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Where Are The Scratch Bowling Leagues

bowlingball.com continues presenting Editorial articles with the spotlight in this feature on where are the bowling scratch leagues.

Bowling scratch leagues are a thing of the past. Once the most popular competition in every city across the country, scratch leagues have all but vanished.

To try and get a rough idea in given ares of the country how many scratch leagues are still contested weekly, I contacted several personal friends in states such as New Jersey, Illinois, California, Arizona, Florida, and Michigan. It has been reported that scratch leagues are virtually a thing of the past. Although a select few scratch leagues still exist, the numbers are greatly reduced from years past.

Once upon a time, every bowling center in America held scratch leagues for the best bowlers in town so they could compete as teams and test their skills against one another. Team bowling was at an all-time high and scratch leagues were a big part of team bowling popularity. In many, many cities, 9:00 pm scratch leagues were the most popular events because spectators could gather to watch the best players in the city battle for bragging rights.

Team bowlers used to frequently wear uniforms to advertise team sponsors who contributed to the league prize funds which, in turn, made scratch team bowling lucrative.

Bowlers would join several scratch leagues at different centers to get the feel for various competitive bowling environments. It was not uncommon to see the same team entered in multiple scratch leagues throughout most metropolitan cities.

Team match game competitions were also popular events where the best players in the bowling centers would compete in a special 3-game team match competition representing the centers. As in many of the leagues, match team players would wear uniforms and draw huge spectator support watching the best players find out who the best teams in the city were.

By the end of the 1960’s, team bowling was on the rise everywhere and was the chief feeding mechanism for the ABC (now USBC) National Tournament. The Nationals had Classic and Regular divisions with the Classic division being extremely competitive.

In fact, the special team night was generally composed of 40 teams with all of the PBA and regional professionals and champions competing against one another for three games with the top six teams advancing to the finals to determine an eventual winning team. Each team had prolific sponsors and represented many of the same sponsors who supported the PBA National Tour.

Team night at the ABC Tournament was a huge event and often would fill the stands with 5 - 7 thousand fans watching their favorite players across the auditoriums throughout America each year.

Over time, however, we began to see a diminishing number of scratch leagues until they became virtually extinct. Many reasons are attributed to the vanishing scratch league phenomenon.

Higher and higher bowling scoring conditions placed too wide of a gap in team averages so lower average teams were so far behind than high average teams they could not remain competitive.

For example, in the 1960’s a five-man team average near or slightly over 1000 per game was seen as the top or nearly top team in the league and at most bowling centers. A team averaging 960 per game, a respectable average in those years, was close enough in average to remain competitive with the top teams and made for exciting matches which often produced lesser teams winning the matches.

Today, there are teams averaging more than 1100 so any team with a 1000 - 1020 team average trails the top teams considerably and generally are not competitive. Thus the advent of the handicap leagues that replaced the premier scratch leagues.

Everyone understands why scores are high today. Bowlers today are more knowledgeable about the game and use superior bowling ball equipment compared to the equipment used in rubber ball and plastic ball eras. The lane surfaces are improved because lane machines are computerized and programmed to clean the lanes on the pass down the lane and apply specific and accurate predetermined oil patterns on the way back to the foul line.

For these reasons, scores are extremely high in comparison to years past. Another sad factor why we see fewer quality leagues today than in years past, is that there are only 2 million or fewer men and women combined league bowlers today compared to ten or eleven million in bowling’s “heyday.”

Another reason causing diminishing numbers of scratch leagues is bowling bracket wagering. Bowlers became so obsessed with winning money by gambling during leagues and tournaments, that the glory of bowling for the sake of the team came in a distant second in value.

In 1960, the advent of the PBA Tour began to take away from the impact of team bowling. Prior to the PBA Tour, there actually was a professional league which had representative teams from various cities across America. This league was known as the National Bowling League and had many of the era’s most popular stars representing teams in the league. The NBL had sponsors for every team and was a logical extension of scratch league team bowling, except it was presented on a national stage.

In 1980, the Megabuck tournaments were first introduced in Las Vegas which actually offered a $1,000,000 first place prize, $500,000 for 2nd place, $250,000 for third place, and $125,000 for the fourth place finisher.

All the PBA professionals were banned from this competition. I know, I was one banned from bowling and having a chance at huge prize money after bowling for many years for relatively small prize funds in tournaments across America.

The thing that stood out was the same promoters tied to this new Megabucks promotion were also tied to the PBA which banned its own pro bowlers from breaking up the future of this new Megabuck tournament concept.

The Megabuck tournaments were not team events but rather individual events. Following the Megabuck tournaments were the amateur tournament clubs using handicap to give everyone a fair and equitable chance of winning at local levels thereby avoiding the cost of traveling and competing against the best amateur players in the world.

These tournament clubs still do well today and are still predominantly individual events. The compilation of these events for the individual bowler squeezed life from the notion of team competitive bowling other than in the USBC National event of county and city events.

It's no surprise that after the World Team Challenge, (a great idea for an amateur team event where players competed on a national stage that later declined and was eventually disbanded), that no team national tournament promotion came along to replace it. Only today are there plans on the PBA circuit to include team bowling competition. What took so long???


Personally, I believe the final straw that diminished the magnitude of team bowling and league bowling, was the proprietors themselves who advocated recreational and social bowling replacing league bowling. The reduced emphasis on junior bowling at the grade school, high school, and collegiate levels also contributed to the demise of league bowling.

Finally, families needed multiple incomes in their households to battle economic challenges in the country which, in turn, contributed to losses in league bowlers and league bowler frequency as years passed and we entered the new millennium.

So here we are witnessing the endangered species of scratch leagues today.

Perhaps you have additional thoughts or ideas about why we no longer see scratch bowling leagues in most cities across America. If you have a comment and if you think the industry needs to readdress team bowling and how and why it should promote team and league bowling, please feel free to comment below this article and the associated video.

We welcome your proactive comments and please be reminded that we are interested solely in promoting the betterment of our game.

Thank You!

Rich Carrubba
bowlingball.com