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Are Today’s Bowling Scores Too High?

bowlingball.com continues our series of Editorial articles to express opinions about the bowling industry. Are today's bowling scores too high? This topic of discussion is the theme in this article. Most every experienced bowler with a sense of history for the game has discussed this topic at one time or another. Let's open with some history of bowling and hopefully make some conclusive points about this topic, "Are today's bowling scores too high?" Once you have read this article, please feel free to place your comments following the posting on our site and share your thoughts about today's scores and the scoring trends in the industry. By the way, you also can find other Editorial articles easily by referring to "Bowling Articles" at the "BowlVersity" section at our site.

Through the years, the bowling scores in league and in tournament play have increased. First, we witnessed gradual increases in the median bowling average scoring for all sanctioned bowlers in the country. As bowling became more and more popular in the 1960's with the advent of the PBA telecasts on ABC TV, the impact of junior programs in the 1960's was on the rise. Team bowling was at an all time high in popularity as evidenced by the Classic Team night competition at the ABC Open Championships where the pros bowled as teams on Classic Team night. The National Bowling League became defunct circa 1960 but had its moments of popularity because the best players in select cities in the country placed teams into the NBL and the players became highly acclaimed nationwide. Team bowling was extremely popular in both adult bowling and with junior programs during this era as well. The kids were becoming proficient at scoring in both leagues and in tournaments and the feeding mechanism into adult leagues was growing.

The decade of the 1970's brought to bear the evolution of bowling balls changing from rubber to polyester (plastic) coverstocks. The industry also introduced "Non-Red Label" lane finish products, finishes made of urethane compounds as opposed to the commonplace softer, more pliable lacquer based lane finishes used in the prior decade. The combination of the improvement in bowling balls and lane finishes contributed directly to higher bowling scores. With the lane surfaces in better shape than in previous years, the oiling patterns had a more positive effect on raising scores and lane maintenance people became far more knowledgeable about oiling conditions than ever before in history. The scores in league play in the 1970's began getting higher and higher and the spread between the Touring Pro and the top league amateurs in the country narrowed. Personally, I did not like this trend. If a Touring player on the PBA Tour averaged 208 for an entire career as lane conditions were controlled by the PBA for tournament play and a league player averaged 215 or higher for the bowling league season, the local fans could not truly differentiate between the talent levels of each player. A league bowler could out-average the touring pros - something fundamentally wrong with that notion in my view.

Circa 1968 on the PBA Tour, for example, Wayne Zahn was the high average player with just over a 208 average for the entire year in PBA competition and he used rubber bowling ball products. In 1971 and '72, Don Johnson averaged more than 210 and more than 212 in successive Bowler of The Year campaigns using plastic bowling balls. Although there were certain PBA events where rubber balls made a very high scoring impact such as in South Bend Indiana in 1971 where Barry Asher, another PBA Hall of Famer, averaged more than 247 for the week using a Swedish made rubber bowling ball, for the most part, the plastic ball dominated the tour as did urethane lane finishes on Tour and the scores were on the rise. In 1973, Don McCune, father of PBA Champion Eugene McCune, figured out chemically how to "soak" bowling balls to soften the surface hardness some 15% or so from normal manufactured hardness. This "soaker" era, albeit short lived, became the catalyst in developing the high friction surface bowling balls of the era which, in turn, offered greater hook potential, improved angles of entry, and improved pin carry.

Manufacturers were quick to figure out that bowling balls could be made to create increased surface friction and began using a variety of resins in the composition of the plastic ball coverstocks. The "bleeder" ball worked far better in oil than the standard non-bleeder resin plastic ball and the era of bowling balls for oily conditions and ones for dry conditions emerged and continued throughout the 1970's. Scores rose during that decade in comparison to the decade of the 1960's. Use of Surlyn coated bowling pins which made the pins livelier on the pin deck coupled with voids inside the pins and with lighter weighted pins are other factors which contributed to an overall higher pace of scoring than years prior. It was clear to see that with bowling balls improving, pins flying around the pin deck, and lane conditions becoming easier to score upon, the separation of skill levels further narrowed in the 1970's and in this authors mind, not a good trend.

