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 gutter.
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.