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Geek Schemes and JumoTron Dreams

Sports-Marketing Visionaries Have Snatched the Professional Bowlers Assn. From the Brink of Death. But Can the Old Pros of America's Stodgiest Sport Handle the Coming of Cool?

April 21, 2002|ANDY MEISLER

It's Jan. 20, 2002, a typically momentous day in the world of American professional sports.

In St. Louis, Rams quarterback Kurt Warner (seven-year, $46-million contract) out-duels the Green Bay Packers' Brett Favre (10 years, $100 million) to help his team win its NFC playoff game 45-17. In Pittsburgh, the Steelers wrap up their AFC division (total TV households: 18.9 million) by beating the Baltimore Ravens 27-10. At PGA West in La Quinta, Phil Mickelson wins the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and pockets a check for $720,000.

And, oh, yes: in Las Vegas, it's opening day of the annual Orleans Casino Open, the 14th stop on the 2001-2002 Professional Bowlers Assn. National Tour. This is competitive bowling at its highest level, and during the next few days 142 of the world's finest bowlers will compete fiercely for a first prize of $40,000.

Before noon several hundred solid citizens--most carrying bowling bags--enter the Orleans Hotel and Casino, a mid-range, Big Easy-themed establishment about two miles off the Strip. They stride purposefully through the cacophonous casino and take the escalator up to the hotel's 70-lane Bowling Center. A majority of them, as indicated by their ages and happy shouts of recognition, are longtime league bowlers and followers of the pro bowling tour. After paying their $129 entry fee, they are now entered in the tournament's pro-am competition.

Happy entrants get to share a lane with fireballer Jason Couch or hot-blooded PBA scion Pete Weber or long-haired and leather-pantsed Danny Wiseman or, perhaps, another of the tour's top contenders. All get a certificate of participation and a free Fuze Raging Red bowling ball (hole drilling at the pro shop: $25 extra).

There is no mistaking this for, say, the pro-am at the Professional Golfers' Assn.'s Nissan Open at Riviera (entry fee: $3,800). The amateur bowlers, male and female, are dressed in everything from immaculate bowling attire to jeans and T-shirts that say things such as "Cisco's Party Zone" and "Inyo-Mono Concrete & Construction Bishop California." They refresh themselves with slushies and astoundingly large cups of Pepsi from the snack bar and Bud Lights from the cocktail lounge. A light haze of cigarette smoke drifts back to the shoe-rental counter.

They also get one last glance, most likely, at a sweet, down-to-earth and sadly archaic American institution.

While the pros bowl dozens of games and head-to-head matches to cut the field down to the mere five who will "make the show"-- i.e., appear on the upcoming ESPN telecast of the tournament--most, including the highest roller of all, current top dog Parker Bohn III, spend at least a few hours at the Orleans mingling with the fans and signing autographs. This quaint custom will likely end soon, because in a development only dimly understood by most of those present, their favorite spectator sport has been purchased--lock, stock and tournament schedule--by a trio of semi-anonymous young businessmen whose intent is to revamp, "relaunch" and propel pro bowling into the new millennium.

This means fiddling with the rules to speed it up and make it more palatable to modern television audiences; amping up the money and pressure to make the sport more dramatic; establishing a viable star system; giving said stars accessible "personalities" and enclosing them in the same gleaming bubble of fame that encases the idols of "major" sports.

If all goes according to a very ambitious (some might say unrealistic) plan, bowling will storm the airwaves, carve out a new niche in the national consciousness and regain its rightful place alongside football, baseball, basketball and hockey. The alternative--Plan B, if you will--is oblivion.

"I like bowling," says Chris Peters, a recreational bowler with a respectable 160 per-game average. "I mean, it's OK. I mean, I like bowling just like I like a lot of things. But I also like building things."

Translation: right now the thing that Chris Peters is busy building is bowling's new order, and he is confident that as the sport's new czar--he's chairman and one of the new owners of the Professional Bowlers Assn.--he can turn it into something huge and exponentially more valuable.

This makes absolutely no sense until you realize that for the past couple of decades, Peters, a self-described nerd, helped build Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel, both ubiquitous bulwarks of the Information Age. As Microsoft employee No. 105, Peters joined Bill Gates' shop in 1981, rose to a vice presidency and left the company in 1998, at age 39, with a fortune whose amount he'd rather not disclose.

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