Circa 1980, the first urethane bowling ball was introduced on the market and the real evolution of bowling balls was launched and has not stopped since. The urethane bowling ball replaced the usefulness of the "bleeder" resin plastic ball and created much increased surface friction and traction in oil than ever before. Scores on Tour were on the rise and scores in leagues among high average players were on the rise. A variety of urethane type bowling balls and the emergence in popularity of synthetic lanes was a combination which accommodated higher scores during the decade of the 1980's. Some centers in the 1980's with synthetic lanes and conditioned with a long oil distance, wet/dry patterns produced very high scores. In the summer of 1980, this author averaged 245 for a summer doubles league in Middletown, New Jersey with my brother-in-law, Roger Gardner of Somerset, N.J., as my partner and one night, we bowled 3094 for the combined 12 games of league and we both used Columbia Yellow Dot plastic bowling balls! Tell me lane conditions were not too easy; on my best day I was never that good of a player - ever!! That was in 1980. The trend of high scores was further established!

The prototypical player in that era became the power player. Although traditional direction players were still effective, the bowlers who hooked the ball far more than the traditional direction players became increasingly more dominant as the decade of the 1980's progressed. Mark Roth may have been the one player most associated with power and in influencing young bowlers to develop a similar game. Other power players on TV were experiencing enormous success as well as Mr. Roth, such as Marshall Holman, Mark Baker and Bob Handley to name just a few. As the decade moved along, not only PBA players were able to average close to or at 220 per game in PBA competition, averages in leagues were also rising and more and more 300 games were recorded than at any time in history prior to that decade. Same is true for the 800 series, a common place thing today in leagues across the country. For years, Allie Brandt from New York held the high three game series in the nation at 886 until Ray Orf of St. Louis broke that record with an 890 series. Ray was a friend of mine just as is Glenn Allison who was the first player to roll a 900 series in league play using a Columbia Yellow Dot plastic ball, for the record.

As the 1990's came around, the manufacturers introduced reactive resin urethane ball products much in the same pattern as "bleeder" plastic ball was introduced in the 1970's. Reactive resin bowling balls in the 1990's were the ultimate product to slide easily in oil and create a great deal of traction on the dry back ends of the lane. Bowlers in leagues as well as tournament players were developing techniques to use this modern equipment to their advantage and what do you think happened to bowling scores? Scores increased again and again! More 800 series's were recorded than ever in history to say nothing of the 900 series in league play. Scores were soaring and lane conditions allowed the scores to continue rising. Power players were hooking the ball across the entire width of the bowling lane on TV no high score seemed unattainable. Again, in my view, not a good trend for the sport.

In 1993, the USBC essentially gave license to proprietors to condition lanes as they saw best for their businesses. A short oil pattern was approved for use with a minimal volume of oil to the outside edges of the lanes was permitted. The use of a high blend of oil in the center of the lane and the control of the oil distance allowed proprietors freedom to condition lanes and control the pace of scoring in leagues and tournament play. The shorter distance oil pattern provided a strong bowling ball angle of entry into the pocket and along with the improving bowling ball equipment, made sure the pins were no match. Pin carry increased dramatically. Every bowling center boasted more 200 average league bowlers than ever before in history. The averages recorded by the Budweiser Team of the 1950's with Dick Weber, Ray Bluth, Pat Patterson, Don Carter, Whitey Harris and others, could not compare in league averages to the scores recorded by non-professional league players in the 1990's. Strike another sour moment in my stomach watching the scores soar as Hall of Famers were shoved aside in relative scoring of prior decades.

The scoring flood gates were opened and high scoring seemed to become the norm because of lane conditions primarily. However, the overall combination of high scoring lane conditions, improved lane surfaces, computerized lane machines, choices in oil viscosity, and improved bowling ball products launched the high scoring trend into the new century.

