Is bowling a test or a contest?

There are many debates on what makes up the game of bowling on bowling forums and in bowling circles. These discussions usually revolve around scoring pace, high tech balls, blocked lanes and even styles of players. But it seems to me, everyone, including sportswriters, tournament organizers, proprietors and even the leaders of bowling are confusing the issues when the real question we need to be asking and answering is, “what is bowling supposed to be, a test or a contest?”

It’s the same as taking a trip and asking “where are we going?” When that question can be answered, only then can a proper direction be decided upon. But even when the direction is known, the route can still be a debate. Do we take the slow route with lovely scenery or the quick highway? In bowling terms, do we take the show route or the sport route? Of course there is a time and place for both as long as we reach our destination and don’t get lost along the way.

When talking about scoring pace, we are referring to a test where the results should be an indicator of how a player did on any given day against a given set of difficulties. It should be a linear relationship; play better, score better. If the test does not work this way, it would not be fair, let alone valid.¹

When discussing the overall environment and saying "no matter what, good players will always come out on top,” we are referring to a contest where players are trying to solve a problem (take a test), but doing it better than at least one other similarly committed person (win a contest).²

In competitions when winners are decided, bowling for sure is a contest. But if we read the reporting of these contests, the stories are proliferated with average numbers, high games and record scores. Add to the fact that during these events many tournament organizers and proprietors request a certain scoring pace or cut score to those providing the challenge. And last, but not least, the US governing body has been awarding high score awards to its membership since the cows came home.

Therefore, on those fronts, instead of a contest, bowling is definitely perceived as a test. But is it a test for the center/proprietors, industry factions or the players?

If we read advertisements from the equipment manufacturers, it’s all about promoting their product by way of higher scores. Buy our product and your scores will be higher. It’s been this way since the early 1930’s during the pin war days. That era produced scores not seen again until the early 1990’s.

 On the league front, for many years now it seems to be all about this center scoring higher than the center across town, at least for those bowlers who scream the loudest. So over the year’s proprietors have been investing in a myriad of bowling equipment from pins, lane machines, lane conditioners and synthetic lanes all to provide their sporting customers with the highest scoring environment they can.

As more and more centers obtain these items, equalization will set in but you can be sure there will be something else around the corner to fuel the fire so they can score higher on “the test” than the center down the street.

While the industry and proprietors continue to test themselves by providing a higher scoring and easier environment, they are also making “the test” for the players much easier, on every level.

During the recent PBA King of Bowling, Wes Malott averaged over 276 for his five games shooting two 300 games in the process, on USBC Sport Conditions. And on a recent string of four tournaments on the PBA Senior Tour, in two of the events, the winners averaged 250 for the entire tournament. In another event there were 11 players that averaged over 240. By providing such a high scoring environment, some are concerned that the Senior Pro Tour is following down the path of everyday league bowling.  And we all know how much respect that "test" gets these days.

The increased scoring pace trend is not limited to the PBA Tours either. At a recent European Bowling Tour event utilizing dual oil patterns, which were both USBC Sport Compliant, three players cracked the 1500 barrier during the six game qualifying rounds. At the 2009 USBC Championships which also utilizes USBC Sport Conditions, the all events record was shattered with another 250 average performance and the singles record was broken with an 862 series.

Because there is an upper limit to the scoring system in bowling, when 300 games, 800 series’ and 250 plus tournament averages become common place, the test becomes invalid. So as much as some players, proprietors, tournament organizers and industry factions may like and wish high scores, high scores are only exciting, and therefore valid, when they are not common place and can be directly correlated to performance.

Of course there are ways to lower scores but that can swing the pendulum of sport performance too far into the other direction. The goal in sport is to provide a test that challenges the players but at the same time allows extraordinary performances to shine through. That critical balance however seems to be more and more difficult to achieve which is essential so the game of bowling remains a valid test in the eyes of the media, spectators and in the minds of the players. When the test becomes invalid, so can the contest. When the contest becomes invalid, we have lost the sport.

It could be said what most people like best about the game of bowling are the challenges against the environment more so than just against other people. In a study by Frank Thomas about the reasons people play and quit golf called ‘Growing the Game,’ for the great majority of golfers the personal challenge far outweighed competing against fellow golfers. Basically, the test is more important than the contest. I would believe this human nature trait would be the same for a similar game like bowling. But when a given set of difficulties are compromised as often as they seem to be in today’s game, then the game of bowling needs to take a hard look at the challenge it is providing.

Fair or not, and knowing the monetary pressures that can be put upon them, the leaders of the sport must ensure the test, as well as the contest, remains fair and valid. It is the task they have chosen and their responsibility to the game. More importantly it is their responsibility to the people taking the test, the players, so the challenge is preserved.

After all, when was the last time you played tic-tac-toe?

¹Kretchmar, R. Scott. Ethics and Sport.  London, U.K. Published by Taylor & Francis, 1998. pp.27, 28
¹Kretchmar, R. Scott. Ethics and Sport.  London, U.K. Published by Taylor & Francis, 1998. pp.28

Ted Thompson

Ted Thompson began his career in the bowling business in 1976 at the age of 15 working for the Florida based Galaxy Lanes chain. Beginning from the ground up in center operations, he has also been a long time Pro Shop proprietor, 40 lane center General Manager, PBA National Tour player, multi PBA Regional Champion, PBA Player Services Director, and even a bowling writer. Since 2004 he has been working with Kegel.

Ted has also coached bowling on many different levels. From basic Learn to Bowl classes and private lessons while in the Pro Shop business, he was also head coach for Florida State University, countless PBA professionals, and even coached Lisa Wagner to her last Player of the Year award in 1993. While working for the PBA, the late great Dick Weber even asked for some of his time. An experience Ted says "he will always cherish". Dick immediately won a Senior Sweeper and gave him $300. It was the most Ted ever received for an hour lesson, and it came from one of the greatest players of all time.

Recently, Ted has been deeply studying topography and the effects it has on ball motion. He is also on the Kegel Team helping make decisions for many of the oil patterns Kegel uses in competitions world wide, which has led to further development of Kegel's lane machines. Ted has a complete and unique understanding of bowling from many different sides.

Ted also named the world's and Kegel's most popular lane machine the "Kustodian ION" (pronounced "EON" in Europe) and spearheaded the creation of Kegel's Navigation Oil Patterns. The creativity may be heredity. In 1968 Ted's father created the famous Dodge Super Bee logo and spearheaded that marketing campaign.