Competing against the major sports for TV ratings and revenues has caught up with the Professional Bowlers Assn., and the bowlers are paying the price.
In a move designed to increase popularity as well as TV viewership, the PBA changed the format of televised championship rounds in April.
The biggest change was reducing the number of bowlers who qualified for the championship round from five to four. In the old format, four bowlers would play elimination matches--the No. 5 qualifier against No. 4, the winner playing No. 3 and so on--with the survivor squaring off against the top qualifier for the title. Now only four bowlers reach the championship round, with the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 qualifiers bowling one three-way game to see who goes against No. 1.
The reason: Limiting the championship show to one hour under the PBA's new contract with CBS and ESPN.
The result: Elimination of one bowler from the final round doesn't sit well with bowlers on tour.
"I don't care for it, and most bowlers out here don't, either," 10-year tour veteran Doug Kent said. Kent failed to advance to match play in the ACDelco Classic at Cal Bowl in Lakewood this week. "Losing that fifth spot is like taking $10,000 or more out of someone's pocket."
Actually, it could cost Danny Wiseman up to $42,000 this week.
Wiseman missed out in the fourth spot by just one pin Friday night, when Tim Criss struck out to go ahead of him.
Wiseman thinks the change was expensive for him.
"Sure it is [costing me money]," he said. "It's been five for so long, now we have to start shooting for the fourth spot."
And Wiseman particularly liked having the five spots in the final.
"I've won three times from the fifth spot in my career," he said. "So now, I feel like I really came in sixth."
The PBA is also aware of the problems these changes can bring.
"People don't like change," said Bobby Dinkins, PBA director of operations. "The longtime viewers don't like the change to one hour. The bowlers don't like eliminating one bowler.
"It's just going to take time."
But there are several changes that have been positive for the tour.
So far in 1998, the PBA has been seen by an average of 17,000 more households than at this time last year, an ESPN spokesman said. Also, the on-sight changes made to the final round are receiving positive reviews.
The first is the tour's new "mini-arena" set-up in which fans are seated in a horseshoe along the lanes themselves, in addition to behind the bowlers.
Also, fans are encouraged to be as loud as they want, rather than silent as in the past.
"As a player, having the noise makes it easier to concentrate," Kent said. "You don't have to worry about one isolated noise distracting you.
"I made the show the first week [of the new format], and the crowd got my adrenaline pumping. It really got me into it."
Dinkins agreed the new fan seating has had the most positive impact of the changes.
"The fan cheering has been well-received," he said. "We want to be like other sports, where fans react to what they're seeing, and that's what we're getting."
One other thing fans are seeing is a new style of bowling pin.
In a separate agreement, the PBA and Brunswick introduced the new Pro Pin for championship-round use. The pins are gold and black, and very popular with fans.
According to the PBA, 30 of the 120 pins used in their tournament debut were reported missing, stolen as souvenirs.
The pins are also four ounces heavier than the standard pins used by the PBA, making them an advantage to the bowlers.
"The pins fall good if you hit the pocket," Kent said. "You can get love taps. And the pins stay lower and hit each other instead of flying over the top."
Kent said children could be the key to increasing the sport's popularity.
"We need to draw a younger crowd," he said. "But kids don't think there's a lot of money in pro bowling because we don't make $5 million or $6 million. There are a lot more things kids do and a lot more sports that steer them away [from bowling]."
And while he doesn't like the elimination of the fifth bowler, Kent said the PBA needs to use the new TV package to its advantage:
"TV definitely makes this a better product."