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Guest column: My beef with house shot leagues by Big Mike (Weinert) of Sweep the Rack podcast

JEFF RICHGELS | Posted: Thursday, September 22, 2022 7:00 am
Guest column: My beef with house shot leagues by Big Mike (Weinert) of Sweep the Rack podcast
Big Mike (Weinert) of Sweep the Rack podcast. Contributed photo.

This website has always been open for guest columns that bring value to bowling topics of interest, and the legitimacy of house shot bowling definitely is such a topic. 

Big Mike (Weinert) of Sweep the Rack podcast frequently rants against house shots, so much so that I recently asked him in this tweet:
"Sincere question: What is your aim regarding your jihad against house shots? You needed to be around 35 years ago."

(The use of jihad, or holy war, was all in good humor.)

Big Mike replied with this tweet:
"First I don’t like the choice of words there but nonetheless it’s too complicated to get into on here! Maybe if I have some time I will write an article on the topic and put it out! You wanna give me a guest spot on your site for an editorial? LOL!" 

I immediately accepted his offer, and that led to this guest column.  

Even as a super senior has-been, I agree with Big Mike on his overall disdain for house shots — don't all high level bowlers? — and quibble only on details and his prescription. Notably, he lets proprietors off too easy, as they caused all of this in the 1980s and early 1990s when they threatened to start their own membership organization if ABC didn’t agree to change the rules. That led to short oil and then the System of Bowling that included the 3-unit rule that had no meaning as soon as the Xcalibur began the reactive resin revolution. Former USBC CEO Roger Dalkin talked about the history in this Q&A in 2017.

I also think there is virtually nothing that can be done to significantly change the current situation: bowling's culture is just too far gone. I prefer to focus on nurturing the Sport side, such as in my writing, my sponsorships of tournaments on Sport conditions, and my decades-long effort to create a Wisconsin State Sport Championships.

Bowling needed more Big Mikes 35 years ago.

My beef with house shot leagues


For the last 7 or 8 years I have bowled in a winter league that featured 3 different rotating sport patterns.  Long story short, the league folded this year due to lack of participation.  I was (and still am) upset about the situation.  Since then I’ve been venting my frustrations on twitter and on my bowling podcast Sweep The Rack.  Jeff, who follows me and checks out the podcast, took note of my rants and described me as waging a “jihad” against the house bowling world.  While I do have some serious frustrations and some radical viewpoints I don’t feel like I am out here fighting a war.  Nonetheless, that is how I ended up here, writing a guest editorial for Jeff’s website.  

Let’s be honest.  The bowling community has been lying to itself for decades.  The lie we have been telling ourselves is that fraudulent “house” conditions have some sort of legitimacy in our game.  

As the conditions on that side of the game have gotten easier and easier since the late 80s we, as a community, have continued to lie to ourselves enough to believe that the endless honor scores and inflated averages attained in what we all really know is a fraudulent environment have some shred of credibility that we can squeeze out of them. 

Generations of bowlers “mastered” the game only to find out at some advanced level that they had not mastered the game at all.  In essence, they were sold a fake version of the sport and a fake impression of how talented they actually were.   

There are numerous parties involved in the acceptance of this lie.   Ball companies, pro shop operators, proprietors, governing bodies, the bowling media, high level bowlers that know better to name a few have, for too long, been at the forefront of promoting the acceptance of this lie.  Conditions got easier and easier, honor score numbers went through the roof despite declining participation.  What was happening could not have been more obvious and in my experience the fraudulence of “house shots” was a regular open topic of discussion in the high level bowling community. 

Nonetheless, the numbers tell the best story.  In an article from the August 21st, 2000 New York Times titled “Perfection Made Easy; Bowling a 300 Game Just Isn’t The Feat It Used To Be” reporter Dan Barry summarized what was happening in the bowling community in this way:

The American Bowling Congress, the governing body of the sport, reports that in the 1968-69 season, it recorded 905 perfect games in league and tournament matches; in the 1998-99 season, it recorded 34,470.

That figure represents about a 3,700 percent increase in 30 years. And it does not include the 1,708 perfect games recorded last year by the Women's International Bowling Congress and the Young American Bowling Alliance. The increase also comes at a time when the number of people who bowl regularly enough to register as members with these organizations has declined drastically, to about 3.5 million from 9 million in the last 20 years.

Participation was a third of what it had been, yet honor scores were up more than 3,700%.  In response to this glaring issue the leadership structure in the bowling community did little to call out the fraudulence.  To the contrary, they promoted it as real.  They made money and kept their own revenue streams alive while the real version of the game was being held hostage to die.  

I understand that not all of this was intentional, but I do think it is fair to say that at some point most of the stakeholders knew there was a problem and they never really chose to address it.  

The impact of allowing this fraudulent version of the game to be legitimized can be seen in numerous ways but the most important way, in my opinion, is that this fraudulent version of the sport of bowling became so accepted and legitimized that for a very long period of time extending even to today many regular league bowlers do not even know that a more challenging side of the game exist.  Think about that.  A fraudulent, watered-down, version of the sport was actually allowed to become the norm for a large population of the league bowling community for a very large period of time.   

