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The 11th Frame: About face: Bowlmor AMF embracing, investing in Petersen Classic in effort to reverse historic tourney’s long slide

JEFF RICHGELS | Posted: Wednesday, March 15, 2017 8:00 am

This 3-6-7-8-10 Chris Gibbons left last year is the kind of crazy leave that is common at the Petersen Classic. Photo by Jeff Richgels.

For those of us who love the Petersen Classic, the historic tournament’s long slide has been painful and sad.

When the monsoon-like rains of the summer of 1993 ruined the venerable Petersen Classic center at 35th and Archer, Hoffman Lanes in the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates bought the Petersen and did a stunningly good job of re-creating the tournament.

I wrote about the new Petersen after competing in the 1994 tournament in this story in The Capital Times, my decades-long employer and one of the units of Capital Newspapers, where I now am an online editor.

If I recall correctly, the new Petersen had more than 7,000 entries in its first years at Hoffman, which was later acquired by AMF. Like many things in bowling, the Petersen slowly declined, but the decline accelerated in recent years as long-time tournament secretary Sandy Patterson lost her assistant and the tournament was moved to AMF Bolingbrook and then Brunswick Zone River Grove as AMF became Bowlmor AMF, which acquired Brunswick’s Retail Bowling business in 2014.

The infamous Petersen lane conditions lost their infamous charm by not being as extreme and difficult, the racks were not as bad for a time, and the tournament just suffered from general neglect.

First prize once was more than $40,000, but paid just $13,500 last year, the tradition of paying at least $1,000 for the top 100 died years ago and sixth to 100th place paid just $700 last year, while the side events prizes also slid precipitously as entries declined to around 3,000. .

In addition, the Lumberjack side event was killed last year.

It was not an exaggeration to say that lovers of the Petersen talked about two things when they got together and the discussion turned to the tournament: memories of the old days and how long the tournament would last.

When I heard earlier this year that Sandy had left the Petersen for personal reasons, I feared the writing was on the wall for the tournament so many of us loved so much.

It is one of the regrets of my bowling career that I never won the Petersen despite coming close several times and finishing in the top 12 six times. I did win the doubles and the team several times, and had some big checks back when some of us entered with dozens of doubles partners and numerous teams.

I no longer possess the strength and skills to win it, but, much like the USBC Open Championships, I planned to keep competing in the Petersen as long as I physically could.

So you can imagine my happiness and hopefulness when I talked with the two main Bowlmor AMF executives in charge of the Petersen and heard their ambitious plans to invest in and rebuild the tournament.

I am certain that many reading this story are skeptical, and perhaps with good reason considering Bowlmor AMF’s sketchy reputation when it comes to the competitive side of bowling. 

But after interviewing Mike Sledz and Jim Welch, the company’s directors of league development and competitive bowling, respectively, I’m going to keep an open mind and hope the things the self-described lovers of the Petersen say will happen do happen.

Because if they do, the Petersen will be much better in 2017 than it has been in recent years, and might be on the path to recapturing some of its former glory.

“When the tournament left Hoffman and went to Bolingbrook it was just sort of this tournament Bowlmor AMF had,” Sledz conceded. ”When Brunswick was acquired we had some additional staff. And the decision was made to re-focus on this. It’s an iconic tournament and we need to do some things with it.”

Sledz said he jumped at the opportunity to work with the Petersen when it was offered: “I said, ‘Really? I bowled this tournament for years. It would be awesome to work trying to bring this thing back.’ ”

The most notable news is that Miller High Life is coming on as presenting sponsor, with other sponsors in the works.

“Miller High Life has been doing a lot of commercials going back to some of their vintage type advertising — ‘If you’ve got the time, we’ve got the beer’ kind of stuff,” Sledz said. “And it really fits with what we’re trying to do with the Petersen being an iconic, historic, been-around-forever kind of tournament. The two really fit well together. And we’re looking forward to having them on board.”

