There was a time when professional bowlers reigned supreme.
In the “golden era” of the 1960s and 70s, they made twice as much money as NFL stars, signed million dollar contracts, and were heralded as international celebrities. After each match, they’d be flanked by beautiful women who’d seen them bowl on television, or had read about them in Sports Illustrated.
Today, the glitz and glamour has faded. Pro bowlers supplement their careers with second jobs, like delivering sod, or working at a call center. They share Motel 6 rooms on tour to save on travel expenses, and thrive on the less-than-exciting dime of beef jerky sponsorships.
Once sexy, bowling is now synonymous with cheap beer and smelly feet. In an entertainment-saturated culture, has the once formidable sport been gutter-balled? What exactly is it like to be a professional bowler today?
History of Bowling as a Sport
Pinsetters in NY subway bowling alley, c.1910; Source: Wikipedia
Bowling most likely originated in Germany around 300 A.D. as a religious ritual in which participants would roll stones at clubs to absolve their sins. The annals of history reveal little about where or how bowling gained traction, but according to written record, the sport was so popular in England by 1336, that King Edward III had to ban it to keep his troops focused on archery practice.
Years later, King Henry VIII would ban bowling again for everyone but the upper crust: it had supposedly infatuated the working class so much that they were neglecting their trades and impeding the financial progress of their counties. By the time bowling was introduced to the United States during the colonial era, it had developed a rapport with the “common” man.
Kickerbockers, built in New York in 1840, was the United States’ first modern, indoor bowling alley. Less than a year later, nine-pin bowling was banned in several states due to gambling and racketeering; enthusiasts added a tenth pin to circumvent the law. At the turn of the century, most bowling alleys were tiny, dingy, and frequented solely by men; rules were sparsely defined, and the game was unregulated and without governance.
But in 1895, Joe Thum, a restaurateur considered to be the “grandfather of modern bowling,” pooled together representatives from local bowling clubs to create the American Bowling Congress(now known as the USBC). The organization set in place the rules and equipment used in bowling today.
In the following years, a variance of organizations were created: the Bowling Proprietors Association of America (1932), the International Federation of Bowling (1952), and the Professional Bowlers’ Association (1958).
With a working-man image and promotion by the U.S. Armed Forces, bowling became a billion dollar industry by 1945. Major technological advancements streamlined the sport and made it more accessible: pinsetters (young boys who literally stood behind the bowling pins and set them back up after each roll) were replaced by machines in the mid-1930s. Likewise, wooden balls were ousted for more dynamic plastic models.
From the 1940s to the 1970s, bowling saw a golden age, and the sport’s professionals were its unbridled kingpins.
When Bowlers Were Rockstars
Throughout the 1930s and 40s, “Beer Leagues” dominated professional bowling. The best bowlers were recruited by beer companies — Miller, Stroh’s, Budweiser — and pitted against each other in tournaments. The era’s superstars — Buzz Fazio (Stroh’s), Dick Weber (Budweiser), and like — faced off on televised events that attracted millions of viewers. During one 1961 performance on ABC’s Make That Spare, pro bowler Don Carter won $19,000 ($149,000 in 2014 dollars), and a brand new Ford.
The creation of the PBA in 1958 brought even more attention to the sport; by 1965, the PBA tour was televised on ABC Sports nationally, and had formidable sponsors in Coca-Cola and Ford Motors. A 1963 article in Sports Illustrated harped on the glamorous explosion of the bowling scene (2014 dollars are have been added in brackets):
“This year the PBA will put on 38 tournaments and give away more than $1,050,000 [$7.9 million] in prize money. Of its 942 members, 65 are touring pros who compete in at least half of the tournaments. The minimum any one of them makes is $10,000 [$75,700] a year. Moreover, 15 of the bowlers are in the $30,000-a-year bracket [$227,200], and there are four or five, including Don Carter, the most famous name in bowling, and Harry Smith, who earn upward of $75,000 annually [$568,00].”
