Bowlers Worry About Pba Tour's Decline -- Life On Tour Hard Enough Without Worrying Whether It's Worth It . . .
Dallas Morning News
GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - The face that professional bowling would like to put on its sport is Amleto Monacelli's. Dark and dashing, framed in a gleaming rush of black hair, it is a handsome face. Twice, it has been on the cover of the PBA media guide, recognizing him as player of the year. He's hip, he's fit, he's a hit.
A lot of the time, he's just not here.
"If it's a low-paying tournament," said Johnny Campos, PBA tournament director, "he just won't go."
Monacelli goes back to his native Venezuela, leaving the PBA to deal with what officials concede is an image problem. With title sponsors and network television pulling out at some of the stops, the sport is losing face. Bowlers are nervous. Life on the tour is hard enough - crisscrossing the country by car, staying in cheap hotels - without worrying whether it's worth it financially.
ABC-TV dropped the summer tour last year and will not show it this year, either. Two major corporate sponsors - True Value and General Tire - dropped out this year. Only one major sponsor remains for the seven summer tournaments, and the forecast isn't any better for the fall. As a result, many players all but drop out after the 15-stop winter tour.
Traveling pros need sponsors
But bowlers turned out 188 strong recently at the Forum Bowl for the Quaker State 250 - one of the game's richest with a $250,000 purse, including $48,000 for first prize. There, they were introduced as the best in the world. In golf or tennis, that introduction is good for millions.
In bowling, it's just good for the ego.
The PBA's biggest winner last year was Norm Duke, who earned $273,753 in prize money on the way to becoming player of the year.
Most of the players in the Quaker State 250 didn't win a tenth of that.
Players estimate it takes from $800 to $1,000 a week to cover travel expenses and entry fees. To make it, most need a sponsor. Leigh Leventis, a lawyer from Columbia, S.C., is backing 11 players full-time, more than twice as many as any other sponsor.
"I used to want to be a pro bowler until my dad, thank God, made me go to law school," Leventis said. "Bowling is one of my favorite sports, and as long as I can break even or not lose a lot of money, it's fun."
Incentives pay best
He sends his players enough money for five weeks at a time, with the amount ranging from $1,000 to $1,300 per week. In return, Campos mails the players' winnings to Leventis, who keeps an account. At the end of the year, he settles up with each player. The splits differ with each.
He said he sent out $750,000 last year. Asked what he made, he hems and said, chuckling, "I had a good year."
Most of the players' money is made in incentives, not prize money. Winning with Brunswick's Red Zone ball is worth $35,000 from the manufacturer, for example. A 300 game on television is worth $100,000.
In a tournament early this year, Mike Miller missed the TV cut by one spot. "The difference between finishing sixth and fifth," Leventis said, "was between $15,000 and $20,000 for using those products on TV. The key is to make the show."
Only five make it every week. Another of Leventis' brood, Jess Stayrook, has won one tournament on the winter tour and finished second in another.
Competitors use nursery
The room that normally serves as a nursery at the Forum Bowl is the players' paddock, or locker room. They come here to store their bowling balls and a change of shirts and shoes. Here, the balls are weighed to make sure they're legal (no more than an ounce variance from side to side, or three ounces from top to bottom). A small table is littered with what appears to be clear nail polish. The liquid is actually a kind of glue used to adhere thin, gauzy adhesive patches to the players' hands. Throwing hundreds of balls a week raises blisters and cracks and calluses; the patches make it bearable.
On one wall of the paddock is a bulletin board. Three sheets of a yellow legal pad form hotel sign-up sheets. Large bold numbers bear the prices per night: $55 for Florida, $49 for Peoria, $35 for Toledo, along with the highlights: "one complimentary cocktail per guest" . . . "HBO," . . . "indoor pool."
Harry Sullins, a tour veteran since 1982, is the contact. For his efforts, he usually is provided a free room by the hotels.
Other messages include $10 haircuts and a bible study and a laundry-bundle service. A smaller note announces in a penciled scrawl, "Animal sacrifice (small animals only) Room 143. Bring own drinking mug."
Troup now part-timer
The most formal notification is the PBA's list of appearance guidelines. They cover what a bowler wears - whether he is competing or not - as long as he is in the bowling center.
Among the most pressing concerns are that bowlers wear clean clothes and belts. Knickers are permitted in competition, but no shorts. Turtlenecks are OK for casual attire, but no mock turtlenecks.
The first violation of appearance guidelines results in a $10 fine; second, $25, third, $50. A fourth violation is a "conduct offense breaching the PBA code of ethics. . . . The Tournament Director maintains the authority to disqualify any offender at any time for severe violations of the dress code."
No bowlers knew of anyone who has been disqualified for foul fashion.
In his best days, Guppy Troup was as good as he was wild. He won $87,000, not counting incentives, in 1984, when he wore clothing that looked like psychedelic experiments. "People tuned in to see what kind of pants I'd be wearing," he said. "They didn't care how I bowled."
