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Bowling Alone: Pin Groups Face Sponsorship Struggles at the Lanes

By / May 7, 2014 (iStock/Thinkstock)

One of bowling’s biggest industry groups announced that it was canceling a high-profile tournament for the second year in a row. The problem? The sport’s demographics aren’t the ones that attract advertisers.

It may be one of professional bowling’s biggest events, but that may not be enough to keep it going in the long run.

Last week, the Bowling Proprietors Association of America (BPAA), the trade group that puts on the sport’s U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open each year, announced that it would cancel the 2015 edition of the event after failing to draw the level of sponsorship needed to put the tournament on.

It would be bad enough if it happened once, but the cancellation is a repeat of what happened with this year’s tourney. The group said its goal was to retool the event for 2015, but instead, it ended up canceling—again.

What’s the Problem?

Long story short, the sport is struggling with aging demographics and economic dynamics. It hasn’t attracted enough of the younger people who tend to appeal to advertisers. And with the slow economic recovery, the group is having a hard time making its marquee event financially viable.

“When the economy took a downturn in 2009, that’s when a lot of sponsorship from outside the industry ended,” the group’s John Losito told CBS News. “We can’t find anyone to help offset [the cost] of running the tournament.”

BPAA has owned the tournaments since they began in the 1970s, but for years it licensed them to the Professional Bowlers Association (which ran the men’s event) and United States Bowling Congress (which held the women’s event) for a nominal $1 fee each year. The groups ultimately turned the events back over to the BPAA, which has itself struggled to fund them, according to bowling blog The 11th Frame.

The blog notes that PBA and USBC have faced similar difficulties with their own tournaments.

Frustration Rising

Fans and athletes alike have questioned what the BPAA’s decision means for the future of the sport.

Lee Owen, a bowling columnist for The Daily Advance in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, expressed concern that the PBA, the sport’s equivalent of the NBA, would eventually fold, and suggested that being a professional bowler was losing some of its financial luster, as prize money at events is “dwindling.”

“It is no secret that non-professional events often pay out more than the professional ones,” Owen wrote, “and PBA bowlers supplement their income by bowling plenty of these, too.”

Jason Belmonte, one of pro bowling’s biggest stars, criticized the association for giving up so soon on the 2015 event and said he would be willing to put forward an effort to keep the event going.

“As a collective group you have given up for the bowlers and for bowling fans and for the sport of bowling itself,” he wrote in a post on Facebook. “You ask bowlers to come into your centers and support you, well now we the players are asking you the BPAA to find a [way] to give us our premier event and support us!”

For the BPAA’s part, Losito, a former professional bowler himself, said the group was willing to put on the event in the future, but the circumstances needed to make sense.

“In no way, shape, or form should this be construed as BPAA not believing in competitive bowling,” Losito told The 11th Frame. “We’re not going to give up. It has not been said that we’ll never do [U.S. Opens] again.”

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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