By the turn of the century, large sects of bowlers had become addicted to this fraudulent side of the game.  The high scores and high averages that came along with legitimizing a fraudulent side of the game were like a Pandora’s box that had been opened and could never hope to be contained again.  So, instead of actually trying to find a workable solution to this issue, the powers that be thought the best way to address this issue was create a new side of the game for those who were more interested in a challenge or to put it another way still interested in the real version of sport: Sport Bowling.  

This was an admirable idea, but there were a few issues in retrospect.  One is that creating a separate category of Sport Bowling officially and fully legitimized the house or recreational side of the game.  There was no longer just one sport of bowling that for decades and decades had been a challenging sport that had lost its way, there were now two official sides to the game of bowling- sport and recreational.  

Roger Dalkin, the former Executive Director of the USBC echoed this same concept in an interview with Jeff that Jeff recently posted again on Facebook.

And we finally got to the point where the concept of Sport Bowling came in. There’s a sport and a game. Like in golf: don’t force the weekend hacker to play from the tips. That was the concept behind Sport Bowling. ABC, WIBC and USBC should focus on the sport and the credibility of the game. And the recreational bowler, which was my famous quote: ‘Let’s thin the herd.’ What thinning the herd was we were spending so much time, effort, money and resources on trying retain the once-a-month couples bowler who had no interest in being a member anyway. Let’s just let them drift off and focus on the (serious bowlers) and it’s going to be $25 per year, not $10 per year. And here’s what we’re going to do for you. And we have a membership of 750,000 that want to be members and can’t wait to be members. 

I understand Dalkin’s intent behind a move like this, but I strongly disagree with his overall vision.  Comparing recreational conditions to playing from the back tees in golf shows how deeply we were fooling ourselves.  A better comparison would be if, in golf, the hole was the size of the green.  Nonetheless, one thing is for certain now that we have seen the impact of these decisions: Dalkin severely overestimated the level of acceptance or participation that Sport Bowling would receive.  In the above comments he is suggesting that the USBC could have scaled back its pursuit of keeping the recreational bowlers as members while charging the more serious bowlers a higher membership fee but providing them with more for their money.  However, in this hypothetical he assumes that there might have been 750,000 members interested in that more prestigious membership but the fact of the matter is that  by that point the recreational side had already been legitimized in the bowling community, and now that people were being given a choice between the recreational side and a greater challenge the vast majority of them chose to stick with the recreational side (if they were even aware they were being given a choice as the sport bowling was not highly or properly promoted in my recollection).    

Sadly, this is still true today.  The bowling community is, in most ways, still run in the same fashion.  We have a recreational side of the game that a large portion of the community pretends is legitimate (like comparing a house shot to playing off the back tees) and we have a sport side of the game that very few community members choose to participate in.  In a nutshell, this is why my beloved sport league is folding.   

In one regard I agree with Dalkin’s comments: we shouldn’t force the recreational bowler to compete in the sport environment.  I understand that there are large portions of the bowling community that simply are out to have a good time and I am fine with that.  My beef does not involve the average bowler going out once a week to have some beers with his buddies, who has one ball, probably hasn’t been bowling all that long.  I’ve got nothing but love for that guy.  If he wants to bowl on house shots so that he shoots a bit of a better score and throws a string of strikes every once in a while- more power to him.  

No, most of my beef has to do with the idea that there are large numbers of recreational league bowlers who have reached a level of accomplishment on the recreational (or fraudulent) side of the game that they should be willing or even be forced to participate in the more challenging side of the game.  The bowlers whose egos are inflated because they average 225 in the local house league.  Like the actual recreational bowler above, these bowlers will also claim that they are only there for a night out and a few beers with their buddies.  Yet, they bowl multiple house leagues a week, they have a patch pirate ball deal with a company, they have multiple honor scores that they openly display or brag about, they show up to house league with multiple 3 ball rollers, they get in every pot every week, etc.  If you are reading this you know who I am talking about.  It’s the guy who, when asked why he didn’t go pro, says “I would have if the money was better…”  They also have a skill level and average that greatly out paces their competition.  In some instances, this is so apparent it is comical.  Picture the bowler I describe showing up to use 3 different balls to shoot 750 while bowling against Grandma Mama Mia backspinning an 8 pound plastic ball down the middle of the lane. It is this group that I have a beef with.  

If I am being honest though, it isn’t completely their fault.  Again, as long as we as a community continue to legitimize the recreational side of the game we are giving bowlers like the one I describe above no incentive to leave the recreational side of the game and become a regular participant on the sport side of the game.  Perhaps this is why my position on this issue seems like I am waging war against everyone; because in addition to the bowlers unwilling to admit to the fraudulence and take on a challenge there are a lot of parties to blame.  

Clearly the most blame lies with the USBC.  As the governing body, to allow a situation like this to develop and remain over the course of decades is just simply a failure of the most basic function of the organization.  My co-host Rob and I had a chance to have Chad Murphy on our podcast a while back (you should go on YouTube, watch it, and subscribe) and I brought up this exact topic.  To me, it was clear from the discussion that USBC is a business interested in providing bowlers with an enjoyable experience rather than a governing body.  This pervades all the way down to the local level, where hall-of-fame inductions and local, county, and state tournaments are often decided on nothing but the finest of china!   

