at age 40, a millionaire many
times over, and find himself a new game. In March, Peters and two
other former Microsoft employees, Mike Slade and Rob Glaser,
bought the PBA, beleaguered and in debt, for $5 million--or, as
Peters says, "less than you would spend to buy a minor league
The PBA was a not-for-profit corporation based in Akron. Not
anymore. Now it's a corporation, period. The office in Akron,
with its furniture from Sears, will remain open, at least for
now, but the sleek Seattle office has already opened. When you
call there seeking the telephone number of a PBA member, somebody
tells you, "I don't have the phone number, but I have the e-mail
address." It's a new day.
Peters is one to zag when others zig, so when his thirtysomething
techie buddies were taking up golf, he tried his hand at his
father's old game, bowling. He immersed himself in it, learning
the pro's fingertip grip from a pro, studying the mechanics of
the ball-pin collision, reading the game's literature. He bought
himself a 15-pound ball, a nice pair of bowling shoes and,
without going to a bank for a loan, the PBA.
The first thing he had to do was convince the PBA members that
it was in their interest to turn over the association to him and
Glaser and Slade. Glaser is the founder of RealNetworks, the
Seattle-based Internet media delivery company that, and this is
most significant, has a two-lane bowling alley in its basement.
Peters offered to settle the PBA's debt and increase purses on
the national, senior and regional tours by $1 million annually.
The purse increase was the music the touring bowlers wanted to
hear, a sound sweeter than that of a 16-pound ball catching the
head pin flush in the pocket. The bowler ranked 20th on last
year's money list, Pete Weber, earned $51,690. In 1982, the
20th-ranked bowler, Steve Westberg, earned $51,530. You don't
need an MBA from Stanford to see the lack of progression in
When Peters, now the chairman of the PBA, logged on to PBA.com,
he was chagrined to discover that the site was owned by Pasadena
Billing Associates. Slade, who has an MBA from Stanford, knows
the value of a name--he helped launch ESPN.com, NBA.com and
NFL.com. The PBA's website was called pbatour.com and was run by
a PBA member named Bruce Hamilton out of his house. Peters
wasted no time. He met with the folks from Pasadena Billing and
bought the rights to PBA.com. He met with Hamilton and bought
him out, too.
The new PBA.com website has been up and running since Sept. 26.
So far the changes have been modest. More chat-room
opportunities. More real-time scoring. But by 2002, Peters says,
the real changes will kick in.
Not only will every PBA event be broadcast over the Internet, but
so will a live feed of every lane of every tournament. If you
want to watch Parker Bohn III, the 1999 Chris Schenkel PBA Player
of the Year, on Lane 1, you can do so. If you want to watch
Walter Ray Williams Jr. on another lane at the same time, you can
do that. Peters is betting that the very things that made bowling
attractive to TV producers--simple story lines, well-defined
protagonists, modest production requirements, no weather
issues--will appeal to Internet content providers in this century.
"There was a time that NASCAR was just a bunch of Southerners
turning left," Peters says. "We think the PBA can be the next
NASCAR. Fifty million Americans bowl. A good number of them are
watching now, with no promotion, no major effort in marketing."
About now, you might be wondering how big pro bowling can be with
some effort. You're too late. Chris Peters and his smart buddies
are ahead of you. Again.