In the end it felt like a visit to my grandmother's house, a
nostalgic trip back to a time before cable, before clickers,
before the TV listings were more complicated than the tax code.
The television was black and white, the meat was red, and
laboratory rats hadn't begun to smoke, let alone get lung
cancer. There were three channels on the dial, and each Saturday
afternoon one channel featured the crash of the pins, the roar
of an intimate crowd and the familiar voice of Chris Schenkel.
After 36 years of calling the action of the Professional Bowlers
Association tour on ABC, Schenkel signed off last Saturday from
Fairview Heights, Ill., choking back tears as he bid adieu to an
era. A decline in ratings and a lack of deep-pocketed sponsors
forced ABC to end its affiliation with the tour and shove a
reluctant Schenkel, 73, off network TV. "Every time I talk about
something sentimental, I crack," Schenkel said last week. "It's
a big blow to me that this series has ended."
Of course, if it hadn't been for Schenkel's much-publicized
farewell, most people wouldn't have known that the PBA series
was still around. I thought bowling had gone off the air about
the same time as cliff diving and Love, American Style. The
farewell show featured plenty of highlights from the past 36
years, which illustrated the problem with bowling: It was hard
to tell the flashbacks from the live action.
In an era when ESPN anchors risk injury trying to outglib each
other and the line between sneaker commercials and rap videos is
hopelessly blurred, pro bowling fits in like Lawrence Welk at
Lollapalooza. Talk about image problems? History shows that
bowling, like Spam, thrives when the U.S. economy is in the
Pro bowling fell victim to one of the rules of network TV sports
today: If your leading sponsor fights dandruff or kills foot
fungus, you are in trouble. Without a few car commercials that
end with the line "starting at $47,900," it's a struggle to
survive in the big-bucks arena that Roone Arledge built. Not
only have bowling ratings slipped steadily since the mid-1970s
(down from 9.1 to 2.0), but also when TV guys say the bowling
audience is dying, they mean it literally.
Bowling fans are like Eisenhower voters and Dodge Dart owners:
Each morning the obituaries are full of them. Research shows
that 67% of the network TV audience for the PBA tour is more
than 50 years old, a distressing stat that prompted three-time
Bowler of the Year Walter Ray Williams Jr. to hold open the door
for Schenkel. "We must attract younger viewers, and Chris, after
all, is 73," said Williams before winning last week's
tournament. "Maybe it's time for him to step down."
It's all Earl Woods's fault. He could have given two-year-old
Tiger a bowling ball way back when and changed sports history.
Instead, with the emergence of Tiger, golf is trendier than
Macanudos, while pro bowling is still a bunch of middle-aged
guys with thin hair and thick waists slugging it out for their
next pickup truck payment. There's a genuine working-class charm
to the PBA tour, but just think: Bowling won't be on network TV
anymore. That means we can't see...whom?
If you asked the man on the street to name his favorite pro
bowler, he would probably say either Ralph Kramden or Fred
Flintstone. You want to know why Schenkel is being so widely
celebrated? Because he's the most famous guy on the tour. The
PBA has been unable to push any of its stars into the hearts and
minds of sports fans. In an effort to promote the well-rounded
athletic talents of its competitors, a PBA official revealed
that Williams is not just a champion bowler but also a six-time
horseshoe-pitching champion. Well, jump back, Deion! I'm
guessing Walter Ray throws a mean lawn dart, too, but I don't
want to watch him do it.
Therein lies the problem bowling faces as it seeks another
network deal. As games go, there aren't many that are easier to
understand, to afford, to play or to enjoy. Anyone who has
pulled on a pair of green-and-orange bowling shoes knows it can
be a heck of a way to kill a Saturday night. But that doesn't
make it a great spectator sport on Saturday afternoon. The PBA
tour is off network TV for the first time in my life, but I
think I'll find something to do next weekend. Who knows? Maybe
I'll go bowling.
COLOR PHOTO: TONY TRIOLO In 1968, Dick Weber was a star of the show. [Dick Weber bowling]