Harry Smith, the top bowler in 1963, made more money than MLB MVP Sandy Koufax and NFL MVP Y.A. Tittle combined. Sports Illustrated adds that Smith enjoyed a life of copious luxury:
“Harry does so well that he is able to support a wife and four children in style, tool around the circuit in a maroon Lincoln Continental and indulge a taste for epicurean delicacies. In short, he is the personification of the prosperity that has suddenly overtaken the world of professional bowling.”
In 1964, “bowling legend” Don Carter was the first athlete in any sport to receive a $1 million endorsement deal ($7.6 million today). In return, bowling manufacturing company Ebonite got the rights to release the bowler’s signature model ball. At the time, the offer was 200x what professional golfer Arnold Palmer got at the time for his endorsement with Wilson, and 100x what football star Joe Namath got from his deal with Schick razor. Additionally, Carter was already making $100,000($750,000) per year through tournaments, exhibitions, television appearances, and other endorsements, including Miller, Viceroys, and Wonder Bread.
A Miller High Life beer commercial starring bowler Billy Hardwick (1969)
To be fair, these guys were incredible bowlers. To qualify for PBA competition, a bowler had to carry an average of over 200 points per game over the course of two years; considering that the hypothetical mean score is a 79, that’s no easy feat. Qualifiers also had to prove themselves in scratch matches and regional events. Nonetheless, by 1965, the PBA was offering unheard of prize money: $100,000 for its Tournament of Champions alone.
With the rise in popularity of televised bowling and its superstars, recreational bowling also saw a boom in the 1960s: over 12,000 sanctioned alleys were constructed during the decade. The U.S. Bowling Congress peaked at 4.6 million recreational members. As one long-time “just for fun” bowler puts it: “Bowling was the thing to do back then. Every weekend, those places would be packed with kids, parents, grandparents. Everyone bowled.”
Action Bowling: Gangsters, Gambling, and Big Money
Source: velvet tangerine (Flickr)
In New York from the 1940s to the 1970s, there also existed a lucrative underbelly to the sport called “action bowling.” Working-class Italians from Boroughs across the city would frequent bowling alleys and challenge each other to matches for money. Events would often start at midnight and go until 7AM. Action bowling legend Mike Limongello explains exactly what this entailed:
“We would all go out late at night — every night of the week there was someplace to go — and the action would start right after the leagues were over. Everyone would match up and bowl for money — and there was a lot of street money in those days.”
Limongello says when he first started out in the early 1960s, he’d be bowling for $200-300 per game; as he got better, he was pulling in $1,500 per game as a 17 year old kid. “I learned to bowl for money from an early age,” he says. “It wasn’t just about the bowling — it was about the action.”
Bowling historian Gianmarc Manzione describes a typical action bowling scene from the 1960s:
“The carpet soaked up the reek of gamblers’ cigars as handlers penciled their debts on the score table…The dark bowling alleys bred their share of con men and clowns with nicknames like Goldfinger, Tony Side Weight and One Finger Benny.”
Indeed, these gambling events attracted more than the best bowlers — mobsters often got in on the bets and threw down “huge wads of cash” on their favorites for the evening, often placing local bowlers in hairy situations. In one such instance, bowler Iggy Russo fixed his match and bet a ton of money on his opponent to win. During his last frame, in which he was positioned to either win or lose the match with a spare, he learned that some “”unsavory characters” were betting on him to win.
He was caught in a catch-22: if he won, his financial backer would kill him; if he missed the spare, the “unsavory characters” would. Instead, he avoided the entire predicament by faking a heart attack.
“Lenny the Cane,” another action bowling character, recalls going from making $55 a week as a working-class New Yorker to making thousands as Iggy’s bowling partner in crime:
“I was bowling pretty good, and out of the crowd of a couple hundred at 3am comes Iggy and asks to be my partner; I said ok…Iggy walks out at the end of the night with $3,500, and his partner in crime (who was in the back betting both ways) makes $10,000…That night, Iggy and his ‘partner’ made $12,000.”
