Bowling's digital daily newspaper delivering news, analysis and opinion.

How to 'fix' the USBC Open Championships with a new form of the old Classic division

JEFF RICHGELS | Posted: Sunday, July 25, 2021 11:00 am
How to 'fix' the USBC Open Championships with a new form of the old Classic division
The National Bowling Stadium in Reno will host the 2023 USBC Open Championships. Photo by Jay Kersting.

As Bob Johnson explained in this Bowlers Journal column back in 2012, the American Bowling Congress in the early years of the ABC Tournament (now the USBC Open Championships) had a bizarre rule called the Alleyman Rule.

Early ABC leaders tried to discourage professional bowling and the Alleyman Rule limited a team to one player who earned the majority of his income from bowling, but that included proprietors, adult pinboys, and even bartenders who worked in a bowling center, as Johnson recounted. Those types of people might be as far from pro bowlers as a 125-average league player, proving that Chad Murphy doesn't have a monopoly on absurd rules for the tournament.

The Alleyman Rule eventually was dropped and the ABC Tournament grew into the grand showcase of the country’s best, competing without restrictions for national titles in team, doubles, singles, all-events and (starting in 1947) team all-events.

Teams like the Budweisers filled with future Hall of Famers who were paid salaries to bowl — you don't get more professional than that —competed in (and won Eagles at) the ABC Tournament.

The advent of the PBA Tour prompted ABC to start the Classic division, with teams with two or more pros required to compete in the Classic. Johnson said the definition of a pro was a 190 average for the past two seasons and falling under one of six categories that detailed various ways of earning money through bowling skill.

The Classic Division format was the same, but with three additional games of team, which made it a tougher test and allowed ABC to earn more spectator money — you had to pay to get into the tournament if you weren’t a competitor or Eagle winner into the 1980s and maybe even the 1990s, as I can't recall when that ended.

The 1961 ABC Tournament in Detroit was the debut of the Classic Division and it drew 80 teams, but the next year it drew just 58, as Johnson reported.

The ABC ended the Classic division after the 1979 tournament in Tampa, Florida, and touring pros were banned from the tournament, including for two years after they ceased being touring pros, which is why I missed 1988, 1989 and 1990, when I toured in just 1987 and 1988.

I felt then that every person who pays USBC dues should be able to bowl in the tournament, and continue to feel that way decades after I left the PBA Tour. My stance is simply a matter of equity, and anyone who opposes it simply isn’t being moral in a competitive sense.

It’s simply not the Open Championships when the tournament is not open to all USBC members.

I wrote in this story in 2012 that I'd have no problem competing against the likes of Chris Barnes, Norm Duke, etc., providing they were USBC members.

Would I have five Eagles if that had been the case all along? Probably not. But any that I did win would be much more meaningful if they were earned beating the best in the world, not just the best in the world who aren’t touring pros.

The definition ABC and USBC used covered Touring Pro 1 and 2 classifications, with 1 for players who competed in at least two-thirds of PBA Tour tournaments, and 2 for players who competed in at least half, but less than two-thirds. That later morphed into Exempt players when the Tour went that direction.

But PBA ending the Exempt system and its struggles to keep a Tour going about a decade ago forced USBC to come up with different definitions, as I detailed in this story.

I threw out the idea then to use a system similar to what was used at the end of the World Team Challenges. That system classified bowlers by what they had done, rather than how much they bowled in specific types of events and what groups they belonged to. For example, a Class 1 bowler would be the top Tour players/champions and members of national teams for any country. Class 2 could be PBA Regional champions and PBA Senior champions, as well as winners of various non-PBA important tournaments. Class 3 could be all other bowlers.

A team could have one Class 1 player or two Class 2 players, and Class 1 and Class 2 players could not bowl doubles together.

A logical rule would include a time limit of some sort. For example, after 10 years your status from winning a PBA title or being on a national team no longer counts.

Ultimately, USBC excluded players based on their ranking in PBA points or money and if they had won a PBA Tour title recently, as I detailed in this story and this story and this story.

That didn’t solve the equity issue, though, as any exclusion of a USBC member is unfair.

