Once upon a time, professional bowlers were sports royalty. Groupies pawed them after tournaments. Casinos blanketed them with free show tickets. Their TV ratings sometimes trumped baseball and golf.
“We were like rock stars,” said Carmen Salvino, a bowling icon of the 1960s and ‘70s.
But today, as America’s top lane lizards finish competing in a Fountain Valley match sponsored by Denny’s, the glamour has faded.
Motel 6 is the Professional Bowlers Assn.'s official lodging partner. First-place jackpots were recently slashed from $40,000 to $25,000. And tournaments are held in such hot spots as Cheektowaga, N.Y., and Trussville, Ala.
Carpooling their way across the country, bowlers typically sleep two or three to a room in discount hotels they find on priceline.com.
For the Fountain Valley stop, 12 players chipped in for an eight-bedroom, six-bath beach house in Newport Beach.
Between games, several of the beach house dwellers discussed life on the bottom rungs of the professional sports world ladder.
“You’re always trying to spend the least amount possible so you can make as much as possible,” said Sean Rash, 24, who began bowling as a small child in Alaska, walking down lanes with his mom or dad helping him push the ball.
The trappings aren’t always cushy, he said, but the sacrifice is worth it.
Behind the scenes, bowling turns out to be far more complicated and quirky than its public image. Physics, superstition and poker all come into play.
In a trailer parked outside the Fountain Valley bowling alley, a crew of ball doctors uses power drills to create custom bowling spheres designed to help players adjust to lane conditions.
For tournament play, a Zamboni-like machine coats the wooden lanes with invisible oil patterns that affect ball speed and spin. The oil patterns go by such nicknames as Viper, Chameleon and Shark. And the patterns subtly shift during games because bowling balls absorb some of the oil.
So bowlers switch balls the way golfers change clubs, said Keith Brovald, who works in the ball trailer. They also tweak finger grips and modify ball surfaces with sandpaper or polishers to change how the ball rolls.
Still, a big part of the game is mental. Salvino studied physics and chemistry to gain an edge on his opponents. Other players rely on lucky shirts or pregame rituals.
Finding ways to relax is also crucial.
Bowlers don’t have a ton of free time during tournaments. In one 16-hour stretch this week, Jason Couch threw 24 games. Couch is the defending champion in Fountain Valley’s annual Dick Weber Open, a competition named after a deceased bowling legend who demonstrated his craft in such odd locales as the belly of a flying cargo plane and on David Letterman’s show, where he knocked down lava lamps.
When the lanes close each night, the most common off-duty pastime among bowlers seems to be poker, said Rosie Leutzinger, a spokeswoman for the Professional Bowlers Assn.
At the oceanfront rental in Newport Beach, next to a palm tree-shaped floor lamp with light bulbs tucked inside fake coconuts, several laptops sat on a table for online card games. One featured a Hooters mouse pad with a bosom-shaped wrist rest.
Golf, movies and TV are other popular ways to unwind, players said.
Bowlers spend about five months a year on the road, typically earning $70,000 to $80,000 before expenses, according to PBA spokesman David Bassity.
The biggest names earn up to $300,000 a year and often drive the tournament circuit in big recreational vehicles.
Much of a bowler’s off-season also revolves around the sport: regional tournaments, trade-show appearances, training.
Couch, 37, spends several hours a day bowling on a high-tech practice lane equipped with sensors that track which board his ball lands on and how fast it travels.
Other players work side jobs or pursue offbeat hobbies such as candle-making and bottling pickles.
After this week’s Fountain Valley competition, the 58 bowlers on the 2006-07 pro tour will pack their bags and head to Nevada for the next round, slowly working their way across the country with weekly matches, culminating in the April 1 PBA Tournament of Champions in Uncasville, Conn.
It’s a grinding schedule, but the call of the pins beckons.
“Right now,” Rash said, “I’m just living my dream and having fun doing it.”