It was an era in which cockiness, trickery, and flamboyance factored in as much as skill. Ernie Schlegel, an action bowling legend, would pour a shot of bourbon down his shirt before every match he bowled. He’d walk in reeking of alcohol, leading his opponent to believe he was drunk and “take it easy.” Then, Schlegel would proceed to crush his unwitting foe. These were the characters of action bowling.
As Manzione explains, big-time action bowlers would bust through the doors and announce their intent to challenge anyone in the room. They’d be “looking for fish,” or easy-money opponents who thought too highly of their skills. But after some time, it got tough for the top bowlers to find willing challengers — they were simply too good. Manzione says this caused a “domino effect” whereby big-name bowlers would leave the unorganized, hectic bowling scene for the PBA. In Mike Limongello’s case, once word spread about his skill, “there was no one left for him to fool.”
The lack of intense, head-to-head matches for big money made the PBA tour unappealing for many action bowlers, but they increasingly departed to join it nonetheless. Manzione adds that ego was a factor: “Some guys wanted to prove to themselves and to others that they were the best on the planet, not just in New York.”
But by the 1980s, bowling was starting to lose steam. Action bowling fizzled out as all the “studs” left for the PBA, and the bowling in general wasn’t receiving nearly as much buzz as it did twenty years earlier.
The Wane of Professional Bowling
PBA bowler Michael Haugen sits in contemplation; Source: AZ Chad (Flickr)
Carmen Salvino was one of the best bowlers in the 1970s, and he surrounded himself with equally successful lane lizards. “We were like rockstars,” he reflects. “It’s a little different for the guys today.”
That certainly seems to be true.
The sport lulled in the 1980s and 1990s. By 2000, the debt-riddled PBA was doing so poorly that Microsoft employee Chris Peters, along with two of his co-workers, purchased it for $5 million — less than the cost of a minor league baseball team. Peters set to work revamping the website (he purchased the domain pba.com), setting up the tech to stream every PBA tour event live over the internet, and pitching PBA coverage to major networks. Peters optimistically spoke with Sports Illustrated in 2000:
“There was a time that NASCAR was just a bunch of Southerners turning left. 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.”
But 14 years later, the results don’t look so stellar. According to the United States Bowling Congress, league bowling once generated about 70% of a bowling center’s business; today, it generates only 40% of overall bowling business. Likewise, membership in the organization declined 36% from 2000-2010, and the number of bowling sanctioned alleys in the United States has been cut in half since the 1960s.
Things aren’t looking stellar for PBA bowlers, either.
Of the 300 bowlers who competed in PBA events during the 2012-2013 season, a select few did surprisingly well. The average yearly salary of the top ten competitors was just below $155,000, with Sean Rash topping the list at $248,317. Even so, in the 1960s, top bowlers made twice as much as top football stars — today, as the highest grossing professional bowler in the world, Sean Rash makes significantly less than a rookie NFL player’s minimum base salary of $375,000.
In 1982, the bowler ranked 20th on the PBA’s money list made $51,690; today, the bowler ranked 20th earns $26,645.
While a few bowlers do well, the drop off after the top 10 is dramatic: the average for the remaining 250 competitors on the list is a mere $6,500 — this for some of the best bowlers in the world, who routinely bowl in the mid-250s.
What’s more is that that these numbers are pre-expenses. Walter Ray Williams Jr. is arguably the best bowler of all time, with a record 47 career PBA tour titles. He started bowling in college in scratch tournaments, and was able to earn enough from it to pay his way through school and join the PBA tour upon completing his degree. Today, he tells us, even he has to pay for travel expenses out of pocket:
“My expenses are quite a bit more than when I first went on tour. I would estimate that the lower end of weekly expenses are about $400 – $600 plus entry fees of $400. The higher end is probably around $1500 plus the entry fees. Even though I have a trailer which has a stove and oven, I usually eat out at restaurants. That is about $500 per week when my wife is with me.”
