There’s an old saying among casual bowlers — that it’s one of the few activities where the more you drink, the more proficient you become. And if you’ve seen movies like “Kingpin” and “The Big Lebowski,” which do nothing more than make a mockery of the game, you’d be hard-pressed to call bowling a “sport.”
I agree that on a recreational-level bowling is simply a fun activity meant to be enjoyed with friends (and a beer or two). But on the competitive levels — which include the action seen in collegiate bowling events, local amateur tournaments and every Sunday morning from October-March on ESPN during the Professional Bowler’s Association live telecasts — bowling is a sport in every sense of the definition.
Most purists consider a sport a competitive activity that involves physical exertion and skill of some sort. While the “physical exertion and skill” obviously covers varying levels, keep in mind that over the course of a professional bowling tournament, participants will roll as many as 40 games over a three-day period.
These athletes must throw a 15 or 16-pound ball down a 60-foot alley in an attempt to hit a target less than two inches wide, known as the “pocket” (the area between the headpin and 3-pin for righthanders, or the 2-pin for lefties).
In order to have the stamina to bowl that many games and be able to repeat shots, one must be in good physical shape. Many, if not most, pros do weight training or at least stick to an exercise regimen to build arm and wrist strength to help them throw those big, sweeping hook balls that demolish the pins.
The main reason why competitive bowling should be considered a sport is that the game that the pros play is a world away from the casual bowler heading down to the local center to toss a few games. “How is that possible,” one might ask, “since they’re playing on the same lane, with maybe even the same equipment that the professional is using?” The difference lies in the nearly invisible intangible that makes the sport either easy for the relatively skilled player or very challenging—the amount of oil put onto a bowling lane and the pattern by which it is applied.
THE USE OF OIL
For public play, bowling center proprietors set up their lane machines to put down a “house condition,” which puts a very heavy concentration of oil in the middle of the lane and gradually tapers to the lane’s outside boards nearest to the gutter, where there is no oil. This creates a “funnel” effect for the hook-ball bowler (all competitive bowlers throw a varying degree of hook to create pin action and increase the probability of a strike), as a right-hander’s ball thrown slightly left of target will skate on the heavy oil, sliding farther down the lane before it starts to curve.
A shot that misses to the right will grip the lane surface quicker due to the lack of oil, like tire treads on a road, and start curving earlier, still hitting the pocket solidly for that sweet-sounding strike. This is done to promote high scores, keep customers happy and coming back to their bowling center.
In the professional ranks, however, the oil is used to create a significant challenge. A thick volume of oil is laid out very evenly across the whole lane, so mistakes made don’t funnel back to the pocket like on a house condition. Mistakes made to the left will rarely strike and often result in an ugly split, while a poorly rolled ball, or a flat miss to the right may even flag the headpin entirely.
The United States Bowling Congress, bowling’s governing body whose main goal is to advance and promote the game as a true sport, has created “sport bowling” leagues where amateurs can test their skills on the more difficult pro conditions. The organization has found that most amateurs experience a 20-30 pin drop in average from bowling on their normal league condition, meaning a 210-220 average “house bowler” would probably struggle to break 190 simply due to the challenging oil pattern on the lane. In perspective, professionals usually have to average 225-235 for the duration of a tournament in order to make the telecast at the week’s end and be guaranteed a big paycheck.
PLENTY OF SKILL
As someone that has been bowling competitively since the age of 15, I can assure you that bowling in the high-pressure environment of a tournament is mentally and physically draining, especially on a condition where you know that you need to execute every shot perfectly to score well. Like a free-throw shooter needing to make two shots to tie the score in the late stages of a basketball game, as a bowler you need to rely on your hundreds of hours of practice and league play, knowing you’ve made the shot countless times before, and get up there and perform.
Like all sports, bowling well takes a great deal of hand-eye coordination, even on an easy lane condition — the oil pattern won’t matter if you can’t release the ball in the same manner, with the same amount of lift and revolutions, twice in a row. Solid bowling technique is centered around leverage and timing, like a baseball slugger shifting his weight to swing a bat or a basketball player releasing a three-point shot at the apex of his jump.
Additionally, anyone who believes that “individual” activities like golf and bowling cannot be considered sports has never attended a collegiate bowling tournament. I had the opportunity to bowl for the University of Washington Huskies for two seasons, and nearly all tournaments we bowled were run at least partly under the “Baker” format, where an entire team of five bowlers combines to bowl one game, alternating frames.
This format is the essence of team bowling, as every player needs to support one another, working together to pick up the slack if one member is struggling. Watch an anchor bowler get a key strike late in a tournament and the team will often celebrate as if they’ve scored the tying run in the bottom of the ninth.
Bowling is the number one participation sport in the world, with 53 million Americans heading out the lanes at least once a year, with a large portion of that number going once a week or more as a member of one of thousands of USBC-sanctioned bowling leagues.
What is it that keeps us coming back? Perhaps the pure uncertainty of the game, as we never really know what will happen once we let go of that ball —even seemingly perfect shots can leave pins on the deck that remain standing only to laugh in your face, and I’m sure all of us have seen strikes on hits that send a succession of pins toppling into each other, seemingly defying the laws of physics.
For others, it’s the pursuit of perfection, or at least that personal best score. Even recreational bowlers will never forget what their “high game” is, and will always strive to beat it, and bowlers that have achieved perfection want to get that 300 game again and again.
REDMOND’S HOME ALLEY
The Redmond area is home to a state-of-the-art bowling center, Tech City Bowl, which Microsoft calls its home lanes. The center, formerly known as Totem Bowl, is completely taken over by Monday nights by Microsofties bowling in their company league. The 32-lane center offers their thrilling “X-Bowl” on Friday and Saturday nights featuring glow-in-the-dark pins, disco lights, prize giveaways and their own in-house DJ spinning the hottest beats, all for only $15 including shoe rental, a fantastic deal for the casual bowler looking for a fun night out.
Despite being a bowling center on the Eastside, Tech City’s prices are relatively reasonable compared to other options (see: Lucky Strike Lanes), and their $9 all-you-can-bowl special from 9 p.m. to midnight on weekdays, which once again includes shoe rental (normally $4), is an unbeatable deal.
The bowl frequently offers discounts and specials which can be checked on their Web site. The facility also features a fantastic full-service restaurant and bar, Jimmy G’s Grill, a counter-service snack bar, pool tables and a video arcade with redemption games for kids.
Whether you bowl “just for fun” or are more serious about the game, the great thing about the sport is that it is an affordable activity that can be enjoyed by anyone. While recreational bowling will forever be associated with grabbing a house ball and renting funky (smelling) shoes while conversing with a group of friends over a plate of nachos, the competitive side of bowling definitely deserves to be called a sport, and those that take it seriously deserve to be called athletes in every sense of the word.
See you at the lanes!
Redmond Reporter sports writer Tim Watanabe carries a 219 average and has bowled at Tech City Bowl for the past 13 years. He has three 300 games and one 800 3-game series to his credit and has devoted time to coaching youth bowlers to further their understanding and enjoyment of the game. Tim also won a collegiate singles title at the 2005 Aggie Bowl Championship in Logan, Utah while bowling for the UW Huskies.
INFO FOR INFO BOX:
Tech City Bowl is located at 13033 NE 70th Place in Kirkland, in the Bridle Trails Shopping Center. For more information, call (425) 827-0785 or visit www.techcitybowl.com.