The economic decline of bowling the culture that was America

Bowling alone and for peanuts too:

In 1964, “bowling legend” Don Carter was the first athlete in any sport to receive a $1 million endorsement deal ($7.6 million today). In return, bowling manufacturing company Ebonite got the rights to release the bowler’s signature model ball. At the time, the offer was 200x what professional golfer Arnold Palmer got for his endorsement with Wilson, and 100x what football star Joe Namath got from his deal with Schick razor. Additionally, Carter was already making $100,000 ($750,000) per year through tournaments, exhibitions, television appearances, and other endorsements, including Miller, Viceroys, and Wonder Bread.

…Of the 300 bowlers who competed in PBA events during the 2012-2013 season, a select few did surprisingly well. The average yearly salary of the top ten competitors was just below $155,000, with Sean Rash topping the list at $248,317. Even so, in the 1960s, top bowlers made twice as much as top football stars — today, as the highest grossing professional bowler in the world, Sean Rash makes significantly less than a rookie NFL player’s minimum base salary of $375,000.

In 1982, the bowler ranked 20th on the PBA’s money list made $51,690; today, the bowler ranked 20th earns $26,645.

The article, by Zachary Crockett, suggests numerous hypotheses for the economic decline of bowling, but ultimately the answer is not clear to me.  I would suggest the null of “non-bowling is better and now it is better yet.”  A more subtle point is that perhaps bowling had Baumol’s “cost disease,” but under some assumptions about elasticities a cost disease sector can shrink rather than ballooning as a share of gdp.

For the pointer I thank Mike Donohoo.


We're all just Bowling Alone now.

Ceiling effects. Bowling doesn't work well as a highly competitive spectator sport because the best bowlers are so close to the ceiling of optimal performance on any given roll. As bowlers get better (through training, technology, etc.), the game gets more monotonous. In contrast, improving NFL players make more exciting, spectacular plays. With the exception of field goal kickers, who (much like bowlers) make <40 yard field goals with boring regularity.

The NFL should experiment with making the goal posts narrower or adding a top crossbar that the kick has to be under or something else to make kicking a field goal more heroic, the way it used to be. A kicker won the NFL MVP award in 1982 and a kicker-backup QB was MVP in 1970. It was huge news when George Blanda would kick a game-winning 40 yard field goal in 1970.

I would think 50-50 chances from 40 yards would be about the optimum but I don't have a theory to defend that, just a hunch that 50-50 is best.

We'd see fewer--potentially a lot fewer--attempts, but they'd be more interesting when they happen. FGs are inherently boring, so anything to increase the chances of teams going for it on 4th is fine with me.

An alternative and maybe more exciting approach would be to give the kicking team one less blocker. Increasing the potential for a blocked FG is a fun way to inject some chaos into the game.

It's funny how the NFL wants fewer field goals (more 4th down attempts) and perhaps to ban kickoffs (injury risk). Pretty soon the only time a foot will contact a ball in the sport called "football" is punts.

They're actually testing that this year, Steve. On Thursday games, they have embedded a GPS tracking chip into the ball, both to ultimately determine when the ball crosses the goal line, but also to determine the appropriate amount to change the goal posts. The hope is that this will force teams to go for it more on 4th down.

I'd keep the current geometry, but increase the number of points awarded for very long kicks.

This is the driving force I believe. When bowling was popular it was harder. But the game was eventually solved. Used to be pros could do thing that you just never saw, now a perfect game is much more common, and therefore less exciting. Bowling is boring. I speculate that golf too is close to being solved. They're trying to help by making longer and longer courses, but players equipment keeps up.

Even the exciting sport of curling has been shaked by technology:

My suggestions - bowling is a sport that works quite well on black and white, or poor resolution color TV versus other sports like golf or tennis, where it can be hard to see really what's happening. As TV's got better, these other sports, which are more visually interesting and athletic, become more popular. In addition bowling is actually quite easy to learn, and even an average player can get strikes fairly regularly. Whereas good golfers or tennis players are clearly in a league of their own.
Bowling is classed as a working mans game and you don't have to be very athletic looking to play it. People like games where the players are something to aspire to - NBA/NFL types rather than Barney Rubble types.

The point about TV display quality is dead on.

