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Pro Bowling Enters a Rowdy New League

Decorum goes out the alley as the men's tour gets a makeover by new owners. The effort seems to be paying off.

September 02, 2003|Curtis Eichelberger | Bloomberg News

The players pump their fists and make risque gestures. During breaks, rock music blasts. And the latest corporate sponsor is Pernod-Ricard's Wild Turkey bourbon.

This is not your father's bowling league.

It is the new Professional Bowlers Assn., the men's pro tour refashioned by three former Microsoft Corp. millionaires who bought it for $5 million in 2000. Though the tour lost $8.4 million last year on revenue of $11.9 million, the Seattle-based PBA is moving toward profitability, they say.

"The show isn't so much about bowling as it is combat," said PBA Chairman Chris Peters, a former vice president at Microsoft, the world's largest software maker. "It's the victor versus the vanquished."

The tour's president and chief executive, Steve Miller, a former Nike Inc. marketing executive, threw out the 1940s rules requiring bowlers on the professional tour to have short haircuts, maintain a quiet atmosphere and reject corporate signage. Nowadays, the association encourages antics from bowlers such as Pete Weber, who points to his crotch after throwing a strike.

"Consumers want an opportunity to identify with real people who compete and show genuine emotion," Miller said. "We've got that, but bowling has been the most under-promoted sport in America the past decade, and we're still in the process of reversing it."

Each of the three partners -- Peters, former Starwave Corp. CEO Mike Slade and RealNetworks Inc. founder and Chairman Rob Glaser -- started at Microsoft in the 1980s and reaped the benefits of stock options. Microsoft shares rose almost 6,000% in its first 10 years as a public company.

After buying the PBA for $5 million and assuming $2 million in debt, the new owners set aside an additional $7 million to fund a five-year improvement plan, including a more aggressive approach to marketing and luring corporate sponsors. The tour is forecasting positive cash flow from operations this year and a profit in 2004, Miller said.

Peters said his ultimate goal was to sell the PBA for at least $70 million, 10 times the cost of the purchase.

The tour's 20 tournaments in 2002 were televised on Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN cable television network under a three-year contract that ends next year. The PBA and ESPN declined to say whether the tour pays ESPN for air time, as the Women's National Basketball Assn. does, or whether the network pays the PBA.

The marketing effort may be showing results. Average TV viewership was 775,000 households last year, up from about 570,000 in 2000. That beat ESPN's ratings for the National Hockey League, which averaged about 400,000 households for 21 regular-season games.

The PBA was founded in 1958 by Eddie Elias, a television host and agent who later represented golfers Chi Chi Rodriguez, Fuzzy Zoeller and Ken Venturi. At the time, bowling was one of the most popular American participatory sports.

It since has fallen on hard times, with the number of bowling alleys in the U.S. declining from a high of 10,883 in 1963 to 5,973 in 2002, according to American Sports Data Inc.

Mark Miller, spokesman for Bowling Inc., which manages U.S. bowling associations and governing bodies, blames workplace and cultural shifts. More women went to work, breaking up women's morning leagues, he said. Commutes and workdays lengthened, making after-work bowling more difficult. And the decline in manufacturing jobs put an end to late-night bowling leagues that catered to men coming off shifts ending at midnight.

Elias suffered a stroke in 1995 and couldn't give the league, then a member-owned nonprofit association, as much attention as he had. In 1997, the sport lost its TV platform as Disney's ABC Sports ended its 36-year relationship with the PBA.

When Elias died a year later, the PBA was nearing insolvency. All the sponsors had left, and the PBA's membership of men's professional bowlers, including players in seniors and regional tours, had dropped by a third to less than 2,000 as prize money remained flat.

That's when Peters entered the picture. His father, Jerry, bowled near their home on Bainbridge Island, Wash., in the 1960s, and Chris remembers admiring his trophies. When the son left Microsoft in 1998, he decided to take up the game.

After discovering that the PBA was on its last legs, Peters offered to help the tour reorganize as an unpaid consultant, only to learn that the association was up for sale.

Peters and his associates bought the PBA's physical assets and the rights to its brand.

They also addressed bowlers' needs, increasing prize money to $4.3 million in 2002 from $1.8 million when the new owners took over. The top 70 bowlers from each season will gain an additional undetermined sum if the tour is sold or taken public.

With the added incentives, PBA membership soared. It reached an all-time high of more than 4,100 professional bowlers last year, up 47% from September 2000. The 20-event tour season begins with the Banquet Open on Oct. 12 in Omaha.

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