Friday, December 23, 2005

The Death of Bowling?

Bowling is one of the great loves of my life. I’ve been watching professional bowling since the early 60’s and bowling myself almost as long. I’ve never been particularly good at the game, but I’ve managed to carry some decent league averages, shoot some decent scores, and experience the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” more times than I can count.

I’ve always wished that bowling were more respected and popular than it is. It is still not an Olympic competitive sport, despite the high level of skill required to compete at its top amateur and professional levels, and it now seems less popular with the masses than it’s been in decades, as evidenced by the fact that I saw many of my favorite bowling centers in the Bay Area recently close over the span of just a few years. Not only that, but most of the bowling centers remaining open have treated bowling more and more like a crass business where the objective is simply to make as much money as possible, and less and less like a sport to be honored and where excellence in the sport is valued and nurtured. Bowling prices have soared to the point where many of us can longer afford to bowl regularly or at all, and quality leagues and tournaments have increasingly given way to “Cosmic Bowling” with darkened lanes, blaring music, flashing lights, and beer sold by the pitcher at “happy hour” prices.

The women’s pro tour went bankrupt and folded several years ago, and the men’s tour came perilously close to meeting the same sorry fate until three ex-Microsoft guys clueless about bowling bought it for a bargain basement price and hired a hotshot CEO even more clueless about the game but intent on capturing the 18-25 year-old male viewing audience with flash and dash over refinement and substance, and whose changing the tournament format to “sudden death” matches tends to reward the bowler with the “hot hand” over the bowler with the best skills. As a result, many of the classy and consistently great bowlers of yesteryear are floundering or forced to retire while an invading army of anonymous, hard-throwing, high-revving, fist-pumping, peacock strutting young men parade across the lanes and my TV screen from week to week, or, at least, those weeks when I can force myself to watch after nearly a lifetime of missing bowling only when I was able to tear myself away from it for an exceedingly rare and special reason.

On a side note, a documentary about professional bowling came out last year that I can’t wait to see released on DVD, if it ever is. It’s called “A League of Ordinary Gentlemen” and has garnered a surprising number of favorable reviews for a film about a sport that would have made Rodney Dangerfield proud. It follows four professional bowlers through the unglamorous grind of the 2002-2003 season, focusing on two antithetical superstars and a rising star of the present and a superstar of the past who is struggling haplessly to regain his winning ways and salvage a life humbled and broken by hard drinking and gambling and, not surprisingly, three divorces. The latter now runs a pro shop in Sacramento, and it just so happens that I bought a bowling wrist brace from him the other day as a Christmas present for my wife. I’m also thinking of hiring him to give her a couple of bowling lessons to help her establish a solid foundation for her beginner’s game. I don’t know if this guy will be the best coach for my wife that $75 an hour can buy, but he’s one of the best bowlers of all time, and I’d like to give him back a little something for all the viewing pleasure he’s given me with his career. It’s a little unsettling to think that he’s considered an old “has been” when he’s four years younger than me.

Anyhow, it seems that bowling is cursed by the same plague that afflicts much of the rest of society. Understated and virtuous excellence has given way to dazzling lights, chest-thumping braggadocio, and in-your-face confrontativeness aimed at armlocking the ever-diminishing attention spans of America’s jaded consumer youth. If bowling can’t be repackaged with enough superficial glitz to keep the hearts of young men and women thumping madly away at an impressive pace, then it’s considered not to be commercially viable, and if that happens, it will unceremoniously disappear from television and from the local community as once flourishing bowling centers are converted into appliance or furniture stores or housing. Is there any way to save the sport? I don’t see what it could be. It really does seem as though the only way to attract enough people to keep bowling a viable spectator and participation sport is to turn it into something that is less and less worth watching and doing. It really looks as though I will need to find a new sport to be my hobby within the not-too-distant future. But I can’t think of any that are likely to bring me the pleasure that bowling has for such a long and wonderful time. Sages tell us that life is change and that we should embrace this change to maintain equanimity. But I’m not sure that this is a form of change I want to embrace. This is an instance where I might have to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

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