American football on TV really took off with the introduction of instant replay from 1963-1967. From Wikipedia:

Instant replay has been credited as a primary factor in the rise of televised American football, although it was popular on television even before then. While one camera was set up to show the overall “live” action, other cameras, which were linked to a separate videotape machine, framed close-ups of key players. Within a few seconds of a crucial play, the videotape machine would replay the action from various, close-up angles, in slow motion.[3]

Prior to instant replay, it was almost impossible to portray the essence of an American football game on television. Viewers struggled to assimilate the action from a wide shot of the field, on a small black-and-white television screen. However, with replay technology, “brutal collisions became ballets, and end runs and forward passes became miracles of human coordination.” Thanks in large part to instant replay, televised football became evening entertainment, perfected by ABC-TV’s Monday Night Football, and enjoyed by a wide audience[3]

Marshall McLuhan, the noted communication theorist, famously said that any new medium contains all prior media within it. McLuhan gave Tony Verna's invention of instant replay as a good example. "Until the advent of the instant replay, televised football had served simply as a substitute for physically attending the game; the advent of instant replay – which is possible only with the television – marks a post-convergent moment in the medium of television."

Bowling had instant replay before football did.

So, too old to remember the hours of bowling on TV in the 60s? I was thinking more along the lines of local programs and something I vaguely remember from the DC area called bowling for dollars. Searching, this links shows the network connection from the point were TV was becoming mass media -

Of course, a decline set in - my memory being jogged sufficiently with this information - -
'Station: WDCA Channel 20, Host: Johnny Holliday, River Lanes in Bethesda, Maryland'

As a technical note, doing a good job presenting bowling in the late 50s was not really technically challenging nor expensive, compared to most other sports, even the indoor ones.

Boxing was another sport ideal for 1950s television.

Baseball, in contrast, wasn't a very good TV sport until the centerfield telephoto camera behind the pitcher was introduced in, I believe, the 1971 World Series. That was radically better for watching the pitcher vs. batter than the old system of just having a camera high up looking down on the pitcher and batter.

Baseball still isn't a good sport, live or on TV.

I understand that people have different tastes. I'm not a hockey or soccer fan, but I can understand how someone could be.

But when I see a baseball game, I have one of those moments where I feel like I must be a different species or I wonder if anyone else is actually paying attention to the same thing I'm watching.

Unlike other popular American sports, bowling never appealed to the radio audience. In fact, radio broadcasts of bowling tournaments all sound pretty much alike.

The Master ™ : Present at the Creation

I've only bowled a couple of times. Probably the easiest sport I've ever tried. I can't imagine it as a spectator sport. Quoits would be more interesting. Lawn bowls is certainly more interesting.

As mentioned above, bowling is an inferior good in that as you get richer, you want less of it. Baseball also has been found to be an inferior good.

But which sport will replace pro football, clearly, like boxing from 100 years ago, on the decline? Bring back professional chess! A televised classical game, several hours long, can be exciting!! Screen scrape: "In 1976, Kavalek was the top player on the Washington Plumbers team which won the National Chess League". YEAH! Washington Plumbers, I love the irony (Watergate)! GM Kavalek wrote the now defunct chess column for WaPo, and is the resident chess columnist for HuffPo. He was I believe a defector from Czechoslovakia and GM Nigel Short's second in the ill-fated PCA world championship match of the early 1990s vs Kasparov.

About 60% of American population consistently identifies as sports fans, according to Gallup.

Two-thirds cite Football as their preferred sport. Basketball & Baseball come in at about 10% each. Other sports are in low single digits, with Bowling as negligible.
(Bowling popularity peaked in mid-1960s)

Most fans prefer to watch sports on TV

Only about 25% of Americans actually attended a paid sporting event in previous 12 months

White males, especially higher income males, dominate sports attendance

Professional Football makes the most money, but Baseball has highest attendance.

Chess is one of those things that you are never going to get people that don't have to pay for sex interested in lest they turn into the type of nerds that have to pay for sex.

I have both a first and a second degree relation that prove you wrong.

started as an art-concept piece, now a "real" sport:

By time limiting both the chess and boxing phases, they try to keep the pace quick & fun to watch.

The perfection of automatic pinsetting machines got held up by WWII, then progressed from 1946 to roughly final form by 1956. This set off a big boom in bowling alley construction, nearly doubling the number of alleys from 1955 to 1963, with bowling league members increasing from 3 million to 7 million. The stocks of bowling supply companies boomed as well, peaking in 1961.

The growth of bowling as a participation sport fueled its growth as a spectator sport. People who had recently taken up bowling and were in the first flush of enthusiasm watched it on TV. Developers of large new alleys offered their venues for tournaments. Bowling ball manufacturers with high stock prices put money up for prizes, and the like.

But eventually saturation set in and the bubble aspects leak out as businesses stop investing in things like sponsoring tournaments based on assumptions of endless growth.

The bowling alley on Ventura Blvd. near my house that was built during this boom of more than half a century ago does excellent business. And bowling periodically becomes hip again for 20-somethings looking for something to do in co-ed groups where you can drink while doing it. But few new alleys are being built and there's little speculative money for luxuries like bowling tours.

