In the heyday of bowling, Milwaukee was known as America’s “Ten Pin Capitol”. When enthusiasts weren’t out playing for fun or in leagues, they were at home, tuned in to the Professional Bowler Association (PBA) tour on ABC. When the popularity of the sport began to wane near in 1980s, bowling alleys closed shop and took once-thriving leagues with them. Although the golden age of bowling has long passed, the Commissioner of the PBA, Tom Clark, believes it is making a comeback.

State of the PBA

Tom Clark is celebrating his tenth year as commissioner of the PBA and still has the same enthusiasm for the sport as the first day he played. Every Wednesday, Tom plays in his own league, playing alongside his peers. Early on, his peers may have been intimidated by who he is, but Tom believes his peers just view him as a fellow bowling enthusiast.

It is no secret that league attendance is down. In today’s world, our lifestyles aren’t conducive to the commitments needed to participate in a 36-week bowling league. In 1997, the decline of the sport’s popularity affected its once gargantuan media presence when ABC ended its relationship with the PBA Tour.

Upgrading PBA’s Image

The PBA recognized the need to modernize bowling’s image to appeal to a variety of lifestyles and began to curate its image to make both the watching and playing experience more desirable. Upgrades to bowling centers, improved accessibility to the sport on television and streaming platforms, as well as the promotion of entertaining events have all helped bring the sport back into the limelight. Tom says over 70 million Americans bowl at least once a year and more than 25 million bowl more than once a year.

In 2000, the PBA Tour franchise was purchased by some prominent members of the tech industry. Chris Peters, of Microsoft, was such a fan of the PBA, he partnered with two other members of the tech industry to give the dwindling sport a second wind. Tom says if it wasn’t for them, bowling wouldn’t exist as it does today. Relationships with media outlets such as ESPN flourished while aggressive investments to the league’s infrastructure and venues were made.

But, it wasn’t just the money that helped modernize the league. The advantage of having tech-oriented owners allowed the league to implement a variety of high-tech upgrades in the early 2000s. One of the paid services, Extra Frame, reached over 10,000 subscribers at its peak.

A New Look

Tom says his job changes every day. This year, his primary directive was to elevate PBA’s media rights and find partners in the digital and TV world. Moving from ESPN to FOX was one of the largest transitions resulting from his goals.

Not only has the sport’s media presence evolved, but the way of playing the sport has as well. Players like Jason Belmonte are leading the charge with new playing styles, using two hands to throw their ball. New, upgraded bowling centers are also evolving, offering appealing amenities like craft cocktails and awesome lighting setups, encouraging curious bowlers to join a league. Tom tells us part of the inspiration for the PBA’s aesthetic overhaul comes from the lively Bayside Bowl in Portland, Maine. The PBA is committed to bringing pro bowlers to non-traditional bowling venues like Bayside Bowl to keep the events fresh and exciting around the country.

What’s Next for the PBA?

Like most sports, player sponsorships are a large aspect of the bowling business. Tom tells us why he thinks PBA players are an untapped market for corporate sponsorships. One goal Tom has set for the PBA is for every player to eventually have an agent.

Tom also discusses the frustrations of bowling being barred from the Olympics. Despite having a strong chance to participate in the 2020 Tokyo games, primarily because of the sport’s popularity in Japan, the Olympic committee opted to include sports like surfing and roller-sports instead of bowling. Despite not being in the Olympics, Tom is proud of the PBA’s partnership with World Bowling, an international organization recognized by the Olympic Committee as the official governing body for bowling sports. Tom says the PBA World Series of Bowling remains a popular broadcast and the best evidence that bowling should be included in the Olympics.

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