Proprietors, who engaged in an “arms race” with oil machines to see who could produce the highest scores, the most honor scores, the highest honor scores under the premise that those conditions would attract the league bowlers away from their competition also bear part of the blame.  Fast forward to today where you have bowling centers that purchase lane machines that cost insane amounts of money and have the most advanced technology available to be able to lay down the easiest most consistent wall a house hack could dream of.    

The bowling media was part of the circus as well as they jumped at every chance to feature the latest bowler to do the most amazing thing without ever mentioning what we all knew was the likely cause of the amazing thing.  I remember bowling with a kid on the JBT tour in the late 90s who, at the time, was something like the youngest person to ever shoot 300 or 2 300s; something to that effect.  The kid had coverage in every major bowling publication you could think of (and this was pre-internet).  He never even made it to college bowling.  There was another young phenom I can remember from my days coaching high school who had an article in the local paper about how he was skipping his senior year of high school to go pro after averaging 230 for a high school season.  I believe he bowled 1 pro tournament and quit bowling altogether.  This has now reached a peak level as social media allows us to see what I feel is a never-ending stream of people who throw it like they should average 180 shooting 300/800.    

The ball companies, who for years have ignored how easy the conditions are and sold the idea that the ball you are throwing matters that much.  Take my word for it, the easy lane patterns matter more.  These ball companies give free equipment to bowlers who bowl nothing but house leagues and can never be found at a sport event in their area or would not make joining a sport league a priority. Again, they also participate in endless social media posts of someone posing with a ball that they used to shoot their latest honor score that only make me think about how easy they must have been.  

My point is that the biggest and most important entities in the sport have, for decades at this point, legitimized the recreational side of the game when they know it doesn’t deserve it.  Not only have these entities failed to provide any motivation to the accomplished recreational player to explore the other side of the game, but they have gone along with the ruse that the recreational side of the game is in some way legitimate.  This has led the bowling community to a place where a dwindling number of bowlers seem interested in the challenging side of the game.  Those that are lack opportunities to bowl in that environment.  While at the same time, there are 1000s of bowlers who, despite outgrowing the level of competition a house shot provides, make the choice to remain engaged only in the recreational side of the game and who have little to no motivation to even stick their foot across to the other side.

As I mentioned before, the lack of motivation for accomplished recreational bowlers to make the transition to the sport side of the game is where a lot of the problem lies.  So how do we solve that issue?  How can we, as a community, provide some sort of outside motivation for bowlers to consider this change?         

One great idea that I have come across in my conversations with other bowlers was made by Jason Belmonte who suggested different colored oil that would signify the level of challenge on the pattern.  Think about walking into a bowling center and seeing one league using oil that makes the lanes green and one league using oil that makes the lanes red and understanding immediately that the green oil signifies recreational conditions and the red oil signifies sport level conditions.  It would be a step toward clear demarcation between the two sides of the game, but it may actually motivate some players that don’t belong on the recreational side of the game to make the jump.   

Another suggestion that I have thrown out on my podcast is to have a video-game like display of the level of play taking place in a given league or tournament.  For example if you are bowling in a house league the screen would have a green background and “EASY LEVEL” would scroll noticeably across the bottom of the screen.  Whereas, if you were bowling in a sport league the screen would be red and have “Ultimate Challenge” scrolling beneath.  The goal, like in a video game, would be to move up levels as you get better at the lower levels of the game. 

I have also suggested that some of the stakeholders I mentioned above cease their phony charade that they recreational side of the game has any connection to the real sport.  For example: ball companies stop giving “staff deals” to patch pirates who only bowl in house leagues, or that ball companies decline to promote honor scores bowled on house conditions, or that local associations recognize the bowlers competing on the more challenging conditions over those on house conditions for awards like Bowler of the Year or even Halls of Fame. In short, all of these groups should start calling it what it is and that is just a recreational activity, not a sport. 

Our best bet, however, lies with the people like me who have a deep passion for the challenging side of the game.  We need to do our best to start local movements that not only encourage participation by all levels of bowlers, but also give them motivation to take on that challenge, while at the same time educating them and helping them get better in this new environment.  I know some of these groups exist already.  In my own local area PBA member Greg Tack runs numerous events throughout the year on various sport patterns that are set up in a way to attract all levels of players.  We need more of this.  

Yes, my sport league folded, but starting the first week of October I am starting a new weekly no-commitment sport bowling opportunity with some of the bowlers who, like me, were disappointed to see the league fold and actually enjoy the experience of a challenge.  If you are like me and share a love for the challenging side of the game, I encourage you to try something similar.    

The point of any of these ideas is to give higher level house players the motivation to make the more challenging side of the game a priority.  Currently there is none.  If this continues as it currently stands, the real side of the game will eventually die and we will be left with only one side of the game.  The problem is, it will be the wrong side!