Similarly, there was briefly a pro racketball tour in the 1980s (?) when racketball got hip.

The men's golf tour is doing fine, but the slowdown in construction of new golf courses may have hurt the ladies' and seniors' tours, since hosting tournaments is a good way to advertise courses.

Nobody has figured out a way to make golf courses cheaper so golf is unlikely to have a boom again in the US.

Conversely, I suspect that improvements in the later part of the 20th Century in building indoor tennis courts cheaply contribute to the strength of tennis as a spectator sport. Fifty years ago there weren't many indoor tennis courts -- covering a large area was expensive and wood floors were too slippery for an enjoyable game. Then construction methods improved for cheaply roofing over huge expanses and good artificial surfaces were invented.

When I was a kid, it was pretty much a given that most of the top pro tennis players were from Australia or California because you could play outdoors on concrete that wouldn't crack from freezing, so tennis was dominated by people like Pancho Gonzales from the barrio in Los Angeles. Now tennis is a European dominated sport because it's not hugely expensive to play indoors all winter.

The rise and fall of bowling and racquetball was mirrored recently by poker. The hole card camera led to a TV boom and a participation boom, that then fizzled out.

There was also the ban on on-line poker in the US, which means there are far fewer people playing.

I get the strange obsession with golf courses, I think, but why did you decide to become an expert on bowling alley equipment & machines history?

The much tougher DUI enforcement of the last few decades surely hasn't helped bowling's popularity.

Aha! Driverless cars will fuel the triumphant comeback of bowling! Or failing that, Uber and Lyft. Now is the valley before the next bowling boom! Time to scout out investments in bowling. Thanks for the lead!

I was making money in the 70s in LA as a scorekeeper for a couple of league teams, before automatic scorekeeping eliminated that job. Mild drinkers had lots of fun.

Slovakia & Central Europe has already had a small bowling boom -- but the drinking issue is certainly why bowling went down.

Bowling is most fun in league groups -- and the need to commit to group activities might also be reducing the popularity for some, tho for others is likely to be part of the next upswing.

With better / cheaper taxis, the co-ed drinking & fun will have some come back, some time.
Maybe with Pokemon Bowl?

Golf's popularity has been in decline, resulting in the closure of hundreds of golf courses and bankruptcy of many golf equipment companies. Even Nike recently announced it was exiting the golf equipment business. It's not surprising, since playing golf takes way more time than busy Americans have (if you can believe reports of 24/7 jobs and exhausted couples struggling to find time to care for their children). Does any self-respecting boy wonder wish to be caught on a golf course? Golf also suffers from an elitist problem. Ever watch Jim Nantz, who lives at Pebble Beach and is the voice of golf for CBS, fawn over some hedge fund manager playing with a golf star in one of those celebrity golf tournaments on the west coast? Anybody can go bowling at the best bowling alley in town, but only a select few can play golf at the country clubs where tournament golf is played. Sure, Pebble Beach is a "public" golf course, but it costs over $2,000 to play it. Golf also suffers from an aging problem. I was a twice a week golfer for many years, but I gave up the game long ago both because of an ache in my back and an ache in my head, the latter the result of declining golf skills. Will bowling make a comeback? Virtual bowling, perhaps.

And young people don't play all that much golf. They would have to let go of their phones in order to swing the club...

Hmmm . . . so we need clubs with built-in smartphones. And a built-in GoPro, so you can instantly post your best shots to social media.

And its strongly associated with old people.

Young people don't play golf, but not because of phones. It costs too much and takes too long.

I teach Macro to high school seniors. During our Comparative Advantage unit I use PBA as a mnemonic device for one opportunity cost calculation, with Professional Bowlers Assn as the identifier. In 3 years, 1 out of about 150 students has understood the reference.

Bowling: cheap after-work socializing for the blue collar set organized by paternalistic employers to foster teamwork.

In the 1970s, you only had three channels to watch on TV.

I can recall Sunday morning 1970s television. Two channels showed people sitting around a table talking, and the other one showed bowling. So bowling was the clear winner.

Don't forget that back in the day, merely having something on television regularly made it seem legitimate, no matter how useless it was. (I mean, look at Dan Rather.) I think you can match the decline of bowling with the explosion of cable TV pretty closely.

And of course there was the long time voice of bowling, Chris Schenkel who announced the PBA events for a number of years.
Not only has bowling disappeared but also for the most part pool halls. Those that are still around don't have true billiards tables any longer and unless one is wealthy enough (and has room enough in one's house) there are almost no opportunities to play 3 cushion billiards.

