Ten-pin fans bowled over

You will be delighted to know that the day has finally arrived to bring you up to date with news from the world of ten-pin bowling, which must hit the top 10 list of the most boring spectator sports in the world. It is now successfully doing something about it.

For reasons that escape me, professional bowling was one of the most popular sports in the old days of United States TV, before the number of channels overtook the number of viewers.
Its star was a quiet chap from St Louis called Dick Weber. Players were instructed to tuck in their shirts, keep their hair short, take off any jewellery and send in three letters of recommendation before they could be accepted for professional status.

They were, however, allowed — professional darts-style — to carry enormous beer bellies and chain-smoke. Spectators were instructed to remain silent at important moments. Advertising was more or less banned.

The number of different situations for the average spectator to relish in ten-pin bowling can be exhausted in about three minutes, but somehow the ABC network kept showing it for 35 years, until 1997. Three years later three blokes from Microsoft came in and bought the entire league — for a reported $5-million, which, at the time, was about the price of one Microsoft share.

By now the sport’s star was Weber’s son, Pete. “PDW” (as he has rebranded himself) has a different approach than his father. In part, it involves a more exciting playing style in which the ball appears to hook towards the gutter, then swerves back to clatter the pins. His non-playing style involves swearing copiously. While playing he wears a white glove, sunglasses and uses his own personal gesture every time he gets a strike: the crotch chop — “a crotch-directed hand gesture, punctuated by a slight pelvic thrust”.

PDW Weber also has his own catchphrase with which he taunts opponents: “You better bring it!” And he sinks enough booze to sink a battleship, never mind 10 pins. A visitor from outer space, that is, the New Yorker, reported: “He expends more calories after his throws — with fist pumps, spread-armed beckonings, knee-dives, full-on collapses — than during them.” In the old days this kind of behaviour used to earn him regular suspensions, alternating with spells in rehab. But it fitted perfectly with the approach the new owners wanted. They had teamed up with a couple of former executives from Nike and relaunched the sport.

Weber’s theatrics ceased to be frowned on; they became practically compulsory. Fans were encouraged to offer their own counterpoint by screaming and waving placards.

“We took the handcuffs off,” explained a spokesperson for the Professional Bowlers Association. It is believed to have tapped a new market, of the kind who normally prefer to watch professional wrestling.

But some of the old liberties, in contrast, have become victims of Microsoft-style morality: the players were expected to stop smoking and drinking, at least in public, and work out instead.

The bosses have even attempted to make the sport a bit more attractive for connoisseurs by introducing five different kinds of oil patterns for the lanes, so the players have to adjust their game to varying conditions.

The Microsoft gang have not quite reached the point where the sport can be picky about its sponsors. Nor are they yet in a position to be mass entertainers: the OO was a sell-out, with a crowd of 350. But it does all seem to be working — bowling is now shown on the sports channel ESPN and ratings have risen by a quarter over the past two years. And there is some dosh in it: Walter Ray Williams Jnr, the leading money winner last season, had earnings of $419 000.

There is a nice historical symmetry to all this. Ten-pin bowling reputedly evolved after New England states started banning old-fashioned nine-pins early in the 19th century because the game had become a medium for gambling. So the extra pin was added to thwart the law.

This, in a nutshell, is America’s most fundamental dichotomy: here is a society that has perfected roistering entertainment to grab the public’s dollars for the most improbable offerings.

At the same time, the tradition of puritanism still lurks in the nation’s psyche, awaiting its chance to apply the crotch chop to anything that goes too far. Watch it, PDW. —

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