The Global Game – The changes that led to an international influx in the PBA
By Bill Vint
At last count, more than 200 million people go bowling every year. When it was founded 63 years ago, bowling’s governing body represented just five tenpin bowling countries. Today World Bowling, the recognized international governing body for tenpin bowling in the eyes of the International Olympic Committee, has 134 member federations in all five Olympic regions. Around the world, there are more than 250,000 lane beds where interested participants can groom their skills.
In the competitive arena, two significant changes of interest to the global format came in 2008 when professional bowlers – considered the world’s best – were finally allowed to bowl in FIQ competition (the former name of bowling’s governing body), and in 2014, when the re-branding of international competition under the World Bowling name, it gave the sport new focus.
The change in pro vs. amateur status was a key factor that helped the American-based Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) launch a series of dramatic changes that affected the international bowling landscape. Because international bowlers no longer have to protect their amateur status in order to represent their countries, they were free to compete in the professional arena. To accommodate players who wanted to compete at the highest level of the sport, the PBA introduced its first PBA World Series of Bowling in Detroit, Michigan, in 2009.
The World Series was designed to provide world-class bowlers with a multi-tournament series held in the same city over a short span of time. The original World Series lasted two weeks – too long for many players – but it awarded six PBA Tour titles, all with national television coverage in the U.S. (and syndicated around the world), and included a series of events for women and “senior” bowlers. In 2009, American professionals won every title, but the seed was planted among international players.
The PBA quickly modified its format, converting the 2010 World Series of Bowling into a week-long event in a self-contained casino/hotel complex (South Point) in Las Vegas, while retaining its multi-event concept. With modest variations in subsequent years, the World Series of Bowling’s core program to this day includes four so-called “animal pattern” championship tournaments as part of the PBA World Championship, a major tournament.
The revised World Series immediately attracted players from around the world. In 2010, the only international players to win events were South Korea’s Yong-Jin Gu and Finland’s Osku Palermaa, but dozens were in contention. In 2011, however, international players swept the World Series titles: Australia’s Jason Belmonte, Palermaa, Colombia’s Andres Gomez and England’s Stuart Williams and Dom Barrett were all winners.
Since the 1980s, a handful of American professionals had traveled to Europe and Japan to bowl in featured tournaments, and a handful of international players (the most prominent being Sweden’s Mats Karlsson – the first foreign-born player to win a PBA title – and Venezuela’s Amleto Monacelli , who won 19 PBA titles in becoming the first international player to be elected to the PBA Hall of Fame). Finland’s Mika Koivuniemi, already a dominant player recognized around the world, came to America in 2000 to prove he was the world’s best player and promptly won the United States Bowling Congress Masters, one of the sport’s most prized titles.
The PBA World Series, and the success of international players, opened the gates to rapid growth in true world-class competition. World Bowling created a new World Bowling Tour, with signature tournaments around the world and a global points competition. In 2011, the PBA and World Bowling created the PBA International-World Bowling Tour series, offering PBA titles to winners as well as providing World Bowling with an annual nationally-televised outlet for its WBT Men’s and Women’s Finals.
Finland, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Thailand, Korea, Kuwait, Australia, Japan and the United States are among nations that have hosted WBT events, and bowlers from England, Australia, Sweden, Indonesia, Colombia, UAE, Denmark, Korea, Finland and Japan, as well as the U.S., have won PBA International-WBT titles.
As the PBA prepares for World Series of Bowling VII, which will move to the National Bowling Stadium in Reno, Nevada, in December, it again expects players from more than 20 different countries will enter. Since 2009, bowlers from 35 different countries have entered the World Series (including the People’s Republic of China, which made its debut in the World Series in 2014 and is currently conducting PBA qualifying leagues to prepare its next generation of world-class bowlers).
Another development has been the resurrection of the Professional Women’s Bowling Association in 2015, providing the world’s most talented women bowlers with a showcase. The previous PWBA, which had ceased operations in 2003, rarely included foreign players. Those who did bowl were usually from Japan, which had its own highly-successful women’s professional tour, and an occasional player from Europe.
But in its re-birth, the PWBA has mirrored the international enthusiasm the PBA has experienced. It has only conducted eight tournaments to date, but already Singapore’s Jazreel Tan and Latvia’s Diana Zavjalova have won titles while women from Colombia, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Ukraine, Mexico, Germany, Malaysia and Brazil have been in contention.
With significant changes extending top level athletic competition around the globe, the best in bowling equipment, coaching and management expertise is now readily available across the world.
Already a popular and accessible game, the elite athletes of bowling have now spread. With the PBA and World Bowling Tour calendars heating up towards the end of 2015, we can’t wait to see which up and coming international successes will take home the titles – its anybody’s game.