It's a Tuesday night at the Brunswick Zone Carolier Lanes in
North Brunswick, N.J., and Danny Wiseman is most definitely in
the hizzz-ouse. "He's exotic, he's different, he's off the wall!"
ESPN bowling announcer Jim Kelly tells the audience. "He likes
fast cars, he likes fast women.... He likes to strike fast, and
he's dangerous. You ready? Let's get it on!"
At this the crowd on hand for the Pro Bowlers Association Johnny
Petraglia Open goes crazy. Wiseman, a vision of tenpin
recklessness with his blond-tipped mullet, barbed-wire tattoo and
soul patch, soaks in the cheers. He steps to the lane in his
yellow-and-orange flame-motif jersey, and the fans go quiet. Four
steps later Wiseman releases the ball, and instantly the crowd is
alive again, cheering with Wheel of Fortune fervor. When, an hour
later, Wiseman takes home the $40,000 first prize, he's serenaded
with chants of "Danny! Danny! Danny!"
Welcome to the new, hip, hyped world of bowling as envisioned by
ESPN, which in May signed a three-year contract to continue
telecasting PBA events this fall. The network, which will show 20
tournaments between September and March, is aspiring to pump life
into a sport long stereotyped as a cigarette-and-potbelly pursuit
of middle America: Players are meeting with media trainers; ESPN
is running humorous ads; and, even though few bowlers are
anywhere near as flamboyant as the 34-year-old Wiseman, top
players are being heavily promoted.
The first seven shows rolled a solid spare in the Nielsens.
Appearing sometimes on Tuesday nights and other times on Sunday
afternoons, they averaged a 0.8 rating, a 14% increase from
ESPN's numbers last season, when telecasts were less regularly
scheduled. Bowling was attracting a larger viewership than either
MLS (0.3) or the NHL (0.6) did in their most recent full regular
ESPN has enhanced the telecasts with a traveling set; graphics
that provide ball speed, revolution and accuracy information;
and prerecorded bowling tips, such as one on converting "extreme
splits." The polished Kelly, late of ESPN's Senior PGA Tour
telecasts, teams with analyst Randy Pedersen, a 12-time winner
on the PBA tour who's still rough but adds enthusiasm and
expertise. "We're trying to blend in all the new stuff and at
the same time build characters," says Pedersen. "It's our job to
create heroes and villains. We don't care if you like a guy or
hate him, as long as he makes you watch."
The same strategy worked for the WWF. Can a Stone Cold Walter
Ray Williams Jr. be far behind?