Bowling’s image crisis, and what needs to be done about it

Republished from insidethegames with permission from Zjan Shirinian.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

By Zjan Shirinian

Zjan ShirinianLuis Suárez and bowling have something in common, it turns out. Bear with me here.

Image might not be everything, but it counts for an awful lot. Suárez’s Jaws-like shoulder-gnawing at the FIFA World Cup last week simply added to his bad-boy image, the perception he has a short fuse and he bites before he thinks.

I have no idea if the Uruguayan international has any skills on the bowling alley, but the pins might – if they could talk – express some sympathy for him.

“They [the public] don’t see it as a sport,” Latvia’s newly crowned European champion Diana Zavjalova tells me.

“They see it as a hobby…that’s a big problem.”

No one can accuse bowling’s king pins of not knowing their flaws. The word “image”, and the sport’s generally poor one, was mentioned enough times for even the slowest to understand where the land lies.

Bowling is universal, anyone can play it, drink in hand. But therein lies its problem, as well as its strength.

“We’re probably the largest participation sport in the world that’s not in the Olympics,” says World Bowling President Kevin Dornberger.

“We’ve got to convert that to establishing bowling as a recognised competitive sport.”

Now, the Suárez comparison might be a little harsh – no one thinks bowling is a ticking time bomb ready to stick its metaphorical fangs into any detractors.

But if people don’t understand the real you, then you have a problem.

About 200 million people across the globe go bowling at least once a year, with 70 million of those people in the United States.

It is thought to be below only walking as the biggest participation sport in the world.

While Olympic sports like fencing and equestrian are not exactly sports you can take part in at will, bowling’s draw is that it is.

Bowling centres are pretty much anywhere and everywhere, and the sport can be played by young and old.

One opened in Downtown Disney in Orlando in December 2012 and is doing a roaring trade by all accounts, while another Splitsville centre is set to open in Boston’s Patriot Place, in the shadow of the Gillette Stadium, home to the New England Patriots, later this year.

But how many people hitting strikes this weekend across the world have ever heard of the World Tenpin Bowling Championships?

European champion Diana Zavjalova says there is still a big gulf between recreational bowling and the professional side ©insidethegames.biz“We’re struggling right now because there’s a huge difference between recreational bowling and competitive bowling,” says Zavjalova.

“There’s a lot more than just throwing a ball. The mental side of it is one of the biggest things.

“Not a lot of people see that. They don’t know what my sport is.

“The sport itself is very good. But people in the sport should be more serious about it and help to promote it.

“People see it as a hobby. If they see it in the Olympics, people will view it differently.”

In many ways, efforts to educate people about the sport, to develop clear pathways for people to go from bowling for fun to bowling professionally, and showing the world the true athlete you have to be to battle for titles, is closely linked to its desire to be part of the Olympic programme.

In April, international bowling organisations united under a single banner – World Bowling. It brings together the ten-pin and two nine-pine federations, as well as the umbrella organisation, the International Federation of Bowlers.

The aim was to streamline things and make decision-making easier.

Dornberger says there are three hurdles which need to be overcome: spectators, media and sponsors.

“Venues [for bowling] are not built for spectators, so it’s tough,” he told me at last week’s International Bowl Expo in Orlando, Florida.

“We’re putting lanes in football stadiums, by the pyramids in Egypt…but you can’t do that for qualification rounds. Maybe you can get 300 to 400 people at most. So you don’t want those [qualification rounds] as TV presentation events.”

The conundrum of getting more media awareness is perhaps an even greater challenge.

Spectators, media and sponsors - three keys areas bowling needs to tackle, so far as World Bowling President Kevin Dornberger is concerned ©insidethegames.bizDornberger says: “Our scoring system is not easy enough to understand, even for bowlers.

“In the past there wasn’t enough effort put on helping ‘outsiders’ understand what was going on, but we’re working on that.”

He believes that by solving the issue with spectators and media, the sponsors will be knocking on the door in greater numbers.

World Bowling has made representations to the Olympic Agenda 2020 roadmap, which was launched by International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach to look at ways of modernising the Movement.

The IOC will meet in Monaco in December to agree any changes, which could open the door for sports like bowling to get on to the Olympic programme as chiefs try to engage more young people with the Games.

“We didn’t want to send our thoughts as though we were potentially a candidate for the Games,” said Dornberger of his Agenda 2020 submission.

What World Bowling did say in its submission was that extending the Games, from the current 17 days to more like three weeks, would give “more opportunity for more sports to be included”.

And Dornberger has set himself just 10 years for the sport to get its foot well and truly in the Olympic door.

He says: “In 10 years, if we’re not mentioned in the shortlist of sports looking to be included – assuming that’s still the system – I would be very disappointed.”

So what of the sport’s image?

“At SportAccord in April we had the Colombian world champion [Clara Guerrero] there,” says Dornberger.

