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Why the Bowlero Elite Series is awful for the SPORT of bowling

JEFF RICHGELS | Posted: Thursday, April 4, 2019 7:00 pm
Why the Bowlero Elite Series is awful for the SPORT of bowling

This story originally was posted on Thursday, April 4, 2019 with a Spoiler alert headline that enabled my subscribers to avoid learning the winner of the inaugural Bowlero Elite Series competition at Bowlero Romeoville in that Chicago suburb if they didn’t want to know before the show aired on Tuesday, April 9, 2019.

Because I think this is a story so important that it should be shared publicly and read by all who love the sport and because I know there are many who might not want to know the results before the show airs, I have removed the information about the results.

I will report on the results after the show airs on Tuesday.

The competition was held and the show was taped on Tuesday, April 2, 2019 at Bowlero Romeoville, and it will air on Tuesday, April 9, 2019 at 7 p.m. Central time on NBC Sports Network.

Back on July 31, 2018, I broke the news of the event in this story and my preview story details the event, which features eight pros and eight league bowlers competing in separate brackets with the two survivors facing each other for a first prize of $270,000 — the largest in bowling history — and a second prize of $80,000. The story also details the next two events in the Bowlero Elite Series.

Bowlero offered a media hour prior to the tournament where the players were available, but media then were not allowed to attend the taping and were offered no post-taping player availability.

My desire was to cover the historic event and write a story with a “Spoiler alert” headline and lead so that any of my subscribers who didn’t want to know the results before the show airs could avoid knowing. It’s how I’ve handled numerous PBA and other events taped for later airing.

I also offered Bowlero an agreement where I would not publish anything until after the show aired in return for full access — to write a truly real story about a special event like this you need to see it live and have access to the players right after it is over. I told Bowlero I only would have broken that embargo if someone else published the results publicly and only then in a spoiler alert form before the show aired.

This was the same agreement Bowlers Journal International asked for, Bolwero told me. And such embargoes are a standard and common practice in the media industry.

I told Bowlero if they didn’t agree to embargo coverage, I wouldn’t come down to cover the pre-show availability, and would do my job as a journalist and report the results in a spoiler alert form (as my readers have made it clear they prefer) if I obtained them.

Since I am about the most connected person in competitive bowling, and one people trust to tell it like it is, I had the identification of the winner early Wednesday morning. (After a long Monday night with the USBC Masters show and writing, I went to bed Tuesday night a little after 6 p.m. since I get up at 3 a.m. for work every day.)

I actually didn’t pursue any details about the competition other than who won, because those details are not the story of the Bowlero Elite Series — its impact is.

The format was single-game matches with the pro and league bowler brackets.

High Roller-style events famously taught us that it is generally true that anyone can beat anyone in a 1-game match. That was perhaps less true at the High Roller, where the lane conditions generally were very challenging. But the good fortune of Brooklyn strikes and bad fortune of solid 8-pins, for example, don’t even out in a single game and can make a lesser player who bowled a lesser game the winner even on a grindout condition.

Now factor in the lane pattern that was posted the morning of the competition by one of the participants: a house shot type of pattern with a main ratio of 11.5-1. The PDF is attached to the bottom of this story.

A pattern like that requires little in the way of accuracy or release control and consistency relative to a Sport-level pattern — a PBA Tour champion who can keep shots within a board or two with very consistent roll characteristics has no effective advantage over a decent league bowler whose shots vary by several boards with relatively inconsistent release characteristics.

So if a league bowler won, it should have surprised no one.

The serious bowler will understand all of this and most likely watch the show and enjoy it for what it is.

But if a league bowler wins, this event will be truly awful for bowling in reinforcing every negative stereotype non-bowlers/casual viewers have about bowling: there’s no skill in it, any league bowler can beat a pro, the pros aren’t any good, etc., etc., etc.

I could not see PBA Tour CEO and Commissioner Tom Clark or PWBA/USBC/BPAA telling their players they could not compete in this for a guaranteed $10,000 and a shot at $270,000, or whatever a chop provided.

And as someone who tried to bowl for a living for two years, I totally understand the pros taking the money.

But I think if the eight pros who participated were to stop and think hard about the issues as I did before writing this, they would see that this is not good for the sport or their Tours or careers. (It's also puzzling to me how it is good for Bowlero — what is their ROI? — but that's another story.)

The same sort of thing could happen in golf if you took eight top pros and eight decent non-professional golfers and sent them to a very easy municipal course to play 1-hole matches: Short, no hazards, little rough, flat greens would negate much of the advantage of the top pros on a single hole.

The difference is top golfers are so ridiculously wealthy that it would take an absurd amount of money to entice them into something like the Bowlero Elite, and they have so much power that they would be able to make the format advantageous to them, I’d wager.

"Tell us what you need to be on our show Mr. Woods and Mr. Mickelson. Anything. It's yours."

I sat down to write a spoiler alert story Wednesday afternoon and maybe 15 minutes before I was going to post it, Bowlero PR manager Jillian Laufer called essentially begging me not to post a story before the show aired.

When I explained to her that she blew me off after my last email of March 20 offering to cover the event on an embargo basis, she apologized, stating that she was so busy. She also said Bowlero didn’t quite understand the agreement I was asking for.

