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It was at a gas station on a desolate stretch of road in Iowa where Wes Malott, the world's top-ranked bowler, came to appreciate how things have changed in his sport. Last week Malott was driving from a tournament in Omaha to the USBC Masters in Milwaukee when he pulled over to get some gas. "A guy came up to me and said, 'Didn't I see you on TV the other day?'" Malott recalls. "It was the second time recently that someone recognized me, and for that to happen to an up-and-coming player like me tells you something about where the sport is going. It's not like I've been bowling for 20 years and have 40 titles."
Indeed, Malott is 29 years old, has just one title and has been on the Professional Bowlers Association tour for four years. But he is one of a number of young bowlers who are the new stars of a resurgent sport (box, right). Television ratings are up (viewership of ESPN's coverage of the PBA increased 10% last season from the year before, though it's still a small audience, averaging just less than a 1.0 rating), the number of corporate sponsors is growing, and the prize money ($5.6 million last year versus $2.9 million in 2000) has never been better. The start of this season, which kicked off on Oct. 26 with the Tulsa Championship, came on the heels of the announcement that Denny's had agreed to a three-year, multimillion-dollar sponsorship deal--marking the first time the PBA tour has had a title sponsor.
The PBA has been undergoing major changes since three former Microsoft employees, Rob Glaser, Chris Peters and Mike Slade, bought the nearly bankrupt tour for $5 million in 2000. The tour has a more compact season (from late October to April), more regular TV coverage ( ESPN on Sunday afternoons) and a tournament format that features more one-on-one play. Tour commissioner and CEO Fred Schreyer, 52, a former Nike marketing whiz who was named to his post in September, has focused on making the tour more accessible to TV viewers: He plans to include more skills challenges, including having bowlers loft balls over chairs for strikes, in TV broadcasts. "There's been a stereotype of bowling, that it's an older sport that takes place in dirty, smoky rooms with unathletic competitors, and we want to change that," says Schreyer. "A new breed is coming into the game. We want to show that they are a lot younger and more athletic."
At the top of the list of those players is Malott, an Austin native who has been the game's hottest player since September. A 6'4" righthander who has one of the most powerful strike balls on the tour, Malott had an undistinguished record in his first four seasons, only twice advancing to a final while never winning a tournament. But he got in shape over the summer, dropping from 275 pounds to 250. "I've had better balance, and my focus has been unbelievable," says Malott, who had advanced to three straight event finals before his early-round exit at last weekend's Masters, which was won by Mike Scroggins over Norm Duke. "There's no doubt that [getting in shape] has made a huge difference in my game."
For Malott and other pro bowlers, the increased financial incentives are a motivation for better fitness. "It's a lot easier now to make a decent living," says Malott, who earned $73,900 in prize money over the season's first month. (Top players often make an additional $100,000 a year on endorsements.) Adds Malott, "The PBA doesn't want people to be constantly asking, Is it worth it to be here? Should I quit my job? For me and a lot of the other guys now, the answer is pretty clear. It's absolutely worth it."
Striking It Rich
Pete Weber, 43, and Walter Ray Williams Jr., 46, are bowling's old guard, but Wes Malott is one of several young emerging stars on the PBA tour. Here are some others.