Will Bowling Ever Amass a Larger Viewership?

To most Americans, bowling is simply a pastime, not a professional sport. This perception is justified, one could argue, as bowling does not fit the conventions of a popular professional sport.

To most Americans, bowling is simply a pastime, not a professional sport. This perception is justified, one could argue, as bowling does not fit the conventions of a popular professional sport. Despite this, the American perception of bowling is changing from simply a traditional game to a watchable high-level sport. With some strategic event-planning to complement the monumental partnership between the Professional Bowling Association (PBA) and FOX Sports, bowling can certainly propel itself into the mainstream American sports market.

2019 marked the beginning of a multi-year partnership between the PBA and FOX Sports, a move that has already proven successful in pushing professional bowling towards the mainstream sports market. In 2019, the PBA drew in 20.923 million total viewers across FOX, FS1, and FS2. This number may not sound like much compared to other pro leagues, but compared to the PBA’s viewership totals from 2018, 11.327 million, it’s safe to say that professional bowling is on the rise. PBA Commissioner Tom Clark said, “The PBA’s move to FOX Sports has revitalized the entire sport...In this first year of our partnership, we’ve already seen dramatically improved production values, promotion, and buzz, putting the PBA in its best position in decades.” FOX Sports EVP of Programming, Live Operations, and Research Bill Wagner shared Clark’s sentiment, stating, “The shows have been exciting, the bowlers are captivating and colorful, and [the] crowds [are] enthusiastic. The PBA is quickly becoming must-watch sports television.”

The partnership between FOX Sports and the PBA is a significant step towards pro bowling gaining a foothold in the mainstream market; however, a looming question remains. How much room does it have to grow? The increase in viewership totals from 2018 to 2019 is impressive, but it’s hard to imagine that these numbers will rise dramatically from this point forward. As a professional sport, it’d be fair to compare bowling to golf: two individual sports in which players are typically older than those in other pro sports given the lack of physicality. Golf however, is already a mainstream American sport, steeped in widely-known tradition and history. In 2018, the four major American golf championships alone—The Masters, the U.S. Open, the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Championship, and The Open Championship—drew in over 26.8 million viewers, almost 6 million more viewers than all 2019 PBA events combined. Golf draws in far more viewers than bowling does, but why? The reason: Professional bowlers lack swagger and storylines. Americans love golf, and a number of other individual pro sports such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and tennis for that matter, because they are truly invested in the players’ careers, who each possess some charisma that fans have yet to see in pro bowlers.

So, the PBA’s next step should be to increase exposure for its players, which could be done by hosting celebrity invitational bowling events. Although they may seem gimmicky, an event titled “Chris Paul’s Annual PBA Invitational” could introduce new fans to bowling. Everybody knows what bowling is; however, to start watching professional bowling, fans need to know who the bowlers are. Celebrity events can help bridge the gap of unfamiliarity, because seeing recognizable faces such as Major League Baseball (MLB) Champion Mookie Betts and National Basketball League (NBA) All-Star James Harden bowl alongside PBA bowlers provides a sense of familiarity and can potentially lead to consistent viewership among people who would never have watched bowling if not for seeing their favorite celebrities participate. Events like these could be scheduled strategically during break periods for other leagues, such as the February-March window between the close of the National Football League (NFL) season and MLB opening day, giving bored sports fans something new and fun to watch while also taking advantage of less saturated network schedules. Celebrity invitational events would surely increase exposure for pro bowlers and help pro bowling gain a foothold in the mainstream market.

The sport of bowling is not going to change to appeal to larger audiences, nor should it. It’s a quintessential cornerstone of American pastimes, and although it doesn’t yet deliver the flair and energy typical among popular professional sports leagues, with some time and some strategically scheduled celebrity invitationals, the PBA is sure to grow within the American sports market.

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