She said Bowlero was considering releasing the results, and also asked what Bowlero could do to keep me from posting the story. I asked if she meant some sort of deal, and said yes. After I said what I wanted, which essentially was the same as I wanted before the event, she asked for it in writing, so I sent this in an email for her to discuss with her team on Thursday.

If you want to release the results, get them to me Friday morning by 8 a.m. and don’t send them out to other media until 10 a.m. and I will post a story with a Spoiler alert headline and lead that does not reveal the results to anyone who doesn’t click on the story — and I am a subscription website so not just anyone can see the whole story. I’ll post that story at 10 a.m.
If you want to hold the results until the show airs, send me the results and set me up with (the title match participants) for phone interviews and I will agree not to publish my story until the show finishes at 10 p.m. Tuesday. 
If some other media or someone who was involved in the show publicly publishes the results, I will do ONLY a spoiler alert headline story before the show airs — this is satisfying my readers.
There’s still also lots of unanswered questions out there about why Bowlero is doing this, etc. that I’d like to answer for my readers, so I’d still like to answers those via an interview at some point.

On Thursday morning, she asked for an example of the Spoiler alert stories I do, so I sent her one.

On Thursday afternoon as I pulled into UW Sports Medicine and Fitness Center for my near-daily old fat guy workout, I received a call from Colie Edison, Bowlero's “chief customer officer.”

She was pleasant at first as she tried to dissuade me from publishing a story. She offered me access to Bowlero’s future Elite Series events and for other stories. She appealed to my “love of bowling” and said I should hold my story to support something that could do great things for bowling. She threatened to cut off all my access to Bowlero, which she sternly noted was a “billion dollar company.”

It stunned me that a representative of a big company that I know has dealt with major media such as CNBC had such a poor understanding of what journalists do. Or perhaps she is used to being able to control bowling media who aren’t in my position of needing nothing she offers since I make my living for a company that has nothing to do with bowling.

No one and no entity in bowling has any leverage over me and that will never change. My serious competitive bowling career is over. I could quit 11thFrame.com tomorrow and it would have no impact on my life except to provide me with actual free time. I ran it for free for years and now charge less than $2 per month, and have no advertisers.

I tried to patiently explain to her that my only allegiance is to my subscribers and the story and that getting the story is what journalists do.

It was eerily similar to other conversations I had with a certain industry leader who no longer allows his organization to respond to me.

(Side note: This is an industry that desperately needs more journalists who speak truth to power and shed light on darkness, if only to acclimate the leaders to it!)

I also told Edison I had offered her a great embargo agreement that her company never responded to — my last email was March 20 and I never heard from them again. And I told her I made essentially the same offer the day before when Laufer asked me what Bowlero could do to get me not to post my story.

Then she had the gall to accuse me of trying to blackmail Bowlero when it was Laufer who asked me what she could do so I wouldn’t publish the story! She didn’t get far with that garbage.

I repeat: I had zero contact with Bowlero from my March 20 email to Laufer calling me on Wednesday afternoon.

Edison said no other media had access or any agreement, even though others had asked for what I had, and I said I didn’t care about other media.

We parted with her saying she would get back to me.

But as I slaved away on an arc trainer in the gym, I began to fully realize how awful the Bowlero Elite Series could be in reinforcing every negative stereotype non-bowlers/casual viewers have about bowling, as I noted above.

So when I was done and back to my car, I sent Edison and Laufer messages telling them to save their efforts and that I didn’t want anything from them.

Bowlero is a company that has done some good things for the sport: investing in the Petersen, supporting and hosting the pro tours at times. I've written about those and will about such future efforts. I always call 'em as I see 'em, with no agenda other than what I think is best for the sport of bowling. It's what my readers pay for, like it or not.

But I’ve also seen and received much testimony to their often shabby treatment of league and tournament bowlers and employees, and to the often poor upkeep of their centers, which I have seen for myself.

And the Bowlero Elite Series proves how little they understand of the sport.

They think it’s good to pour money into an event where a league bowler might beat a PBA or PWBA Tour champion, when the only thing that would do is prove to non-bowlers that everything bad they think about a sport they have no understanding of is true.

Hopefully, very few casual viewers will find NBC Sports Network next Tuesday night. All you subscribers should watch and enjoy the show — you get it. I certainly will be watching and writing afterward. 

If Bowlero really wanted to put its billion dollars toward the good of the sport, they’d take all the money they’re throwing at this Elite Series and more and invest in the pro tours to make them so valuable again that they will be something to aspire to as well as inspire. Make the tours have a first prize of $100,000 25 to 30 times a year and stars making hundreds of thousands a year. 

I dream of writing that story.

And, heck, cut a deal with PBA to have a contest where a Bowlero league bowler or two gets to appear on the CP3 Celebrity Invitational every year.

If Bowlero cuts off the minimal access it gave me, it will only hurt itself when it comes to the stories I’ve written about its great efforts with the Petersen and other events. And it won’t stop me from writing what I want to write anyway.

Michael Jordan has famously refused to talk to Sports Illustrated since the cover 25 years ago when he was playing baseball that told him to “Bag It, Michael!” SI just kept on writing about Michael.

That's been me and USBC since this story in February 2018, and USBC is much more important to my readers than Bowlero.