PBA sees Fox Sports TV deal as a game changer
Bowling’s popularity in the U.S. can be closely tied to the prominence of the pro game on television.
PBA / PBA50
(1958 / 1981, as the PBA Senior Tour)
No. of stops: 16 / 13
National TV: CBS Sports Network and ESPN (Fox Sports deal will begin in 2019)
PBA Majors: PBA Tournament of Champions; Barbasol PBA Players Championship; USBC Masters; U.S. Open; PBA World Championship
PBA50 Majors: PBA50 National Championship presented by Spanish Springs Lanes and Radical; USBC Senior Masters; Suncoast PBA Senior U.S. Open presented by Storm; PBA50 Cup presented by DV8
Other major sports sponsorships: PGA Tour Barbasol Championship (Lexington, Ky.); MLB, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians
Other major sports sponsorships: None
Other major sports sponsorships: Geico Bassmaster Classic presented by GoPro;
NASCAR Monster Energy Cup No. 13 Chevrolet; NHL and 21 clubs; MLB and 14 clubs; nine NBA teams; 16 NFL teams; multiple college athletic programs
Other major sports sponsorships: Associate sponsor of Stewart-Haas Racing’s NASCAR Monster Energy Cup No. 10 team; NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Go Bowling! at The Glen race at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International; Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 00 Ford Mustang in the Go Bowling! 250 NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Richmond (Va.) Raceway
Other major sports sponsorships: None
United States Bowling Congress
Other major sports sponsorships: None
Professional Women’s Bowling Association
(1960; folded after the 2002 season; relaunched in 2015)
Headquarters: Antwerp, Ohio
No. of stops: 14
National TV: CBS Sports Network
Majors: USBC Queens, U.S. Women’s Open, PWBA Players Championship and PWBA Tour Championship
Other major sports sponsorships: NFL and eight teams; Nationwide Arena in Columbus; PGA Tour the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide; NASCAR Hendrick Motorsports; NASCAR JR Motorsports
Other major sports sponsorships: NFL and 16 teams; NBA and 10 teams; NHL and 12 teams; 10 MLB clubs; WNBA and four teams; USTA; PGA of America; Pepsi Center in Denver
Source: SportsBusiness Journal research
During the 1960s, the PBA Tour was being broadcast on Saturday afternoons on ABC and typically outdrew NCAA basketball and football, with the sanctioning body aligning with several blue-chip sponsors. A 1963 Sports Illustrated story said the top bowler at the time, Harry Smith, made more money that year than Y.A. Tittle and Sandy Koufax combined.
At his 2017 PBA Hall of Fame induction, former PBA Commissioner Mark Gerberich’s comments summed up the tour’s precipitous fall from popularity on TV. “In 1991, we got $200,000 a show, which went into the prize funds. A year later, we got $50,000. In 1997, we were paying $150,000 to stay on TV, so I understand exactly the difficulties the PBA faces,” he said, according to a PBA recap of the event.
After being with ESPN for the last 18 years the PBA is looking toward its new deal with Fox Sports to bring a jolt to the sport and the professional game.
“The Fox Sports deal is the biggest thing that has happened for the PBA since 2000,” said PBA CEO and Commissioner Tom Clark, referring to when the PBA was acquired by three former Microsoft executives. “When they took ownership of [the PBA], it breathed new life into it, which allowed us to relaunch with ESPN. This is our next big step for the organization.”
Clark, who has been with the PBA since 2008 and was named to his current position in 2013, said the sport has perhaps never been in a better position to grow its audience on television.
“If people think about bowling on TV as the days of the PBA with Chris Schenkel on ABC, it’s a totally different day,” Clark said. “A lot of it has to do with technology, but most of it has to do with the way the game is played today — the action of the bowling ball and the pins is more dramatic and exciting that at any time in the history of the game.”
However, Clark said, the PBA needs to further develop identifiable stars, which is where Fox Sports comes in.
Under the terms of the deal, Fox Sports will air four PBA Tour shows on its broadcast network, with 25 others appearing on Fox Sports 1, totaling 58 hours of coverage. In comparison, ESPN in the 2017-18 season deal saw about 17 competitions and 30 hours of programming air across ESPN or ESPN2, 12 of which were rebroadcasts of events that streamed live via the ESPN app.
“The ability to have more exposure to more people and to give our best players and best platforms on broadcast television, these are the types of things that will help define our players to a wider audience, and then anything can happen from there,” Clark said. “Once you have people everyone can identify with, things will grow in many ways.”
Part of the goal of the new deal is to “Foxify” the sport and the PBA, adding new elements and upgrading production features that aim to elevate the sport on television.
“The unique thing about bowling is that most people have bowled, but they don’t know the intricacies of the sport,” said Bill Wanger, Fox Sports executive vice president of programming, research and content. “Whether it’s the oil on the lane, the groove the balls create on the lane or the technology of the ball itself, there are ways we can showcase that and enhance the coverage to show the skill these players have.”
Wanger said that could come in the form of new camera angles, added audio on and around the lane, and introducing technology that could better track the ball and its speed.
A new bracket-style tournament will be introduced between April and June next year. The tour’s annual celebrity tournament, the CP3 PBA Celebrity Invitational, is typically one of the PBA’s most popular shows and attracts the youngest viewers (see related story, Page 21). It will be moved to Super Bowl Sunday on Fox.
Clark said “almost every single thing is on the table for us” in the new deal with Fox Sports. “We’re not afraid to take risks or try things, and we think one of our strengths has been our flexibility,” he said.
Some ideas include bringing back player ear buds, so they can talk to announcers during games — something the PBA had done several years ago before discontinuing it — or having players wear Google Glass or other cameras so that viewers can see what the players see. Fox Sports also aims to increase the amount of shoulder programming around the PBA, taking deeper behind-the-scenes looks at players and their lives both on and off the lanes.
Fox Sports is also taking over sponsorship sales for the PBA, a change from its deal with ESPN and something both sides think will bring new sponsors into the sport.
“One of the advantages with something like the PBA is that it’s approachable, and you don’t have to commit tens of millions of dollars if you want to sponsor the PBA,” said Ed Desser, president of Desser Sports Media, who represented the PBA in negotiating the Fox deal. “Bowling is a piece of Americana, and it appeals to people in the heartland as well as on the coasts. It’s a good product to bridge that gap.”
He said the approach Fox Sports has taken with properties in recent deals, such as the NHRA, shows that it can help increase a property’s audience by altering some aspects of the telecasts.
“Bowling was the original made-for-TV sport,” Desser said. “I think it’s a product that has been unappreciated and really hasn’t gotten the kind of respect that it deserves — it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like bowling.”