USBC was rightly concerned about lessening one of its major cash cows: Brian Lewis, then USBC managing director of tournaments, told me in this story in 2013 that eligibility for the top touring pros was “a tough call” because of the worry of costing the tournament entries.

Those top pros who pay USBC dues “have a good argument” for being able to bowl the Open Championships, he added. “They are USBC members in good standing and by and large the championships are a right of membership. I think it’s something we have to continue to take a look at, especially as we look at potential additional divisions. Allowing those guys in is not off the table. But it’s a tough decision and would require (USBC) board approval.”

A third division, perhaps for bowlers with averages of 180 to 200, was something USBC has “to look at going forward,” Lewis said at the time.

Then in 2015, USBC announced major changes starting with the 2017 USBC Open Championships that made all USBC members eligible, with a variety of restrictions that included some absurd ones. I explained the changes in this lengthy story, and the clarification of them in this lengthy story the following year after we discovered how poorly written one portion was.

The changes added the third (Standard) division, with average breakdowns designed to make it 39% Regular teams, 39% Standard, and 22% Classified.

The absurdity came in dropping the time limits for PBA Tour titles that had been used in prior years: Any PBA Tour champion under age 60 was given the exact same status, no matter how long it had been since they won or how long it had been since they had been on Tour.

For example, Marc McDowell and Mike Shady from our team both won PBA Tour titles before retiring more than two decades earlier, but had (and still have) the exact same status as Jason Belmonte or Sean Rash or any current PBA Tour star.

Retired PBA Tour champion and USBC Hall of Famer Rick Steelsmith asked on Facebook whether a time parameter of, say, 10 years since a last Tour title might be used:
“If you're looking at a bowler (or bowlers) who last won a National title 20-25 years ago, the rule actually views that bowler as more of a current ‘threat’ in regards to putting a team together, than a bowler, or group of bowlers, who may currently bowl all PBA events, bowl tournaments every weekend of the year, and currently bowl ‘professionally but just hasn't won a National title yet (say a Matt McNeil-type player), among many others too numerous to list, just as an example. A person, or persons, who may have been fortunate to have won a title 20 years ago is probably far less of a CURRENT threat than someone, or a group, who is knocking on that door currently. A time parameter I feel would be more fair in relation to CURRENT status.”

Great Eagle-winning teams like Adam Barta’s Team NABR and Higgy’s Aquarium faced no restrictions, while a team of old-timers like ours was broken up because of PBA Tour titles won in the early 1990s. There simply is no logic in that and it's easy to understand why USBC has lost respect for how it runs the tournament from knowledgeable bowlers.

And, of course, USBC in 2018 made additional changes to the rules starting with the 2019 tournament that gave national team members such as Team USA (including Junior Team USA) and current and recent college bowlers (even if they average 140!) the same status as a PBA member without a Tour title for those under age 60, as I detailed in this lengthy story.

That made it so Shades, Mac and I all had to be on separate teams until we start reaching 60, which led to us expanding our group to four teams. One side impact is that since my being on Team USA in 1985 gave me the same status as a PBA member, I was able to rejoin the PBA for a short time before dropping my card again in preparation for turning 60 and being able to put our original team back together (assuming USBC doesn’t change the rules again).

Of course, as my story explains, USBC again wrote the rules poorly and after I pointed that out in my story, they issued an email stating that the rule had been updated to correct the error I pointed out.

In 2019, the only Eagle won by a PBA Tour champion was Mitch Beasley, but he was a senior. So there were some complaints about PBA Tour players, but it wasn’t vitriolic.

The COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 Open Championships.

This year, PBA Tour stars had a much greater impact on the tournament, with Chris Via and Sean Rash taking the top two spots in all-events, Andrew Anderson winning singles, and Kyle Troup leading his team to the team title, as I detailed in this story.

Predictably, that has led to much vitriol on social media from people who don’t like those USBC members winning Eagles and prize money.

If that leads to an impact on entries, it’s almost a given that USBC will change the rules again, as they have consistently shown that their No. 1 priority is pandering to the lowest common denominator (see hidden lane patterns and absurd college rules) in pursuit of entries (money).

What can USBC do to best satisfy everyone while letting all USBC members bowl and making more money for itself?  

