By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - In the 1960s and 70s when ten-pin bowling was in its heyday the sport's best players earned as much or more than top baseball and football players and Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) kingpin Colie Edison believes it can be that way again.
Once a house guest on the MTV reality series The Real World, most would think Edison is living in dreamland if she reckons professional bowling will ever return to its golden era.
In those days Dick Weber was as well known as Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus and Don 'Mr Bowling' Carter was the first athlete - in any sport - to ink a $1 million sponsorship deal.
But Edison is convinced bowlers will again be household names, the PBA CEO predicting that broadcast rights will one day be in line with other top North American leagues and prize money worthy of a sport eager to be seen as big time.
"My main goal is to make bowling relevant again and we're going to do that by exposing the product to more people, getting people to think about bowling more," Edison told Reuters.
"Heading into the 2020 season there is going to be the most bowling on broadcast television in decades.
"What you remember from those good old days on ABC we are heading back in that direction."
For decades the only direction bowling and the PBA had been headed was down.
Invented in ancient Egypt, bowling went from the 'Alley of Pharaohs' to a mainstream sport in the U.S., television doing what it also did for golf in the 1960s, bringing a new audience and interest.
Bowling alleys sprung up on almost every corner, 12,000 of them by the end of the '60s, with nearly 4.5 million Americans taking up membership in the U.S. Bowling Congress (USBC), the sport's national governing body.
Today the USBC membership is less than half that while the millions who religiously tuned into ABC on Saturday afternoons to watch their bowling stars turned off and ratings slumped.
But Bowlero Corp., the world's largest owner and operator of bowling centres, and FOX Sports are betting on a revival on the lanes.
Last September Bowlero acquired the PBA from Microsoft executive Mike Slade and FOX signed on as the new broadcast partner.
The moves have had an immediate impact and appear to have halted the downward trend with television ratings jumping 100% from 2018.
The PBA also awarded its first six-figure winner's purse since 2011 last year and this season boasts a record $2.1 million combined prize fund.
While the increase in prize money will be welcomed by bowlers, the PBA has a long way to go before it is on a par with the PGA Tour, which is offering a $7.5 million purse this week at the Farmers Insurance Open, or tennis where the singles champions at the Australian Open will earn $2.85 million.
"There is a lot of room for growth," said Edison. "What we will be focussing on this year is that rich storytelling and character development.
"We have our majors, our Masters, our U.S. Open the traditional events but we are embracing change."
In her dual role of PBA CEO and Bowlero’s Chief Customer Officer (CCO), Edison, who began her climb up the Bowlero corporate ladder booking deejays for events, plans to use the PBA as a vehicle to drive a new generation of bowlers into their alleys and in turn use the centres to promote the PBA.
Already part of the Pan Am Games programme, Edison will join the effort to get bowling into the Olympics.
There will be new competitions, new ways of storytelling and hopefully a new cast of characters who could become the face of the sport like Weber, who was a late night show regular and once bowled in the cargo hold of a Boeing 707 in what was promoted as "Operation AstroBowl" the highest altitude game ever played.
As a one-time reality TV show personality, Edison is keenly aware of the ability of crossover characters to draw attention to a product.
Jason Belmonte, the world's top ranked bowler, who bowls using two hands could be one of those marquee names the sport needs but the problem is most Americans would not know the Australian if he bowled a perfect game in New York's Times Square outside Edison's office.
"He is our Tiger Woods," Edison said of Belmonte, the winner of 11 bowling majors. "He is the new era of bowling and really unique in that he bowls with two hands.
"When you mine the profiles of our bowlers you will find there are some really great stories and characters and it is just about bringing that out."
(This story fixes typo in second paragraph)
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Ken Ferris)