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Pro Bowling Seeks to Capture a New Generation of Audiences - 2002-12-08

It's no secret that professional sports is an extremely expensive business. Athlete salaries can top $20 million a year and if you want to own a team be ready to pay several hundred million dollars. But in Seattle, three new sports magnates have found a way to buy into more than just a team, they've bought an entire professional league and are working hard to return it back to its former glory.

It wasn't the most expensive sports deal in history. The price tag was a measly $5 million. For that, three former Microsoft employees now own the Professional Bowlers Association lock, stock and barrel.

The League holds the annual Earl Anthony Classic in suburban Seattle. The tournament, dedicated to perhaps the only professional bowler to become anything close to a household name, is part of the rebirth of professional bowling.

One of the new owners, Chris Peters, retired from Microsoft four years ago. He started bowling for fun and worked with the Pro Bowlers Association. That's when he learned it was in bad shape, financially. After sizing up other offers to buy the tour, he thought it would make an interesting investment.

"I talked to Mike Slate and Rob Glaser who are old-time Microsoft guys I had met in the early 80's, and I said, 'I think the PBA is for sale and for around 1/40th of what a major league basketball team would cost.' They said, 'Well, this just makes a ton of sense,'" he said.

On the plus side, the PBA has a rich 40-year history. It's a worldwide organization and at one time, commanded a sizeable TV audience. On the downside, in 2000, when Mr. Peters and his friends bought the League, it had been in decline for more than a decade. The major sponsorships and broadcast deals from the 1970's and early 80's were long gone. And the sport had neglected its fans, according to current PBA president Steve Miller.

"For about 10 or 15 years the PBA really suffered from a lack of marketing, a lack of communication, a lack of doing the sophisticated things other sports leagues were doing. While the NBA, the NFL, Major League Baseball were reconnecting to consumers, the PBA simply went to the restroom and didn't participate," Mr. Miller said.

The man who plans to bring the League out of the restroom has plenty of experience in the sports business. He used to direct worldwide marketing for the Nike sports apparel company. Mr. Miller acknowledges his surroundings have changed since his days at Nike, but he welcomes the new challenge.

"It's an enormous change, it's a long ways from the Queen's Box at Wimbledon to a bowling center. However, having said that, the reality is, that last year nearly 80 million Americans participated in bowling recreationally. So if you can gain some of that energy and transfer some it into the professional element, you have a chance to make a very profitable and meaningful business," he said.

Steve Miller's not going at this goal by himself. Two other former marketing executives from Nike are also at the PBA. The League negotiated a successful deal with an American cable channel to televise all the tournament finals live. People are watching again. Ratings were up 30 percent last year. Part of the draw is the new generation of pro bowlers.

"Anybody can do our sport, but at the level we do it, we are definitely the best athletes our sport has to offer," says Parker Bohn III, one of the top blowers on the tour. He won the overall title last year. At age 38, his career earnings are more than $2 million. A veteran on the tour after 17 years, he's confident the new PBA will carve out a lucrative niche in the professional sports world.

"I'm telling you right now, bowling is back, bigger and better than ever before, and it's going to grow, and if you want to grow along with it you better come and join the crowd," Mr. Bohn said.

How big a crowd? Professional bowling is moving some of its tournaments out of alleys and into 2000-seat arenas. The sport's players and promoters hope that within a few years Americans will be able to name at least one other pro bowler besides Earl Anthony.