He called his favorite pair of pants a strawberry shortcake number, so offensive he couldn't describe them. "They were kind of green with red dots and pink and blue . . . ." In those days, he'd throw a strike and jump over the ball return.
But now he is 45 and a part-timer on the tour since his son was born in 1990. These days, the wildest thing about him is his footwear. He took a pair of white bowling shoes to a man in a flea market in Cherryville, N.C., and told him to paint fish on the shoes.
"What kind of fish?" the man asked.
"A trout, whatever," Guppy said.
His feet appear to be two mullets. The paint job, which cost $50, was a big hit at the pro-am. He's planning on having the man paint another pair. He'd also like a pair of pants to match. He's not sure it's worth the investment, what with the probability that a good wash will ruin the paint job.
"I could wear them three or four times," he reasoned, "until you could stand them up in the corner."
He is reminded that such a practice likely would violate the dress code. He said he never has been fined for clothing, despite his reputation.
"The guidelines are better than they used to be," he said. "Used to be, no facial hair at all. The guys are trying to get a deal passed for pony tails. Our guys with long hair would look a helluva lot better with pony tails.
"But all the PBA's trying to do is raise the image up."
Campos said the PBA's "image committee" is considering a few revisions to attract a younger audience. Relaxing the hair code, he said, was an attempt to create an Andre Agassi-type character in bowling.
So far, it hasn't worked.
Hall of Famers or not, the bowlers are most approachable. Any one gets an autograph at any time except when they're bowling, it seems.
The most satisfied fan had to be the fellow who ran up to Duke.
"Hey, Bubba, you busy?" he said, and extended his program, which bears a large portrait of Duke on the cover.
A friendly sort who uses both hands when meeting someone, he tells the fan he has wanted to be on the cover of something all his life. The fan doesn't seem to hear him.
"My brother will be all over this," he said. "He'll pay me for this."
Soper sells shares
Butch Soper had planned to go to college and become an accountant until his three kids came too soon. He went to a bowling center and became a corporation instead.
In 1991, almost 20 years after he started on the tour, he no longer had a sponsor. The idea came to him one day to sell shares in himself. He thought about charging $1,000 a share at first, then decided he was pricing himself out of the market.
Butch Soper, Inc., based in Lake Havasu City, Ariz., went for $100 a share. In his first year, he was worth $31,800. The next year, he dipped to $28,200.
But, coming off a season in which he made more than $100,000 in his best on the tour, he is a hot stock. Eighty-one stockholders own 430 shares of Butch Soper, Inc., this season.
He called himself a good investment, having returned $159.45 on each share last year.
"This is easier on you, having a lot of sponsors," he said while doctoring the finger holes on his bowling balls. "When you're bowling bad, you don't have to call your sponsor and explain what went wrong.
"There's too many of 'em to call."
The shareholders are all over the country, he said. The largest shareholders are two men who own 50 apiece.
The only negative is paperwork. Each quarter, he sends out a report. At the end of the year, he mails a questionnaire asking if they want to keep their money invested or cash out.
He considers himself fortunate.
"There's about 20 guys out here making a good living," he said, pointing to the lanes. Only 53 will win any money, with 53rd making $1,820.
"It's a little shameful it ain't more."
In a 53-foot trailer parked outside the Forum Bowl, Keith Brovald, 36, is bent over a bowling ball. He is marking it to be drilled, a process he will duplicate about 600 times over the course of the week, working until after midnight almost every night.
Brovald is part of the Pro Bowlers Service Corp., which does as it says. It hauls 1,600 balls, four drills, three polishers and a host of grips, shoes and sundry equipment from site to site across the country.
Brovald, who has been drilling since he was 14, has been on the truck since October 1993. Because of the pace, he likely won't last long. The average on the truck, he said, is four years.
He has worked long enough to see the sweeping changes in the industry.
The newest rage - bowling's equivalent to golf's square grooves or baseball's aluminum bat or tennis' oversized racket - is the reactive resin ball.
According to Brovald, it grips the dry part of the lane better and slides more on the oil. The ball came out in 1990. He said it took months to catch on. Of the 600 balls he expects they will drill this week, he predicted 570 would be reactive resin.
He hates them.
"It's hurt a lot of the better players," he said. "It's evened it up for everyone."
Why wouldn't the American Bowling Congress ban it?
"That's a good question."
Older players do not like the ball, either. Hall of Famer Mark Roth, who grew up throwing a plastic ball, said it was difficult to make the adjustment to urethane. He had to learn to throw differently, while the players coming up did not. Now, he said, the resin ball has brought the lesser players closer to the stars.
But the ball has been out for four years, and no one expects the sport to ban it out of fear of offending a manufacturer.
"That would be a pretty expensive rule," Campos said. "Anyway, the technology is to the point where if you outlaw a certain surface, they'll just come up with something else."