The past ten years or so since the year 2000, scores have remained high but some adjustments to lane oiling patterns have been provided by the industry and experimented with by USBC. The drive to form the original "Sport League" lane conditions evolved into PBA Experience league conditions and into new varieties of oiling patterns used on the PBA Tour to control the pace of scoring and allow competitive scoring at key PBA events to take precedent. In recent years, the USBC elected to develop three essential oiling patterns approved for use in sanctioned play: the Red pattern which is typically higher scoring league or house condition pattern, White patterns which are more lightly crowned and slightly more challenging conditions, and the Blue patterns which can be the more difficult scoring conditions of all for sanctioned bowlers. We have articles on the three USBC oil patterns posted in "BowlVersity section" of the site at bowlingball.com.

In this reporter's humble opinion, lane conditions influence the pace of scoring more so than all the marvelous technology in bowling balls. Both lane conditions and bowling balls together make the most serious impact on scoring but lane conditions are certainly the predominant reason we see the scores so high today when compared to past bowling generations. It is possible to use a lane oiling condition to keep scores low and contain the effectiveness of any bowling ball manufactured today. It is also possible to use a lane oiling pattern to augment extremely high scores and make best use of a wide range of excellent bowling balls available in today's market which accentuate the scoring to very high levels. Coupled with the technology in lane maintenance equipment and the choices in oils and cleaners of today, the sky is the limit in scoring.

It is not an easy solution if proprietors wish to contain the pace of scoring, however. We all know bowlers love to roll high scores and it is entertaining to do so. If a given center lowers the pace of scoring by implementing tougher oil patterns in sanctioned play, the bowlers who have been used to high averages might become disenchanted with lower average scoring and consider seeking other places to bowl out of shear disappointment. It has been well established that in the short run, high scores please customers. With the economic challenges in today's world, the number of league bowlers has dropped from a considerably high number of about nine million sanctioned bowlers twenty or so years ago to a combined two million men and women sanctioned bowlers today. Losing bowlers is the nightmare scenario for any proprietor and high scoring does have some influence in bowler retention.

As in any business, supply and demand effects pricing. The cost of a game of bowling today has risen considerably from twenty years ago and although bowling remains an affordable recreation for families, proprietors losing lines per bed per day because of potential changes in scoring conditions will have to raise prices. Raising prices will "tighten the noose" on folks who struggle to find disposable income to dedicate to bowling and may cause a continued reduction of the bowler count in America.


By dropping scoring and making more difficult scoring conditions the standard, each proprietor runs the risk of possibly losing more and more bowlers because of the phenomenon of being "shocked into a new reality of lower scoring" and experiencing fewer relative scoring successes. Unless all proprietors buy into wholesale scoring changes in unison and perhaps reduce the pace of scoring on a three to five year plan about 5% per year on average, then scores may continue to remain high for a long time to come. Traditionally, proprietors will follow their own business models and do what is in their own best interests and perhaps understandably so. The industry suffers from the loss of bowlers and high scores are not attracting new players to the game as was hoped. The answer for proprietors may be multi-phased but the short term fix of unrealistically high scores is not.

Athletes today are bigger, faster, stronger and are better educated and trained than athletes in past decades, granted. It is understandable to see improvement in bowling as in all sports. In bowling, the notion of high scores reducing the levels of difference between the professional and the top amateurs or between the top amateurs and lesser skilled players has been debated many times. Is it harder today to differentiate in skill levels between the professional bowler's accomplishments on challenging tournament lane conditions when watching them on TV as opposed to watching top local players each week in scratch leagues roll astoundingly high scores around the nation? Do highly skilled players need to tune their games as sharply to achieve a 220 league average today as it was to average 210 or 200 in years past? These questions and others have been discussed or debated for a very long time. It should be obvious I am not a proponent of high scores and I want to see the industry flourish. You have read my opinions, what is yours?

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