I once thought the best solution was an Open Championships and a Classified Championships held together at the same site. One a battle for Eagles that is as tough and serious as it can be with total transparency about the brutally tough patterns, webcasting, etc., and the other like a big State Tournament with softer conditions and all the rules to make the average league bowler happy.

But that doesn’t solve the issue of bowlers not wanting to compete against PBA Tour stars.

So I have come to believe that a new form of the old Classic division is the best way to go.

Here’s how I envision it:

The new Classic division will be an addition to the current format with the top players in the world eligible to compete only in the new Classic division, but all others eligible to bowl in both the Regular and new Classic divisions.

A working definition of those eligible only for the new Classic division would be anyone in the top 100 in points or money on the PBA Tour or PWBA Tour (not PBA50 or Regionals), who has won a PBA or PWBA Tour title in the last 10 years, or been on a national team (like Team USA or Junior Team USA) in the past five years. (My ideas here are not set in stone.)

Invite those players to a meeting of some sort (perhaps via Zoom) and let them sketch out what, if any, restrictions they’d place on themselves within the new Classic division to help it reach a solid number of teams — 100 would be awesome. The key is letting the players, or a representative group of them, design the restrictions to make the division work and not be just 20 teams.

USBC/BPAA could hand the PWBA Tour over to Bowlero and use a big chunk of the money subsidizing PWBA to create a large prize fund for the new Classic division. If USBC/BPAA refuses to do that, ask the ball companies to co-sponsor the new Classic division so its top prizes dwarf the Regular, Standard, and Classified divisions.

Do it right and you might draw dozens of teams that bowl the Regular division to also bowl the Classic division. I know my team when we were younger and competitive would have jumped at the chance.

The new Classic division will need its own lane pattern so no one who also bowls the Regular division can gain an advantage.

Use BowlTV to webcast new Classic division competition and charge for it.

When the new Classic division would bowl is a key question. Obviously, it would have to be worked in so it didn’t conflict with PBA or PWBA tournaments.

You might even identify 25 potential squads during the tournament and set aside four lanes on each. Then your webcasts could include analysis, interviews, etc. that would make for great viewing.

In addition, invite college teams to bowl in the new Classic division and offer a separate additional prize fund for those college teams to compete for.

The college players get to compete with their teammates, see what the Open Championships is about and hopefully get hooked for life. Plus, they get to compete against the very best on the grandest stage. 

Some of the details of this concept might need tweaking, but the basic concept should pacify the Regular division bowlers who don’t want to compete against the PBA Tour stars, while giving those stars a place in the Open Championships that is a showcase that many others might want to compete in as well.

I’d say it has a great chance of increasing entries by letting some people bowl twice, while removing the negative for those who don’t want to compete against PBA Tour stars.

For sure, something that generates positive feelings about the tournament is needed to get it growing again coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

2022 - Las Vegas
2023 - Reno
2024 - Las Vegas
2025 - Baton Rouge, Louisiana
2026 - Reno
2027 - Las Vegas
2028 - TBD
2029 - TBD
2030 - Las Vegas
2031 - TBD
2032 - TBD
2033 - Las Vegas

