The Golden Age of Bowling

Earl Anthony

I used to do a lot of bowling as a kid.  I think I bowled my highest game in 7th grade–a 223. Somewhere at my parents’ house in New Jersey is a box of (mostly broken) bowling trophies.  I even owned a bowling ball.  During the 1970s it seemed like everyone bowled.  (No one was “Bowling Alone.”) The parking lot at Boonton Lanes was always packed on Saturday mornings and weekday nights.  It was not until I grew older that I realized that it was mostly a working class leisure sport.

I also used to watch a lot of bowling on television.  Every Saturday I would see bowlers like Earl Anthony (my favorite), Larry Laub, Mark Roth, and Marshall Holman compete for prize money.  Chris Schenkel and Nelson Burton Jr. would call the tournaments in their yellow sport jackets with the ABC patch. They would spend the entire telecast whispering.  My grandfather on my mother’s side was a die-hard bowler.  Every Saturday afternoon he would be riveted to the television.

A blog called Priceonomics is running a fabulous post called “The Rise and Fall of Professional Bowling.”  It brought back a lot of memories.  Here is a taste:

There was a time when professional bowlers reigned supreme. 
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.
Once sexy, bowling is now synonymous with cheap beer and smelly feet. In an entertainment-saturated culture, has the once formidable sport been gutter-balled? What exactly is it like to be a professional bowler today? 

2 thoughts on “The Golden Age of Bowling

  1. I owned a bowling alley in a very small community in the 90s. Several things have happened to ruin bowling. One is the dearth of time. Most families are two income families. Workers work multiple hours. The stay at home mom is no more. League bowling has dropped massively as bowlers are too busy and do not have a 3 hour block of time available as they used to do. The decreased number of bowlers also means decreased viewership for TV.

    TV itself has too many options available now and bowling is just not a super exciting viewing sport. I actually think the increased scoring has damaged it as well. The game used to be dependent on a player's ability to shoot spares. Now it is about their ability to string strikes together. A 300 game was extremely rare. Today they are just uncommon. A 200 average meant you were a demi-god. Now it means nothing. Picking up a 10 pin spare meant bonus points. Today it means you didn't get a strike and are falling behind the other player.

    Bowling is still a great skill sport and a good teambuilding exercise, but it just is not the dominant sport. It could be televised because it was indoors and you could control the setting and lighting, etc. unlike outdoor sports, but that barrier was overcome long ago. You are correct about it being a working class sport, but the problem is the working class doesn't want to be perceived as working class members. Now they play golf.

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