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Smallwood: The Anti-Tiger?

For quite some time, one of the favorite "magic bullet" solutions for "saving" bowling has been to find bowling's version of Tiger Woods. Then, suddenly, Tiger Woods' Red Giant of a star collapses and, shortly after that, a very unassuming and very unemployed auto worker from Detroit becomes PBA World Champion. So does the solution still apply? Does bowling need a Tiger Woods?

In the few days since Smallwood's victory in the World Championship, he's been shot out of the media's cannon like the next Hollywood "It" girl. His story is incredibly compelling and fascinating, having been laid off from his assembly line job by GM last Christmas, then giving the PBA Tour a go by earning an exemption in Tour Trials, then experiencing instant success here on Tour. Of course, the fact that he's a solid family man who dotes on his wife and kids helps, but what is it about this guy's story that's made him such a media darling?

Tiger Woods also had a meteoric rise to fame, although his story started quite some time ago. Most sports fans are familiar with the Tiger Woods legend: watching daddy hit balls into a net in the garage, appearing on the Mike Douglas show at age 3, boatloads of junior golf trophies, the storied amateur career, the Nike deal, the greatest decade-plus of performance in the history of golf which allowed Woods to become the world’s first billion-dollar athlete. It just so happened that he enjoyed the company of a few (well, at least 13 to be exact, but who’s counting?) strippers and cocktail waitresses while he was married. Is that so wrong?

A lot of people seem to think so. Accenture (who paid Woods oodles of money and built their entire marketing campaign around him) seemed to think so. Is Tiger going to lose some of what he’s earned (plus sacrifice some of his future earning ability) because of his behavior? I would guess he will. Why? Because the world has a funny way of punishing people for behavior they deem to be either hypocritical or just plain bad. Plus, it’s a lot harder to root for a guy to become the greatest ever when we know what a jerk he’s been in his private life.

Of course, regardless of what happens from here on out, Tiger still has that billion bucks in the bank, plus a portfolio of million-dollar homes, yachts and countless other untold items of value. He’s also done a great deal of good through his California-based foundation and other charitable involvements, and no one can take that away from him. But as far as his personal narrative is concerned, it’s certainly in a place he probably hoped it would never be at all.

That leads us back to Tom Smallwood, whose personal narrative is just now being written and downloaded into the collective consciousness of pop culture. Of course, Smallwood’s story is merely a drop in the ocean compared to the barrels and barrels of ink (and pixels) that’s been dedicated to Tiger’s story over the years. But now that Smallwood has secured a place on the Tour for at least the next two years, will his story continue to captivate the public and lead to more opportunities for himself and the PBA Tour? Or will the media and the public quickly forget about this story and relegate the PBA and its players (many of whom also have interesting and compelling stories to tell) to the backburner in favor of the next wave of feel-good or tawdry or violent or tragic celebrity stories? Has Smallwood even reached the level of “celebrity status” just yet?

In the December 21 issue of Newsweek, pop culture author Neal Gabler wrote a very insightful piece explaining our celebrity-obsessed culture, much of which focused on why we are so obsessed with hearing about the lives of celebrities. Interestingly enough, Gabler argues that it is more about our need to form, understand and validate our own personal philosophies of life than it is about any need or desire to obtain specific details about people we do not even personally know or are likely never to meet. In this construct, the celebrities act as stand-ins for (and furthermore, competitors to) other art forms like paintings, books, poetry, films, TV and music, which have somewhat lost the power to captivate us because of our growing cynicism and collective need for art that is ever more true to life. The ultimate structure that this cacophony of stories forms resembles a galaxy that we’re all viewing from far away…with the long-time, big, hot stars (think Oprah, Brangelina, Michael Jackson, Tiger) in the center, newly minted or cooler stars (think Kim Kardashian, John and Kate, Tyler Lautner, Helen Hunt) migrating from the center to the outer edges, and singular, novelty celebs (think Nadya Suleman, Balloon Boy, Tom Smallwood) jumping from the shore to the center back to the shore like flickering sparks.

Now that Tom Smallwood has entered this fray, his story will compete with others for space in print, on the web, and in the minds of the media and its voracious consumers of content. What is it that will keep Smallwood’s story relevant? It could be any number of things if we simply exercise our imaginations. Probably the best way for him to remain relevant is to keep winning but, of course, after a while people will grow bored with this story like they do with all others and his personal narrative will need to branch out or morph into something else (like details of his personal life, success in other arenas like a movie or book deal, or a fall back into personal or professional turmoil) to keep us entertained.

The good news for the PBA Tour is that the Smallwood story is exactly the kind of attention you prefer to have when you’re trying to introduce new people to your sport. One of the silliest things I’ve read on the PBA Message Boards in a long time (and quite a few silly things are to be found there pretty regularly) was someone suggesting that the PBA should try to gain attention by having Jason Belmonte or Walter Ray Williams Jr. purposely do something that would lead to them getting arrested or in some kind of personal trouble. The problem with that is, as great as those guys are, in the eyes of the public they’re no Tiger Woods so, the fall being much lower, the story’s not nearly as interesting to document.

Luckily, the PBA is full of guys who are more like Smallwood than Tiger, or any number of other athletes in the glamour sports (Football, Basketball, Baseball, Auto Racing, Hockey, etc.) whom we hear about in the Jurisprudence section of the newspaper on a daily basis. Plus, they’re just as competitive (and as entertaining to watch) when it comes to playing bowling as other athletes are in their sports. So, does the PBA need a Tiger Woods? Nope, but with more good stories like Tom Smallwood, the PBA will be just fine.

Jason Thomas
pba.com