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Guest column: Veteran pro shop owner Rob Bailey on USBC’s latest proposed ball specifications

JEFF RICHGELS | Posted: Monday, March 5, 2018 9:00 am

Note from Jeff Richgels: There are few issues of higher interest in bowling than possible new ball specifications from the United States Bowling Congress.

In this story last month, I detailed the updated proposed specification and rule revisions USBC sent in January to bowling ball manufacturers, who have until March 15 to offer feedback to USBC, which said it “anticipates that its review will continue and that it will likely publish a final set of standards in the USBC Equipment and Specifications Manual in mid-2018.”

This jibes with my Jan. 22 story that said the possible new ball technology rules were not a done deal, although some posts on social media had detailed new rules that supposedly had been agreed to.

As I detailed in this story back in April, USBC made it clear early last year that it was working toward proposing more stringent ball technology rules, likely in early 2018.

In this story in December, I detailed how USBC was looking at lowering the differential maximum to 0.45 or 0.44 from the current maximum of 0.60, which would outlaw most current high-end balls.

And in this story a few days later, I detailed the proposed oil absorption test that USBC had sent to ball manufacturers for review. While two technical experts who reviewed the procedural PDF said it had too large an error rate to be scientifically valid, I later learned that there was more to the coverstock test than the PDF contained and that the actual error rate is low enough to be scientifically valid. The original story now notes that and I will do another story explaining it if and when I'm able to get the rest of the story.

The January letter stemmed from the ensuing give and take between USBC and the ball companies after the initial proposals sent to them in November that I wrote about in those December stories.

One group that could be dramatically impacted by new specifications are pro shop owners, so needless to say they are taking a keen interest in the topic.

Rob Bailey is a long-time pro shop owner and former long-time PBA Regional player who is widely respected for his knowledge of the sport and ball drilling. He has an awesome building on his land in the Madison suburb of Sun Prairie that contains two USBC certified lanes and a full pro shop.

He sent me the column below as a commentary on the January USBC updated proposed specifications, and I agreed it was worth sharing with my readers. He welcomes feedback at  [email protected].

Reasons to keep current USBC ball specifications
By Rob Bailey

Back in December, 1995, I was quoted in an article suggesting that the ABC let its guard down when it allowed reactive resin.  This was such an improvement in bowling balls that a pancake weight block R.R. ball would have won every major tournament before 1991.  Certainly the advent of high tech weight blocks added to the power of the balls, as it had with urethane ones such as the Brunswick Phantom, AMF Ultra Angle, and others.  The rollback on differential and RG to current USBC specs was helpful, and customers did not know the difference at that point, plus old balls were grandfathered in.  There was no rush to stock up old balls with low RGs or high differentials at that time.

Extra holes have been around a long time and I remember using them as early as 1975 for static weight purposes.  In 1980 I drilled an extra hole that changed a Yellow Dot so much it went from a spare ball to the best ball I had.  I could not duplicate this with simple static weight changes.  I also had a Columbia Black U-Dot with a 1 3/8 extra hole on the axis point (for PBA use) that made this ball very dynamic for me.  I now use extra holes to fine tune balls I drill for customers. I drill balls with symmetrical weight blocks so they are legal without the extra hole initially, and add the hole if necessary after they bowl with it.  A small hole 3 inches deep is usually all it takes to get the desired reaction.  Balls with asymmetrical weight blocks usually require an extra hole to keep static weights in line so we can drill the desired layout. The USBC wants to take this tool out of the hands of the PSO.  Suggestion:  Make the maximum extra hole diameter smaller!

So what has Reactive Resin, dynamic weight blocks and asymmetrical weight blocks, with the ability to use extra holes, done for the bowler?  In short, along with better lane care and conditioning, it has brought the lower average (175-205) bowlers up to a higher level.  They enjoy the game much more, have bigger arsenals than ever before, and can get a 700 or occasional 300, and are therefore bowling in more leagues.  They are much more excited about bowling, and many of these are older bowlers that never had this success when younger.  We may have less bowlers today, but bowlers have much more equipment.  I used to take 6 balls to a PBA tournament years ago.  I doubt if that would be half enough now.  The average bowler has a spare ball and 3 or 4 balls of various performances.  Many have much more than that.  And with this, you get bag sales, better shoes with interchangeable slides, and all of the other accessories needed to stay in the game.

I should note that these higher scores are not all due to better bowling balls. High scoring factors include 1) more uniform and repeatable oiling conditions than before (thanks to higher end lane machines and strippers such as Kegel and Brunswick). 2) much better lane surfaces than ever before.  Replacing wood with synthetic has eliminated finish breakdown, oil absorbing into the heads, and the idiosyncrasies and sanding, screening, and finishing.  3) players with a stronger physical game, 4) the drive for high scores by proprietors who want to keep happy bowlers around their centers, 5) a lack of checking lanes for legal oiling conditions, 6) Junior bowling programs and all of the training videos, bronze, silver and gold coaches, high school programs, and college programs.  There is no comparison with the talent level today as opposed to 30 or 40 years ago.  These kids are good and throw the ball so much better.  And now you have the 2-handers who can get polyester to cover 30 boards.  I would be willing to bet that the non-equipment factors in this paragraph have far more to do with improved performance over and above ball improvements.

