Bowling. It’s like curling for non-Canadians. And at one point it was immensely popular in the United States. The early 1960s, to be precise.
From Bowler’s Journal:
Two statistics sum up bowling’s prosperity. In 1961, Therman Gibson won $75,000 for rolling six straight strikes on the “Jackpot Bowling” TV show, making more money in 20 minutes than Mickey Mantle earned playing an entire season in the Yankee outfield. Also in 1961, out of an adult population of 110 million Americans, 6.5 million bowled in sanctioned leagues — one out of every 17 men and women.
In this sort of era, it would seem like easy money. The NFL was successful, the NBA was successful, the NHL was successful, and MLB was a powerhouse. In 1961, then, the NBL was formed. Unlike the Professional Bowlers Association, which had also recently (1958) formed, it was focused less on individual achievement and more on teams, generating a point system for the games. It also moved away from the traditional bowling alley configuration in favor of stadiums.
Stadium. Bowling. In the era before giant-screen televisions.
More important, however, was the television money. Networks had seen the value of bowling as programming and had learned how to televise it. The NBL was eager to get into that market. But the PBA had three years to settle in, and networks didn’t see the need for a second bowling association contract.
The first exhibition game was held at Meadowbrook Lanes in Fort Worth, drawing about 500 people to watch the Dallas Broncos beat the Fort Worth Panthers. Kinks were worked out, a few other games were held, and finally the season opened on October 12 in Dallas, at the Bronco Bowl, where about 2200 people came to see the Broncos win again, against the New York Gladiators.
The league would not see numbers that high again.
Within a month, attendance had dropped by more than 50%, construction debts for the stadiums were being called in, and there was still no television interest. The Fresno Bombers were dropped in early December. Then the Omaha Packers and San Antonio Cavaliers. The Los Angeles Toros dropped in January. The league finally folded in May, after the Detroit Thunderbirds beat the Twin Cities Skippers to claim the first (and only) NBL Championship and take home a $2500 prize – not per team member, but to be split among every member of the team.
For decades after, The Bronco Bowl – where the league’s play officially started – stood in southwest Dallas, buried in the outskirts of the city. It became a popular venue for musical acts who were popular enough to sell out a small arena. The final touring show was performed in 2003 by “Weird Al” Yankovic, who quipped that it was a shame he hadn’t prepared the song “Hardware Store” for his set list, all things considered… because the Bowl was torn down days later and a Home Depot erected in its place.
Question of the night: what’s your favorite sports-related failure?