The retail price of the balls ranges from $100 to $200, PBA officials said. But most players receive them free from the manufacturers. The only price they pay is the $32 it costs to have each ball drilled. Even that, however, is refunded if the players return the ball.
Some will use plenty. Duke and John Mazza, another frequent winner, average 10 balls a week, Brovald said.
He doesn't mind that they are so finicky.
"It'd be different if the guy's a piece-of-trash player," he said. "If it was someone who was making a thousand bucks a year, I'd tell him to get lost.
"A guy wins $10,000 every time he bowls, I'm not gonna tell him anything."
He said he has drilled so many balls for the players he can tell by looking at one whose it is. From recall, he spit out the specs for Duke's ball.
"The easiest guys are the stars," he said. "They don't deviate much. Stars don't go searching for miracles.
"The majority of players don't understand that."
Schlegel: "The Iron Man"
Ernie Schlegel - his thin brown hair flapping in the breeze, his glasses dominating a pinched face - is wagging a finger at Bobby Dinkins, one of the PBA's media-relations officers. Schlegel, 51, hasn't won more than $45,000 in prize money since his big year, 1984, when he took more than $63,000. But he has bowled 720 tournaments, more than anyone else, going into the Quaker State. Of this he reminds Dinkins, telling him he wants to be introduced as "The Iron Man."
More often, Schlegel seems more bitter than angry. He tells a group during the pro-am that, in 1984, Tony Lama made him a pair of cowboy bowling boots. He wore them once in competition.
"They were a little warm," said Schlegel, who is originally from New York. "Warm" came out "wahm." He'd never worn a pair of boots in his life. But he was going to wear an entire western outfit if he could have worked out a deal with Tony Lama. He wore a red-white-and-blue outfit in the bicentennial season, and got nothing for it. This time, he would hitch up his pants every time he threw a strike, exposing his boots. All he wanted from Tony Lama was for them to give him $15 for every pair of bowling boots he sold.
"They should have done it," he said, shaking his head.
Monacelli stays in shapes
Most days, Amleto Monacelli gets up before six. He runs four or five miles, as many as eight if it's a nice day, or he has the time. If the hotel has a workout room, he'll lift weights or use the exercise equipment. If it doesn't, he finds a gym where he can. If he can't find one, he uses the jump rope he packs for the road.
He won't eat anything fried, nothing in cream sauce. A former soccer player in Venezuela, he keeps his weight at a lean 155 pounds.
Monacelli, 33, has been on this routine for 10 years, almost since he started on the tour. He knows of no one else who does anything close to as strenuous.
Asked how many other bowlers do some form of conditioning, he said, "Ten, 15 maybe. It's growing."
Being in shape helps
PBA officials said more started working out after Monacelli was named player of the year in 1989 and 1990. Playing in just 21 tournaments last year, down from the 28 he averaged the previous 10 years, he still won $102,875.
Being in shape helps him mentally as well as physically, he said.
"I just wish bowling centers would ban smoking," he said. "It's very hard on the eyes."
He is told he would be banning a lot of bowlers.
"But it would be good for them, too," he said.
Roth committed to bowl
Mark Roth is slumped in a chair, dazed. He has finished out of the money, which no longer is so unusual for a man who four times has been named player of the year, a Hall of Famer who likely is one of the three biggest names in the game's history.
He has a commitment with Brunswick to bowl a certain number of tournaments each year, and it may be all that's keeping him out here. He won't say how many tournaments; he is negotiating the figure.
Asked if he really wants to play any more, he said, "Right now, I don't know. I felt real bad after the first block. I was ready to get on the plane and go home.
"You ask yourself, `Is it there?' When you're bowling good, it's there. When you're not, it's not."
His right index finger is aching. A bowler's hand generally swells in competition, which is one of the reasons they keep it so cool in the building. Roth's right hand already is a mess. The thumb is all bumps and calluses, a victim of the savage jerk he gives the ball. His handshake is offered tentatively, as if it hurts.
He makes no excuses, though. "I patch it up, so it doesn't hurt," he said of his hand. "I wish I had an excuse."
Since 1988, he hasn't won more than $19,000 in any season. He doesn't bowl for the money so much any more, anyway.
"I get bored at home," he said, smiling thinly.
He won't play anything else, not until he's finished bowling, anyway. He's a bad golfer, he said. He tries too hard and hurts himself.
"I don't want to look bad," he said.
"Maybe I'll quit"
It isn't clear whether he's talking about golf or bowling. He does not have good feelings about his sport. Asked about its future, he said, "You don't want to quote me on that. It'd make me look bad."
He seems a little lost, as if he were thinking past the questions. People always tell him he should come back, he said. They still like to see him, at 43, eight years removed from his last victory.
He's not sure they should.
"Maybe I'll quit," he said, without much conviction. "If you're not doing good, there's no reason to be out there."
"It's a different time frame, different cycle."
Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.