As a little proof, it is not hard to control scoring by putting a little oil in the right place.  I am not a fan of sport shots as it relies so much on oil breakdown and who is playing the lanes with you. It negates a good bowler who is bowling with others who are inconsistent or destroying the pattern.  Having 2 lanes of my own, now updated to a Brunswick Pro-Lane surface, and oiled with a Kegel Sanction Machine, I watch thousands of bowlers come in here for the first time and throw their balls hard right or left into the gutter not too far from the arrows.  This is because they are used to house shots that have 3 units or LESS of oil on the outside boards.  All I have to do is put down a shot that is a 7, 8, 9 or 10 to 1, with 6-10 units on the outside.  Once the bowler understands how to play the lane based on oil length instead of width, they figure it out and do better. 

Weight Blocks, Extra Holes, Static Weights from a PSO point of view:

There is certainly a lot to be said about matching bowlers up with the right equipment for their game and their bowling conditions.  A good pro shop operator watches his customers throw, evaluates rev rate, axis rotation, tilt, and positive axis point all related to ability and potential ability.  Certainly ball strength is a factor, but balls and patterns that save energy work far better for some people, and balls that roll early and burn faster work for others.  The biggest thing I see to improve a bowler is proper fit.  Without this, nothing else matters a whole lot.  As a PSO, I weigh every ball to make sure it is legal on static weights, and I spin balls on a D’Terminator to check new ones for accuracy of PSA markings.  I also spin drilled balls so I can keep track of everyone’s ball specs.  This is very helpful, as, to know where you what to go, it helps to know where you’ve been.  I notice that static weights do not mean a lot, but in light weight balls they have a much bigger effect.  They also make a big difference in balls with a pancake weight block.  Also, did you ever see a kid roll a light weight ball with 3 ounces or more of top weight?  It usually will not stay on the lane.  I also have had fun rolling balls down a ramp with little kids, and how you put that polyester ball on the ramp makes quite a difference in how and where it rolls.  It stands to reason that 3 ounces of side weight may not make a difference in a ball with a big, high differential weight block, but it would in low differential weight blocks.

As a PSO, I deal with balls that have long pins, short pins, high top, low top, and PSA’s lined up to the right or left, to the extent that I carefully choose the right ball.  Extra holes save the day on asymmetrical balls to get statics correct and aren’t really needed to make them stronger.  Extra holes allow us to lay out symmetrical weight block ball balls and make them a little more dynamic, but not to the level of asymmetrical weight block balls.  Someone who throws a modern day spinner (track less than 7 inches) is saved by this drilling technology.  Also, full-rollers benefit tremendously from modern weight blocks when drilled properly.  What I find in general is that high end, high rev players use less high-end asymmetrical equipment and more symmetrical weight block balls with lower differential, and also less extra holes. 

No-thumbers almost always use an extra hole (with no thumb hole of course).  Some no-thumbers may use their thumb for spares, but it’s basically an extra hole otherwise.  Also, they can put their fingers in differently and shift the ball on their hand and get a totally different reaction with the same ball.  This seems hardly fair as players using a thumb cannot do that.

Medium rev players that need to save energy use more symmetrical weight block balls with lower differentials.  There is a place for high-end higher differential balls but most of the top averages in our association, and many of the top scores do not come from their use.  That is because the higher rev players, or average rev players bowl on easier shots that do not require such equipment.

As a PSO, my business has grown tremendously due to out-servicing and out-performing the competition.  I have better drilling equipment and better training for my partners.  Also, the typical bowler today has 3-6 balls and may get that many a year.  That didn’t happen before we had the selection of all of this good equipment.  I have made a huge investment, even having the 2 lanes, to do things as best as possible for my customers.  I can only imagine what would happen if a ball rule took effect that eliminated static weight restrictions, or allowed them to go to 3 ounces of imbalance instead of 1. This would put even more pressure on shops as customers will want 3 ounces of side weight, and ball selection will be very difficult. 

If extra holes are eliminated, there will be more balls with asymmetrical weight blocks used, increasing customer cost.  Pro shops will start drilling extra holes deep and plugging them with much lighter plug to still get the extra hole effect.  Who’s going to police that?  Plus, scores won’t change, because it’s how they are oiled, remember?  Right now, all ball companies make great equipment and there is a lot to choose from.  Ball companies do so much to support this sport, from sponsoring tournaments on the city and state level, to providing better prices for college bowlers, to pushing each other on better coverstock and weight block technology, besides providing training and information to PSO’s.  I suppose I won’t need a ball scale if 3 ounces of imbalance is allowed. The D’Terminator will be important to re-spin the balls with the extra “plug” hole. 