Over his 30 year career, Williams Jr. has made $4.4 million — about $147,000 per year on average — far from “gravy train” money. He’s been one of lucky few able to sustain himself solely on bowling: many others have had to fall back on second jobs, or seasonal work.
Tom Hess, who was named PBA Midwest Player of the Year in 2011, delivers sod for a living when he’s not busy bowling perfect games (he’s had 13). In 11 years on the tour, he’s averaged total earnings of about $24,000 a year. Mastery, he says, doesn’t always come with a big pay check.
Bowling trading cards: an epic fail, circa 1980; Source: Clampants (Flickr)
“For a lot of guys, being a professional bowler doesn’t necessarily mean that your whole income is derived from bowling,” says Williams Jr., who is also a six-time World Horseshoe champion. “But becoming really good…takes lots of practice.” How much, exactly?
One PBA bowler, who wished to only be revealed as “PW,” claims to have practiced 6 hours a day, every day, for ten years before he was able to join the PBA tour — 21,900 hours of practice. “It varies from bowler to bowler, of course,” he tells us. “But the time commitment to get to where we are as professionals is very substantial.”
Substantial, it seems, with little payoff. He tells us that in six years on the PBA tour, he’s only made out with $12,700. He operates a small bowling shop to support his two children and wife, but tells us he doesn’t mind bowling’s small payday. “This is my dream. I’m living it at any expense.”
Where’s the Ball Rolling?
Source: kine (Flickr)
Walter Ray Williams, Jr. remembers when there always seemed to be a good bowling match on TV:
“I got to see the ‘heyday’ of bowling, in the late 70’s. There were a lot more average Americans who knew who the star bowlers were. Back when there were 3 channels to watch on Saturday afternoon, bowling did very well. But bowling has trouble getting the sponsors that it deserves due to media and corporate America ignoring it.”
Other bowlers speculate that the sport has suffered from the promulgation of technology that has made bowling easier: lane slicking machines, more “dynamic” balls, and electronic scoring systems that allow people to play without really getting to know how the rules work. During the 1968-69 season, 905 perfect games were rolled; the 1998-99 season saw 34,470. A 300 score just isn’t as special as it used to be, and some surmise these numbers are a sign the game has become too easy to conquer.
Williams Jr. also surmises professional bowling has been relegated to the shadows by the “hipper,” more appealing nature of “party bowling:”
“It seems that most of the popularity of bowling these days is going to what we call recreation bowling and not sport bowling. Basically having a party while you bowl, rock and bowl, cosmic bowling — expensive bowling bars where the emphasis isn’t on your bowling score.”
But how can we explain this: Research firm White Hutchinson reports that 52 million Americans — 19.1% of the U.S. population aged 6 or older — bowl, and the average bowler visits a center 13 times per year. Bowling is, far and away, America’s favorite recreational activity, according to multiple studies and surveys. “Most of us in the sport side of bowling are hoping that the sport side is revitalized and all of the young talented bowlers have a great future ahead of them,” says Williams Jr.
They’re high hopes, but research insinuates there might be a revival on the horizon: more than one third of children between the ages of 6 and 18 bowl; 12 percent of them list bowling as their favorite activity. The White Hutchinson study finds that children are 80% more involved in bowling than any other age bracket — there is a steep drop off in participation after the age of 18.
While bowling may never again see characters like Iggy Russo, dominant forces like Walter Ray Williams, Jr., or breadwinners like Don Carter, the sport could very well regain a solid stance in the American entertainment industry.
PBA bowler “PW” has seen the game change from the days of his childhood, but the game hasn’t changed him. He’s a man of routine, he tells me over the phone, with the din of his bowling shop in the background — hard work, dedication, pride: the core principles of a working man. For most PBA bowlers, these are the cardinal virtues by which they carry themselves. If PW’s life depends on it, he’ll make sure his sport sticks around for a while.
“Every morning, I wake up and bowl a set before the sun rises,” he says. “And I will until I die. It’ll never lose its magic.”