The sponsorship will help the top 100 return to the glory days of being worth at least $1,000, which Sledz said is “a focus this year.” Part of that effort also involves reducing the cashing ratio and getting rid of some of the small checks at the bottom of the prize list, Sledz and Welch said.

The doubles and team also will be guaranteed at $2,500 for first, they said.

And the Lumberjack is being brought back, but at a different center: Brunswick Zone Roselle, which is about a 20-minute drive from River Grove, Sledz said.

“It was just very difficult to promote both tournaments at one location,” he said. “We always thought would have large captive audience, and with 3,000 Petersen bowlers we’d get 1,000 in the Lumberjack. But two years ago we only had about 150.”

Roselle was chosen both for proximity and the large base of league bowlers and “ever since we made the announcement, we’ve had a lot of interest from bowlers who might bowl that and not the Petersen. I’d totally be surprised if don’t double (entries from two years ago) this year to 300.”

True fans of the Petersen will be heartened to hear that it sounds like the lane conditions will be a little tougher — it is a much better tournament when the winning score is 1,600 or a little below vs. 1,650 or higher — and more varied. The charm always came from lanes that were oiled 60 feet or not oiled at all, not just moderately tough and similar.

“Over the past couple of years the thought process was not to make it too tough but not to make it too easy,” Sledz said. “There was a fear at one time that it was hard to get newer, younger bowlers interested because they didn’t want to be humbled by not being able to bowl 220. I don’t think that’s the way to do this.

“We’re going to be a little bit more creative this year. It will be a little bit more challenging. That’s the mystique of the tournament. I remember going and shooting sub-120 games. We’re trying to keep it modern but bring it back to some of the stuff that it’s known for.”

Another returning Petersen Classic classic will be the shopping carts that traditionally transported your one or two balls (the maximum) from check-in to your starting pair.

“We also got away from (the tradition of) every time someone was bowling good back when I was bowling it the lane broke down,” Sledz said with a chuckle. “And we know it wasn’t just the lane broke. It was an intentional breakdown. It’s the tales and stories you hear about the Petersen, and we need to get some of that stuff back.”

To that end, there will be a montage of testimonials from people who have been going to the Petersen for years.

Bowlmor AMF also is investing a lot of money in writing new software for the tournament, Sledz said, explaining that the existing Petersen software was written in the early to mid-1980s and runs on a machine that has a floppy disk drive: “not the 3 ½ inch kind, we’re talking the big ones. Every time you turn the machine on there is this weird noise that happens.”

The new software that contractors are writing will enable the tournament staff to post scores online quicker and have a good electronic database of entrants so they can communicate regularly with them via email, Sledz said.

“So one of the pushes we’ll be making is to really collect email addresses,” he said, adding that the plan is to update the scores on the website every Monday and send out an email on Tuesday.

Ideally, in this age of social media, competitors and fans would like to see the scores updated whenever a squad bowls, but we’ll take progress.

Speaking of social media, the Petersen also has plans in that area.

“We had been posting on that unofficial Petersen Classic Facebook page since we moved the tournament to River Grove,” Sledz said, adding that efforts to contact the administrator of the page were fruitless so the company decided to start a new page, which is here.

“We want to move people to the new page,” he said. “We’ll be doing posts and putting videos up and things like that.”

Sledz also promised there will be “more stuff coming that I can’t get into now — stuff bowlers are going to absolutely love.”

Announcements of those things will come before the tournament opens April 28, he said.  

Update: The Petersen has announced sponsorship deals with Ebonite and H5G. 

Squad organizers who bring in a full squad of 32 bowlers will automatically be entered into a drawing to be held at the conclusion of the tournament. The eight lucky Squad Organizers who are picked will each win an Ebonite high performance bowling ball. 

H5G apparel will be producing an official jersey for the Petersen, and Petersen competitors wearing any H5G jersey will win a $50 gift certificate from H5G for any game of 215 or higher.