I can see these potential changes hurting bowing as we know it, along with pro shops and ball companies.  I do not see an upside.  My customers are not going to want to get rid of their balls with extra holes in 2 years.  I will be plugging a lot of extra holes with light weight plug.  Do I charge USBC for this, or does the customer charge them?  The USBC currently has a good, solid set of rules for ball specs.  It seems very short-sighted to change these equipment rules when the culprit for high scoring is how the lanes are oiled.  You cannot regulate or even make a slight dent in scoring by doing this.  As ABC/USBC members, one of the benefits we paid for was having lanes checked for compliance in conditioning.  This needs to come back at least to some degree.  The integrity of the game now hangs on oiling patterns, not equipment.


An easy lane conditions is like playing a shorter set of tees in golf.  There is nothing wrong with that, but in bowling, it will reduce your handicap!  Bowling centers need an incentive to promote more competitive bowling.  Right now they compete for customers by providing the highest scoring condition.  Bowlers are averaging 230 that don’t come close to this in tournaments.  It really only hurts the bowler as their average is too high.

Give out 300 and 800 awards again only on conditions that meet “Award Requirements.”  This could be an 8, 9, or 10:1 ration with a minimum of 6, 7, or 8 units of oil on the outside boards to where the machine starts to buff.  Before you know it, good bowlers will migrate to leagues that do this, and scores will be reported accordingly.  It’s a great place to start because there is no awards now as the scoring is so out of hand.  This way centers that want to do it the old way, can. It can be a choice of the league to determine if they want to be rewarded for a high score. Bowlers in the easy leagues will have higher averages and be at a disadvantage in tournaments. 

This would change the face of bowling.  Leagues should be rated, not houses, unless the house wants to comply in all leagues — GOLD STAR HOUSE, AWARDS LEAGUE.  Sport shots are fine but they rely heavily on lane breakdown which will have a lot to do with whom you bowl with.  You can still have these, and Challenge leagues, but a basic USBC compliant league condition needs to be established for awards.  You can even charge more for this sanction.  Also, sanction fees should be charged by the game, not by the year.  This would help pay for awards.  I know bowlers who bowl in 8 leagues, they pay the same as most other bowlers.

There should be no rerating of bowlers who have averages in Awards Leagues.  This should be the standard.  Bowlers in other leagues that have averages that they cannot support in tournaments will simply be at a disadvantage.  If they bowl in both leagues, the highest Awards League average would be the one to use, rather than an average in a regular league.  These rules would encourage players and proprietors to increase the number of Awards Leagues.   

Bullet Points for Extra Holes and Static Imbalance: 

  • Eliminating extra holes is not practical or wise. There are so many ways around this, including drilling an extra hole deep into the weight block and plugging with a light weight plug, not to mention filling the hole with Styrofoam or “Great Stuff” and plugging over top.
  • The fallout on balls not being legal with an extra hole will be disastrous. What are the pro shops going to charge for this?  The customer will not be happy, and the customers are USBC members.  The cost to plug arsenals of balls with extra holes will cost a lot more than their USBC memberships.  This will provide a good opportunity to start a new sanctioning organization.  I don’t think USBC wants that.
  • The time tested rules of current static weights and extra holes has served us well. If the change would make a scoring difference that would be fine, but until lane conditions are monitored, scores will continue.  ,
  • Extra holes benefit the player with 175 to 200 averages more than they do top players.
  • The PSO’s already have the responsibility to balance balls and make sure they are legal, and now even more pressure is put on the shops.
  • Symmetrical Weight Block Balls: Extra holes are used to fine tune the ball reaction and match it to the bowler to adjust ball motion.  A hole on the axis smooths out the reaction, a high hole gets us length and makes it weaker, and a low hole (P-3) lowers the RG a little and gives more hit to some players.  Usually, less than 1/2-ounce of weight, and the use a smaller hole, 3 inches deep, is all that is required.  There would be a lot of symmetrical ”ball failures” without this option.  Without extra holes you are taking away much of the service of the PSO’s.  (Do we charge less now, in a business that is already struggling with internet sales and high costs?)
  • Asymmetrical balls: An extra hole is usually used just to balance static weights, which allows PSO’s to adjust layouts for a bowlers positive axis point, rev rate, axis rotation and tilt.  Elimination of extra holes in these balls really wouldn’t matter if the new rule is 3 ounces of side weight.   
  • 3 ounces of imbalance would make progressively more difference in reaction going from high differential asymmetrical weight block balls, to low differential balls, to symmetrical balls and to urethane and spare balls. The less dynamic the ball, the more the imbalance will change it.
  • No-thumbers (most two handers) are turning up in greater numbers and getting better. There should never be a rule where more than one hole can be without a digit inserted.  I had to plug a lot of extra holes for them when the rule changed, although most continued to use them as long as no one said anything.  There are still coming in with extra holes.  Plugging them created a lot of static weight problems.  No-thumbers can hold the ball with their hand cocked to one side or the other and get totally different reactions on the same ball — on purpose.  I don’t know how the USBC can monitor that.

Update March 31, 2018: If you do not subscribe to Bowling This Month you should ... and this article by Bill Sempsrott alone will be worth the cost. It is fascinating, educational, thought-provoking — it gets at the issues and asks so many quality questions and makes so many quality points.  I think everyone involved in the issue from USBC and the ball companies should read this article and use it to get even more answers and deeper into the issue.