If bowling—yes, bowling—does not instantly supplant baseball, football, basketball and hockey as the nation's No. 1 spectator sport, it will not be for any lack of optimism on the part of the proprietors of the new National Bowling League. The NBL, like the AL, the NL, the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, the AFL and all the other alphabet organizations of big-time spectator sport, is dedicated to the proposition that a lot of people are willing to pay good money to watch other people play a game, and its owners already have gambled $14 million on the proposition.
"Big-league bowling has come to Dallas," boomed a stentorian announcer at the league's premiere in Texas a fortnight ago (originally scheduled for October 13, the opening was hastily rescheduled for the 12th because the 13th fell on Friday), and in the two weeks since, big-league bowling has come to eight other U.S. cities as well.
At the Dallas premiere, held in the gaudily decorated amphitheater of the new $3 million "Bronco Bowl," some 2,000 fans, astir with delicious anticipation, paid upwards of $3 apiece to goggle at the strange new scene. The auditorium was set up in somewhat the same way as an old-time burlesque theater, with six gleaming lanes serving as the runways and with the audience ranged horseshoe-fashion on three sides.
Ushers for the event wore white shirts and red string ties. A Dixieland band ("straight from the levee," confided the announcer) tootled away as a slim, sexy blonde songstress snapped her fingers in rhythm. Up on a gigantic scoreboard at the rear of the lanes, two shapely Texas girls wearing white skirts, white blouses and headsets awaited the electronic instructions that would tell them the names and numbers to chalk up on the board. On each side of the scoreboard was a triangular diagram of pin positions that lighted up to indicate what the bowler was shooting for. Multicolored globes hung suspended on wires over the audience, shedding a soft glow. Spotlights shone down from the rear. TV cameras devoured the action.
The bowlers warmed up. Some of the crowd ooed and aahed at the big hook of the New York Gladiators' young Johnny Meyer, a left-hander, and at the power of the Dallas Broncos' J.B. Solomon. The New York team wore gold pants and natty black shirts with names and numbers printed on the back. The Broncos wore white trousers, white shirts and red jackets, on the back of which were their names, a picture of a bucking bronco and a map of Texas with a star indicating the location of Dallas. Between rolls, the Broncos wiped their hands on red and white handkerchiefs, while the Gladiators sopped up their sweat with cloth of gold. After the inevitable shoddy rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner that inaugurates all sporting events, Dallas' Stentor introduced the bowlers, giving full value to such nicknames as "the Brooklyn Bomber" for Johnny Meyer, "Mr. Stoneface" for J. B. Solomon, and "the Iowa Farm Boy" for Andy McBride.
As thousands cheer
Before the match started, Vince Lucci, captain of the Gladiators, worried gloomily over the strange setup. "They're going to have trouble concentrating," he predicted. Jack Aydelotte, the bespectacled playing manager of the Broncos, thought the enthusiasm of Bronco rooters might make his boys nervous. "We had an exhibition match in Kansas City," he said, marveling, "and that was the first time I ever saw a crowd jump to its feet and cheer bowling."
If the crowds continue to cheer bowling throughout the next six months of the new league's season, however, the sound will be music in the ears of a Dallas sports fan named J. Curtis Sanford, chief booster of spectator bowling. A shrewd promoter who founded Dallas' Cotton Bowl back in 1937, Sanford has long been a big man in participant bowling as the owner of two huge Dallas lanes, but he always felt that bowling was never given a real chance as a spectator sport. "There are about 30 million active bowlers in the country that we can draw on for our audiences," he said recently in his office in the Curtis Building. "Up to now, though, spectators have never been able to watch the game properly. All they see in big tournaments is the bowlers' backs. Where's the drama in that? I envisioned stadiums with luxurious seats and good lighting, where at least half the fans could see the bowlers from the side. I also felt the game itself could be hyped up to make it more interesting."
It was about a year ago that Sanford's ideas began to take positive form, and the Dallas promoter set about getting businessmen interested in building bowling stadiums or in metamorphosing old theaters into suitable spectator arenas. He built his own Bronco Bowl, which uses $335,000 worth of air-conditioning equipment as part of his plan for a "fair shake for spectators." Meanwhile, he and other promoters began building teams. They engaged a league commissioner-Dick Charles, a former Omaha TV sports announcer—and devised rules calculated to perk up spectator interest in team bowling.
The first player drafts were held in July 1960. The ten teams taking part at $75,000 per franchise were the Broncos, the Gladiators, the Detroit Thunderbirds, the Fort Worth Panthers, the Kansas City Stars, the Fresno Bombers, the Omaha Packers, the Los Angeles Toros, the Twin City Skippers of Minneapolis-St. Paul and the so-far-homeless San Antonio Cavaliers.