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Can Bowling Win Over the ‘Lebowski’ Generation?

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It all came down to the white man with the giant Afro. Kyle Troup lifted a hand to get the crowd juiced, then closed his eyes. He picked up his multicolored Storm bowling ball from the ball return. “It’s my time,” he said. “It’s my time.” Facing a single roll that could win or lose the match, Troup felt excited, like an Olympic athlete in the clutch. Telling the story later, he pointed at his forearm and said, “I get chill marks just thinking about it!”

If everything you know about bowling comes from The Big Lebowski or your 10th birthday party, Troup is exactly what you want a pro bowler to be. Last Wednesday, Troup paired his planetary Afro with a green shirt and dark green plaid pants, which made him look like an old tin of Christmas cookies. After one orgasmic strike, he pulled an Afro pick out of his pocket, autographed it, and handed it to a young woman standing in the front row. Troup is a second-generation bowler who followed his dad to the PBA tour. His dad’s name is Guppy.

If everything you know about bowling comes from The Big Lebowski or your 10th birthday party, Troup is exactly what you want a pro bowler to be. Last Wednesday, Troup paired his planetary Afro with a green shirt and dark green plaid pants, which made him look like an old tin of Christmas cookies. After one orgasmic strike, he pulled an Afro pick out of his pocket, autographed it, and handed it to a young woman standing in the front row. Troup is a second-generation bowler who followed his dad to the PBA tour. His dad’s name is Guppy.

This mise-en-scène is so attractive to hypothetical Midwestern diner-goers that Pete Buttigieg has made bowling a campaign prop. But what works in Iowa and New Hampshire can be deadly elsewhere. For two decades, the decline of bowling leagues has been a sociologist’s shorthand for the crack-up of American civic society. GoBowling.com’s tagline—“the original social network”—sounds a little like a person deciding late in life to be extremely online.

But two things changed, putting bowlers like Troup in a different light. Viewers watching his climactic roll on FS1 saw more than the old shot of the ball traveling up the lane. Fox put a red tracer on the ball, like they do tee shots at the U.S. Open. So viewers followed Troup’s ball as it started right, flirted with the gutter, and then broke at the sixth board before making its journey to the “pocket” between the 1 and 3 pins. Viewers knew Troup’s ball reached a speed of 19.4 miles per hour (very fast) and moved at a rate of 504 revolutions per minute (very powerful). All the data gave an analytics-friendly spin to Troup’s proclamation that “I just dead-laced it.”

The crowd in Portland wasn’t a church-pews bowling crowd. Bayside Bowl was filled with beer-swigging late-30-to-early-40-somethings who think of Lebowski as a sacred text. They didn’t care about bowling decorum. As Troup held his ball, they chanted, “The Troup, the Troup, the Troup is on fire!” One Portland regular, whose league name is White Russian, was wearing a Santa outfit. On Thursday, she showed up at Bayside in full Maude Lebowski Viking regalia. Her friends wore bowling pins on their heads.

“It has become this comfort food of sports. You watch it. You’re happy. You’re placated. You’re not taken too high or too low.” —Rob Stone, play-by-play announcer

Fox, White Russian, and Troup’s Afro are part of a grand experiment. Bowling might never recover the 9.0 ratings it pulled down on ABC in the three-network era. But it might become a cable innings eater, like ESPN’s poker tour was 15 years ago, with its own collection of stars. What Fox wants is for a member of the Lebowski generation to stumble across bowling and say, “Oh, yeah, that’s the guy with the hair.”

Holding his ball, Troup stared straight ahead. He rolled. He got nine, the exact score the Lumberjacks needed to win. When athletes celebrate, they tend to grab the guy who won the game by both sides of his head and scream. The Lumberjacks’ manager took a few steps toward Troup, grabbed both sides of his Afro, and shook it in giddy celebration.

Bowling has been on television for 57 consecutive years. Its announcers have included ABC’s amiable Chris Schenkel, Mel Allen, and even ex-Dodger Leo Durocher. Before the age of HDTV, bowling had an advantage over big sports: Where those looked like a mess of dots on the screen, a bowler’s ecstasy and agony could be savored. Today, Fox shows the same replay for a Troup miss—a super-slow-mo shot of his face slowly turning downward—as it does for an Aaron Rodgers interception.

Last year, as the PBA was winding up its contract with ESPN, a certain malaise settled over the tour. “It was just going through the motions and then waiting to see when this thing was going to fail,” said Randy Pedersen, a Fox analyst and Hall of Fame bowler. “How long was it going to be before this thing just takes a big, giant deuce and then what do we do?”

Last spring, when Fox acquired the rights, it gave bowling the same embrace it once gave neglected sports like hockey. “They needed to be held, they needed to have their head petted and told they’re beautiful and shiny,” said Rob Stone, Fox’s bowling play-by-play announcer. On December 23, Fox aired the PBA Clash after an NFL single-header and drew an audience of 1.8 million viewers. The next month, Joe Buck plugged the PBA during a playoff game. “I wasn’t even sure Joe Buck knew what bowling was,” the English bowler Stuart Williams told me.

Because it gets little coverage in newspapers or on SportsCenter, bowling tournaments are evergreen. Fox can replay them 10 times, just as ESPN once did poker. “That is how you become a household name if you’re a pro bowler,” said Norm Duke, who won twice on tour this year. “You want to be on television every dadgum day. You want to be like a soap opera.”

“It has become this comfort food of sports,” said Stone. “You watch it. You’re happy. You’re placated. You’re not taken too high or too low.”

Back in the ’60s, Schenkel lent bowling an NFL-style gravitas. Stone comes from a different school of play-by-play. Stone calls bowling like he’s working alongside Jason Bateman in DodgeBall. After a bowler named Anthony Simonsen rolled a nine-count in one frame of this year’s playoffs, Stone said, “Stupid 10 pin left standing. Worst pin in the business!” Later, he said: “Seriously, 10 pin, what is your problem today? … The 10 pin is my enemy.”

If Kyle Troup is like a fantasy of a bowler, Stone is a fantasy of a bowling announcer. He is part super-fan, part purring psychologist: “That’s how you do it, Sean. … Keep it cool, Billy. Keep it cool, kid. … That was so smooth, so clean. … Hambone, yeah!”

This spring, when Bill “The Real Deal” O’Neill rolled six straight strikes to start a match, Stone and Pedersen had this exchange:

Stone: "Hey, Randy. You thirsty?"
Pedersen: "I am."
Stone: "Crack open that six pack!"

Tom Clark, the PBA commissioner, said he gets angry letters about Stone from traditionalists, and some of them appear to have been composed on typewriters. “When I was competing, it was a lot drier,” Pedersen said of the commentary. “They tried to make it a golf thing. We realized it’s just not that animal. This is an entertainment.”

-As reported by Bryan Curtis in The Ringer on July 25th.

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