The tournament also will offer brackets for the first time, and Welch said he’d consider the method the Lennie Boresch Jr. squad I bowled on for years uses: scores are by pair, rather than game, which is much more fair due to the common disparity in pair averages.

Welch noted that last year pair averages ranged from 130 on 1-2 and 131 on 15-16 to 148 on 3-4. (The racks make a difference even when the lane patterns are close.)

Welch, who lives in Dallas, will run the administrative side of the tournament, but not operations at the tournament.

Sledz said DM Kevin Lauterbach will be in charge of Petersen operations and a lot of the company GMs from the area will rotate in and out at River Grove “so we’ll have it staffed a lot better than we have had it.”

Welch is known to many high level bowlers for his work with Steve Sanders in the Eliminator tournaments, and as tournament director of the famed Luci Mixed Doubles, now a PBA-PWBA event.

“The VP for our company came to me in December and asked me if I would like to be the tournament director of the Petersen,” Welch said. “And, of course, being in bowling my whole life I said absolutely.”

But he has lived in Chicago before and knows its winters, so he wanted to stay in Dallas.

“Logistically we’re working it out,” he said. “It’s a bit of a process. I will be there for the opening weekend and probably for a couple more weekends during the summer, but I will not be on site for the majority of the summer because I’ve got events down here also.”

Anyone interested in entering or running a squad, can contact Welch at [email protected] or 214-704-3531. Welch said youth bowlers can bowl singles if they fill out the Rule 400 Waiver, but cannot bowl the optional events.

Welch said he has “no input whatsoever with lane conditions — they won’t even tell me what the lane conditions are.” And he laughed. “All I know is the first year I bowled it Jimmy Carter was president and I shot 212 my first game and thought it was really easy and then I bowled 103. Every bowler should experience this at least once. It’s a shame it’s not like the old place.”

Welch said he already has been getting “a lot of calls from people who wanted to bowl it for the first time. And two who want to do full squads. And Kevin said he is hearing that and getting some noise up at the bowling center for the first time in a long time. So maybe we’re getting things turned around a little bit.”

He said some people are doing a trip that combines the Petersen and a Chicago Cubs game, with one Texas man organizing a train trip for a squad to the tournament and a Cubs game.  

One idea that was seriously discussed but won’t be happening — at least for now — is allowing drinking in the bowling area. It seems logical in a tournament that is more entertainment than competition for many, and especially so with a beer sponsor coming on board.

“In the end we just couldn’t pull the trigger on that one yet, although it’s always up for consideration," Sledz said. "The main reason was we still give the bowlers a break, and we just don’t want the arena, as we call it, to get dirty and sloppy with spills and that kind of stuff. We’d love to sell more beer but we just didn’t want to compromise the bowlers’ area.”

Update April 13: The Petersen has changed its mind and will allow drinking in the arena, according to this Facebook post:
"More exciting news from the Pete…We’ve always been asked why we don’t allow cocktails in the Petersen bowling arena during competition. After all, even the best bowlers might need to consume some adult beverages in order to contend with the humbling bowling experience provided by the Pete. Well, ASK NO MORE! Starting with this year’s Pete, bowlers WILL be allowed to consume their favorite beverages in the arena while bowling. No need to belly up to the Pete bar during your two squad breaks – Enjoy!!"

Sledz and Welch both said the actions Bowlmor AMF is taking with the Petersen should show how committed it is to the tournament.

“If they weren’t they wouldn’t be doing this — they would let it die,” Welch said. “And that would be a shame because this year will be the 108th annual. Being a bowler myself forever I love tournaments like this. I miss the Hoinke. I miss the old High Roller. The Super Hoinke was incredible.”

Said Sledz: “Everybody who is wrapped around it now has some history with it. And we’re definitely people who want to promote competitive bowling. It’s not going to die if we have anything to say about it.”