The 1970s aren't back far enough to be back in the day for me. In the 1950s, the bowling alley in our small town had maybe ten lanes and a several people whose job was to set the pins. Later we got a modern bowling alley with dozens of lanes and automatic pin setting, all in an air conditioned building. It was a fascinating place, filled with cigarette smoke and the smell of hot dogs and the constant sound of pins crashing. I dreamed of the day when I was old enough to join a team in the bowling league, and maybe one day becoming a celebrity in our town by bowling 300. I never joined a team and never became a celebrity. My dreams were dashed.

It is hard to fathom a sport that matches the dumbness and monotony of bowling. It's a bit like golf, if you were to move the course indoors and make every hole a 12' putt on a flat green.

Add in the specter of sticking your fingers in communal sweaty holes and renting communal sweaty shoes, and the sort of people who wouldn't think twice about this, and you get...well I guess you get $20k for being one of the best in the world.

I eagerly await Mulp's explanation that Reagan had something to do with bowling's decline.

30 comments and everyone tries to find the answer in bowling or football. Perhaps the answer is in us, humans. All of us were childs striving for dad's approval, thus any sport dad liked was the best in the world. Then comes the age when your dad is the more stupid guy in the world. The sport he likes is boring. These natural behaviors make social preferences unstable. Whatever is king today will be boring later.

The economics of bowling alleys changed on the supply side, too. All that land devoted to lanes, other infrastructure and parking needed to earn a return. As development continued, more retail and mixed use properties became more attractive than declining assets such as bowling alleys. When combined with the decline in larger employers and ready-made league candidates, bowling couldn't make the 7-10 split.

It's adaptation to a new technology. The NFL under Pete Rozell committed to television early and enthusiastically. They introduced product innovations like Monday Night Football and the Super Bowl, technological innovations like instant replay, process improvements such as running overtime to show the end of games (remember the famous Heidi game?) They promote their top players as independent draws, so that people are willing to watch out of market games they have no intrinsic rooting interest in. The game is well suited to highlight shows, so they benefited from the rise of ESPN.

Bowling has done almost none of that. It has no natural geographic rooting interests and semi-anonymous stars. It isn't well suited to highlight shows, and it hasn't introduced any new products comparable to MNF. I suppose that the Internet might make it easier to target hardcore fans for pay per view, but I don't know if they've been successful in doing so.

A lot of minor sports and small town social activities got decimated by the introduction of television. If you think of bowling as less of a TV sport and more of a leisure activity competing with TV, the decline of professional bowling makes a lot of sense.

There are at least two categories of sports consumption in the US. Entertainment sports are watched by people who rarely if ever participate in the sport themselves, while enthusiast sports are watched by people who do participate in the sport themselves.

Minor sports like cycling, bowling, billiards, etc tend to be enthusiast sports. Mass consumption sports like football, baseball, basketball, and boxing are entertainment sports. Golf is somewhere in the middle.

The era’s superstars -- Buzz Fazio (Stroh’s), Dick Weber (Budweiser), and like -- faced off on televised events that attracted millions of viewers. During one 1961 performance on ABC’s Make That Spare, pro bowler Don Carter won $19,000 ($149,000 in 2014 dollars), and a brand new Ford.

Tournaments, boxing matches and horse races were all commercialized early, because they're easy to organize and finance at a small scale. Sports with leagues, long seasons, and meaningful championships take a lot of investment and marketing before they hit their stride. People had to be persuaded to watch a football game on television, or to care about the standings. The NFL never really took off until they introduced the Superbowl (and thus the idea that the whole season was building to the coronation of an undisputed champion -- an innovation that many soccer leagues still haven't figured out!).

Two personal observations on bowling:

Bowling had/has a strong association with alcohol consumption. The increase in DUI enforcement has had a negative impact on such activities.

Bowling puts a lot of stress on the wrist. As a person who uses a computer all day, every day for my job, I can no longer bowl due to the impact of RSI.

Yeah...well, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

RUSSELL: No stories? So, what is it?

GEORGE: (Showing an example) What'd you do today?

RUSSELL: I got up and came to work.

GEORGE: There's a show. That's a show.

RUSSELL: (Confused) How is that a show?

JERRY: Well, uh, maybe something happens on the way to work.

GEORGE: No, no, no. Nothing happens.

JERRY: Well, something happens.

RUSSELL: Well, why am I watching it?

GEORGE: Because it's on TV.

RUSSELL: (Threatening) Not yet.

In the 1960s, being on TV was enough. Since the PBA was broadcast January to March, there was little else to do on a cold afternoon. A live sports show versus old movies and fishing show. With the advent of cable, there was choice.

It used to be cheap to go for a few games. No longer.

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