“Some people couldn’t understand that we have a world champion that looks like an athlete.

“We need better images. We need to do a better job of showing that our athletes are really athletes.”

Guerrero herself agrees.

Meeting hoards of fans at the International Bowl Expo’s trade show in the Orange County Convention Centre in sun-soaked Orlando, she admits there is work to do.

“I can play tennis and barely hit a ball, but I’m not Nadal or Federer,” she says. “People just don’t know that with bowling.

“I also don’t think the industry has done a great job of separating the two – recreational and professional bowling.”

Guerrero started bowling at the age of nine, and started taking it “seriously” when she was 11. With the help of a great coach in Colombia, she was able to hone her skills and became a youth champion when she was 12. She moved to the US at the age of 20.

While coaching is one key way for promising young talents to find their way into competitive bowling, another is bowling scholarships offered by many US colleges – and they are becoming ever more popular.

It can be easy to think that bowling is a simple sport that requires a decent pair of shoes, a good throw and a bowling ball.

Twenty-five minutes after entering the International Bowl Expo’s trade show, I was set straight on that.

Barbara Chrisman, who together with her husband Bill owns bowling ball manufacturer Storm, showed me the inside of a ball.

First and foremost, the weight inside a bowling ball can be different, and shaped differently, depending on what you want.

Secondly, the condition of a bowling lane can differ minute by minute because of the oil that is laid down to coat it. If the oil has shifted or collected in one part of the lane, it will send the ball skidding away from where you wanted it to go.

The very best bowlers in the world can anticipate exactly what the lane is going to do, choosing the right bowling ball and the right line to knock the pins every which way.

By this point my face must have looked like I was getting a crash-course in Latin.

Storm co-owner Barbara Chrisman and bowler Jason Belmonte left me in no doubt about just how much skill you need to bowl at a high level ©insidethegames.bizStep forward professional bowler Jason Belmonte from Australia to explain from the eye of a player.

“Think of bowling a bit like golf,” he says. “Every lane is like a different hole.

“Bowling balls are our tools. You have to make sure you have the right tools to knock the pins over.”

And “chemistry and physics” is as much a part of winning as speed and strength.

More than 2,000 people were at the International Bowl Expo, an annual event bringing the industry’s main players together.

It began with a host of interactive seminars at the Rosen Shingle Creek hotel – the host of the Expo – with tips on sales and marketing, coaching and embracing new technology.

At the General Session, former Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America (BPAA) President Michael Ducat was presented with the 2014 Victor Lerner Memorial Medal and inducted into the BPAA Hall of Fame.

The Lerner Medal is the highest honour in bowling and is awarded for service over a significant period of time to the bowling industry.

His collection of the award was followed by a much-anticipated appearance by former US President George W Bush, who spoke candidly for an hour about his Presidency, from reflections on the 9/11 terrorist attacks and his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, to his recent foray into painting.

It may have been a world away from bowling, but it was fascinating all the same.

His is the highest office in the world, but for bowling its major ambition is the Olympics.

Every professional bowler I spoke to in Orlando had their face light up when I mentioned the word “Olympics”, and what it would mean to them to compete in a Games.

Zavjalova described it as a “dream”.

“I hope it can happen,” she added. “I will do whatever it takes for that.”

Guerrero believes bowling is evolving and getting stronger every day.

“We need to keep pushing,” she tells me.

“I believe bowling should be in the Olympics. We’re in the South American Games, the Pan American Games. We recognise we just need to get to the next level, the Olympics.

“The competition to get in [to the Olympics] is hard, but as more people realise that bowling is a sport, it will become easier…they may become more open-minded about it.”

United States bowler Chris Barnes believes bowling has all the assets, but needs a louder voice ©insidethegames.bizUS bowler Chris Barnes believes the sport has the “basic core” needed to be in the Olympics, but adds it “depends what the IOC wants most”.

“There are 130 nations with a national bowling programme. The world championships get 80 to 90 countries competing,” he said.

“We have the structure set up and we have diversity. It’s not only in Korea on Finland, we have champions from all over the world.

“But we have to do an even better job of getting the message out there that we have all these countries and professionals around the world in bowling.

“We have all these things and a large groundswell of support because so many people can identify with it [bowling] because they do it themselves.”

And that is the challenge, to make the most of the huge popularity of bowling on the competitive sporting stage.

It is refreshing to hear so many people so closely involved in a sport be so frank and aware of what more needs to be done to elevate their pursuit.

Remarkably, it was only seven years ago that professionals were allowed to compete in the World Championships.

It is a sport that is unquestionably evolving as it seeks a louder voice on the international stage.

The challenges are many, but the desire is huge.

Can bowling sink its teeth into the challenge and shake off the tag of not being a “real sport”.

Time will tell, but it’s more likely than Suárez giving his gnashers a rest from the attraction of human flesh.