Web Special / February 24, 2005

A visit to megabucks tournaments

The Professional Bowlers Association is regarded as the preeminent organization for bowlers seeking this vocation as a means of livelihood. Bowling, as a profession, has been greatly enhanced, particularly for those who were/are fortunate to have succeeded in making the top 50 exempt list. With a first-place check worth $40,000 and a guaranteed $2,000 minimum payoff, the worst any player can earn for a regular 20-tournament season is $40,000. Additionally, "major tournaments" like the ABC Masters, the U.S. Open, and the PBA Tournament of Champions carry a $100,000 winner's share, while the PBA World Championship is worth $120,000.

Oddly, so-called "amateur" bowlers have numerous opportunities to earn as much as PBA members. But first, what is the criterion that distinguishes top amateurs from professionals? Simply put, it is merely a PBA membership card that can be purchased with little or no problem as long as any bowler, man or woman, can post a 190 or better average in league play and afford the cost of a membership card.

But is a 190 average a true barometer for upper echelon bowlers in today's environment? Averages of 190 are as plentiful as sand grains on a beach. Scores have skyrocketed to unrealistic proportions, with averages over 230 being posted all over the country. Throughout the states, 11 and 12 year olds, elderly seniors, and countless teenagers are posting 300 games. Shamelessly, 800 series are being shot at a record pace.

Despite these fictitious scores, more than a few "amateur" bowlers are capable of holding their own with 65 to 75 percent of touring pros. So why do these bowlers prefer to remain amateurs? After all, the current PBA roster is heavily stacked with former amateur megabuck players like Patrick Allen, Brad Angelo, D.J. Archer, Chris Barnes, Michael Fagan, Paul Fleming, Patrick Healey, Brian Kretzer, Mike Machuga, Jason Queen, Robert Smith, and Lonnie Waliczek. A majority of the aforementioned bowlers joined the PBA because they wore out their welcome in megabucks tournaments. Limits were placed in their participation in jackpots, brackets, and sweepers—an area they dominated. Although the main tournament was the principal attraction, sweepers and brackets were very lucrative.

Today's top "amateur" bowlers have the opportunity to win hefty sums of money while still retaining jobs at home. A great number of these players devote full time to a variety of megabucks action. Additionally, they participate in weekend tournaments in their immediate areas.

Pros, on the other hand, have a more difficult road to follow—away from home, with a chance of no paycheck always knocking at their doors. Yet, I have made an observation that puzzles me. I have heard some pros complain that amateurs are able to earn as much in one tournament as some professional bowlers can make in a season. Yet, when these same bowlers were given the opportunity to compete in the High Roller A Game, they didn't take it; their reluctance to compete remains a mystery.

The recent High-Roller A Game tournament was held at Sam's Town Lanes in Las Vegas on SuperBowl week. Promoters of the High Roller conducted this tournament to permit anyone other than the top 50 PBA exempt players to participate. Prior to the High Roller A Game offering, megabucks contests banned any bowler with a PBA title from engaging in their tournaments. But this was a special event that offered all bowlers an opportunity to win huge sums of money, including side pots and brackets. The contest carried a $60,000 winner's check. It was based on 524 entries. The $1,000 entry fee was further enhanced by the fact that players who failed to survive the first round were awarded a second chance to continue. It must be noted than the $60,000 first-place check would have been larger than any PBA tournament except the four majors. Unfortunately, only 96 bowlers entered the tournament, a disappointing number that resulted in decreasing the first place prize from $60,000 to $21,000.

I was attracted to the High Roller A Game tournament, which allowed non-exempt pros to compete. My sentiments were shared by two of America's top bowling writers, Dick Evans and Joe Lyou. I presumed 250 to 300 PBA members would jump at the opportunity to shoot at a $60,000 first place check, particularly in view of not having to compete against the PBA's 50 exempt bowlers. With a PBA membership of over 3,500, one would expect at least 10 percent of these players would make the trek to Las Vegas for this event. But, mysteriously, a mere 25 PBA members attended the A Game—12 of them seniors.

Why weren't there more PBA regional players?

Where were all the seniors who have complained about the lack of activity offered by the PBA? High Roller officials provided a format with prizes for three age divisions…39 and under, 49 and under, and 50 and over. Although all three divisions would vie against each other for the top prize in match game competition, bowlers who qualified for the finals in their own age bracket were well compensated for their efforts, even though they may have been eliminated earlier.

Displaying great courage, confidence, and intestinal fortitude, three female superstars, Liz Johnson, Tish Johnson, and Kelly Kulick bucked heads against their male counterparts and gave a great account of themselves. As a matter of fact, Kulick came within an eyelash of making the top four finalists.

Bowling fans were treated to one of the most unusual and exciting matches when Jason Belmonte faced Osku Palermaa in the semifinals. Belmonte won the match, two games to one. It was unusual in more ways than one. Both lads are 21 years old. Both are foreigners -- Belmonte from Australia, Palermaa from Finland. Bowling fans may recall Palermaa's American debut as a TV finalist in the 2004 U.S. Open. But most unusual, both employ a two-handed, no-thumb delivery. However, Belmonte's execution is far smoother and less vigorous.

Lest anyone question the ability of seniors being able to compete against younger competition, 51-year-old David Ozio won the tournament by utilizing his swan-like game in overcoming Jason Belmonte, who was recently acclaimed the world's top amateur by the World Tenpin Association. It was an end to an exciting week of competition. I would have enjoyed it more if more PBA members had taken advantage of this great opportunity.

On another note, the following day after the A Game, Steve Sanders, president of Pinacle Events and main honcho of the Eliminator megabucks tournaments, invited Dick Evans, Joe Lyou, and myself for a special presentation of a proposed senior tour entitled Generations Bowling Tour.

Steve Sanders is one of the most aggressive, energetic, and optimistic promoters in the game. In addition to this, he is extremely passionate towards senior bowlers who have expressed a desire for a broader bowling schedule from PBA officials. Presently, the PBA Senior Tour is limited to 10 tournaments, none of which are televised.

Here are Steve Sanders's proposed Generations Bowling Tour highlights:

Needless to say, Sanders developed a sparkling media presentation. It featured endorsements from Mark Roth, Teata Semiz, Pete Couture, Johnny Petraglia, Dick Weber, Dave Soutar, David Ozio, and Steve Neff. It highlighted the history of Pinacle Events, Inc., explained the Generations Tour, GBT goals, Generation Tour strategy, the aforementioned Tour highlights, corporate strategy, marketing strategy, in-market promotions, on-premises promotions, preliminary schedule, GBT projected sites, event highlights, event schedule, pro-ams, National Pro-Am Fantasy Week, projected format, projected prize funds, timetable, projected tour financials, future goals, and future stars.

It was a bold, comprehensive, well-designed presentation—one that will give hope and confidence to all bowlers who have been clamoring for a sound senior program. The GBT would not compete with the PBA Senior Tour. They will be held at different times of the year.

With PBA officials presently devoting most of their resources to build a successful and financially sound regular PBA Tour, Sanders is in an enviable position to formulate his proposed plan. However, with all due respect, Sanders has made several proposals during the past few years to not only promote senior bowlers, but women bowlers as well. But, to date, none have materialized.

This isn't to say that Sanders's latest proposal will meet the same fate. But, until it reaches fruition, it will remain an unfulfilled dream for wishful senior bowlers. If the GBT succeeds, it will be a tremendous, idealistic accomplishment for Steve Sanders, one of the most passionate and determined promoters in bowling.