2021, Las Vegas, Nev. 7,609 
2019, Las Vegas, Nev. 10,440
2018, Syracuse, NY 7,556
2017, Las Vegas, Nev. 10,122
2016, Reno, Nev. 8,063 
2015, El Paso, Texas 7,315 
2014, Reno, Nev., 9,024
2013, Reno, Nev., 10,253
2012, Baton Rouge, La., 11,794
2011, Reno, Nev.,   12,837
2010, Reno, Nev., 14,189
2009, Las Vegas, Nev., 17,200
2008, Albuquerque, N.M., 12,615
2007, Reno, Nev., 16,235
2006, Corpus Christi, Texas, 12,606
2005, Baton Rouge, La., 13,222
2004, Reno, Nev., 16,585
2003, Knoxville, Tenn., 12,203
2002, Billings, Mont., 10,806
2001, Reno, Nev., 16,104
2000, Albuquerque, N.M., 10,688
1999, Syracuse, N.Y., 9,912
1998, Reno, Nev., 15,925
1997, Huntsville, Ala., 9,480
1996, Salt Lake City, Utah, 9,764
1995, Reno, Nev., 17,285
1994, Mobile, Ala., 9,285
1993, Tulsa, Okla., 8,518
1992, Corpus Christi, Texas, 8,557
1991, Toledo, Ohio, 8,359
1990, Reno, Nev., 9,199
1989, Wichita, Kan., 7,717
1988, Jacksonville, Fla., 7,562
1987, Niagara Falls, N.Y., 7,480
1986, Las Vegas, Nev., 10,019
1985, Tulsa, Okla., 7,700
1984, Reno, Nev., 8,380
1983, Niagara Falls, N.Y., 7,132
1982, Baltimore, Md., 6,627
1981, Memphis, Tenn., 6,400
1980, Louisville, Ky., 6,269
1979, Tampa, Fla., 6,213
1978, St. Louis, Mo., 6,684
1977, Reno, Nev., 7,203
1976, Oklahoma City, Okla., 5,679
1975, Dayton, Ohio, 6,244
1974, Indianapolis, Ind., 6,138
1973, Syracuse, N.Y., 5,590
1972, Long Beach, Calif., 4,732
1971, Detroit, Mich., 6,219
1970, Knoxville, Tenn., 4,802
1969, Madison, Wis., 6,258
1968, Cincinnati, Ohio, 5,923
1967, Miami Beach, Fla., 3,554
1966, Rochester, N.Y., 5,208
1965, St. Paul, Minn., 5,472
1964, Oakland, Calif., 3,791
1963, Buffalo, N.Y., 5,010
1962, Des Moines, Iowa, 5,292
1961, Detroit, Mich., 6,216
1960, Toledo, Ohio, 5,716
1959, St. Louis, Mo., 5,482
1958, Syracuse, N.Y., 5,434
1957, Fort Worth, Texas, 3,056
1956, Rochester, N.Y., 5,845
1955, Fort Wayne, Ind., 5,826
1954, Seattle, Wash., 3,178
1953, Chicago, Ill., 8,180
1952, Milwaukee, Wis., 7,735
1951, St. Paul, Minn., 5,195
1950, Columbus, Ohio, 5,109
1949, Atlantic City, N.J., 5,444
1948, Detroit, Mich., 7,348
1947, Los Angeles, Calif., 3,356
1946, Buffalo, N.Y., 5,744
1942, Columbus, Ohio, 5,742
1941, St. Paul, Minn., 5,797
1940, Detroit, Mich., 6,073
1939, Cleveland, Ohio, 4,145
1938, Chicago, Ill., 4,957
1937, New York, N.Y., 4,017
1936, Indianapolis, Ind., 2,853
1935, Syracuse, N.Y., 2,837
1934, Peoria, Ill., 1,329
1933, Columbus, Ohio, 1,597
1932, Detroit, Mich., 2,336
1931, Buffalo, N.Y., 2,639
1930, Cleveland, Ohio, 2,443
1929, Chicago, Ill., 2,523
1928, Kansas City, Mo., 2,251
1927, Peoria, Ill., 1,452
1926, Toledo, Ohio, 1,876
1925, Buffalo, N.Y., 2,200
1924, Chicago, Ill., 2,132
1923, Milwaukee, Wis., 1,956
1922, Toledo, Ohio, 1,126
1921, Buffalo, N.Y., 940
1920, Peoria, Ill., 900
1919, Toledo, Ohio, 796
1918, Cincinnati, Ohio, 654
1917, Grand Rapids, Mich., 714
1916, Toledo, Ohio, 756
1915, Peoria, Ill., 513
1914, Buffalo, N.Y., 450
1913, Toledo, Ohio, 502
1912, Chicago, Ill., 596
1911, St. Louis, Mo., 414
1910, Detroit, Mich., 401
1909, Pittsburgh, Pa., 374
1908, Cincinnati, Ohio, 362
1907, St. Louis, Mo., 224
1906, Louisville, Ky., 221
1905, Milwaukee, Wis., 217
1904, Cleveland, Ohio, 112
1903, Indianapolis, Ind., 78
1902, Buffalo, N.Y., 61
1901, Chicago, Ill., 41