The Rise and Fall of Professional Bowling

(Photo: Jimmy McIntyre)

Pro football, pro basketball, pro baseball, pro bowling. The last item on this list may seem like an odd choice, but there was once a time when professional bowling in the United States was a highly competitive, money-making sport that generated massive earnings for players. In the 1960s and 70s, professional bowlers were celebrities in a sport that was closely watched by millions of fans. Zachary Crockett has a lengthy and fascinating piece on the subject. He writes:

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.

Don Carter, a star bowler during this golden age, was the first athlete in any sport to secure a milion dollar endorsement contract:

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 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.

Here is one of those commercials:

(Video Link)

-via Glenn Reynolds

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@Jeff Bowen - I have fond memories of watching Earl Anthony Jr. bowl in tournaments televised on ABC. I can even hear the voice of Chris Schenkel in my head!

@Miss Cellania - I love to bowl, and used to regularly league bowl. It's no longer the inexpensive family entertainment it used to be. If the alleys had left in the scorer's tables and not spent all the money on the fancy auto-scoring equipment, it might have stayed affordable to take the family out to bowl once in a while.
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I enjoy bowling, and used to take the kids out for a whole evening of bowling and food for about $20. But the local bowling alley doubled the prices on games, and almost doubled prices on food, so we don't do that anymore. I guess it worked for them, because they no longer deal with crowds.
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I disagree with Lothar. Bowling lost its luster in the US by being identified as the sport of the working-class, not that it was unaffordable with the middle class. Both tennis and golf have retained their relative popularity, despite being more expensive than bowling, by being sports for the upper crust and are thus well sponsored and televised, while pro team sports are enjoyed across a broad spectrum; but bowling is for the beer guzzling, cigarette-smoking, pot-bellied, balding blue-collar stiffs. It is perceived as being too unsexy.

In certain parts of the world where bowling hasn't been so identified, it is quite popular as a spectator, even "professional", sport such as in Asia and parts of Europe. There were, and still are, televised events, "semi-professional" tours with big money, and name recognition for top players.
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Very interesting -- I think it speaks, in part, to the lack of resources in the middle class to afford bowling. It's the same problem affecting restaurants like Red Lobster -- less money to do the things people used to do in the middle class. I used to bowl but was very put off by the music, bells, whistles, that lanes were using to get kids to come in. I am officially an old fogey.
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