It's a Tuesday night at the Brunswick Zone Carolier Lanes in North Brunswick, N.J., and Danny Wiseman is most definitely in the hizzz-ouse. "He's exotic, he's different, he's off the wall!" ESPN bowling announcer Jim Kelly tells the audience. "He likes fast cars, he likes fast women.... He likes to strike fast, and he's dangerous. You ready? Let's get it on!"
At this the crowd on hand for the Pro Bowlers Association Johnny Petraglia Open goes crazy. Wiseman, a vision of tenpin recklessness with his blond-tipped mullet, barbed-wire tattoo and soul patch, soaks in the cheers. He steps to the lane in his yellow-and-orange flame-motif jersey, and the fans go quiet. Four steps later Wiseman releases the ball, and instantly the crowd is alive again, cheering with Wheel of Fortune fervor. When, an hour later, Wiseman takes home the $40,000 first prize, he's serenaded with chants of "Danny! Danny! Danny!"
Welcome to the new, hip, hyped world of bowling as envisioned by ESPN, which in May signed a three-year contract to continue telecasting PBA events this fall. The network, which will show 20 tournaments between September and March, is aspiring to pump life into a sport long stereotyped as a cigarette-and-potbelly pursuit of middle America: Players are meeting with media trainers; ESPN is running humorous ads; and, even though few bowlers are anywhere near as flamboyant as the 34-year-old Wiseman, top players are being heavily promoted.
The first seven shows rolled a solid spare in the Nielsens. Appearing sometimes on Tuesday nights and other times on Sunday afternoons, they averaged a 0.8 rating, a 14% increase from ESPN's numbers last season, when telecasts were less regularly scheduled. Bowling was attracting a larger viewership than either MLS (0.3) or the NHL (0.6) did in their most recent full regular seasons.
ESPN has enhanced the telecasts with a traveling set; graphics that provide ball speed, revolution and accuracy information; and prerecorded bowling tips, such as one on converting "extreme splits." The polished Kelly, late of ESPN's Senior PGA Tour telecasts, teams with analyst Randy Pedersen, a 12-time winner on the PBA tour who's still rough but adds enthusiasm and expertise. "We're trying to blend in all the new stuff and at the same time build characters," says Pedersen. "It's our job to create heroes and villains. We don't care if you like a guy or hate him, as long as he makes you watch."
The same strategy worked for the WWF. Can a Stone Cold Walter Ray Williams Jr. be far behind?