IN MY VIEW: Bowling's image crisis, and what needs to be done about it
First Published on insidethegames.biz
Luis Suárez and bowling have something in common, it turns out. Bear with me here.
Image might not be everything, but it counts for an awful lot. Suárez's Jaws-like shoulder-gnawing at the FIFA World Cup last week simply added to his bad-boy image, the perception he has a short fuse and he bites before he thinks.
I have no idea if the Uruguayan international has any skills on the bowling alley, but the pins might - if they could talk - express some sympathy for him.
"They [the public] don't see it as a sport," Latvia's newly crowned European champion Diana Zavjalova tells me.
"They see it as a hobby...that's a big problem."
No one can accuse bowling's king pins of not knowing their flaws. The word "image", and the sport's generally poor one, was mentioned enough times for even the slowest to understand where the land lies.
Bowling is universal, anyone can play it, drink in hand. But therein lies its problem, as well as its strength.
"We're probably the largest participation sport in the world that's not in the Olympics," says World Bowling President Kevin Dornberger.
"We've got to convert that to establishing bowling as a recognised competitive sport."
Now, the Suárez comparison might be a little harsh - no one thinks bowling is a ticking time bomb ready to stick its metaphorical fangs into any detractors.
But if people don't understand the real you, then you have a problem.
About 200 million people across the globe go bowling at least once a year, with 70 million of those people in the United States.
It is thought to be below only walking as the biggest participation sport in the world.
While Olympic sports like fencing and equestrian are not exactly sports you can take part in at will, bowling's draw is that it is.
Bowling centres are pretty much anywhere and everywhere, and the sport can be played by young and old.
One opened in Downtown Disney in Orlando in December 2012 and is doing a roaring trade by all accounts, while another Splitsville centre is set to open in Boston's Patriot Place, in the shadow of the Gillette Stadium, home to the New England Patriots, later this year.
But how many people hitting strikes this weekend across the world have ever heard of the World Tenpin Bowling Championships?
"We're struggling right now because there's a huge difference between recreational bowling and competitive bowling," says Zavjalova.
"There's a lot more than just throwing a ball. The mental side of it is one of the biggest things.
"Not a lot of people see that. They don't know what my sport is.
"The sport itself is very good. But people in the sport should be more serious about it and help to promote it.
"People see it as a hobby. If they see it in the Olympics, people will view it differently."
In many ways, efforts to educate people about the sport, to develop clear pathways for people to go from bowling for fun to bowling professionally, and showing the world the true athlete you have to be to battle for titles, is closely linked to its desire to be part of the Olympic programme.
In April, international bowling organisations united under a single banner - World Bowling. It brings together the ten-pin and two nine-pine federations, as well as the umbrella organisation, the International Federation of Bowlers.
The aim was to streamline things and make decision-making easier.
Dornberger says there are three hurdles which need to be overcome: spectators, media and sponsors.
"Venues [for bowling] are not built for spectators, so it's tough," he told me at last week's International Bowl Expo in Orlando, Florida.
"We're putting lanes in football stadiums, by the pyramids in Egypt...but you can't do that for qualification rounds. Maybe you can get 300 to 400 people at most. So you don't want those [qualification rounds] as TV presentation events."
The conundrum of getting more media awareness is perhaps an even greater challenge.
Dornberger says: "Our scoring system is not easy enough to understand, even for bowlers.
"In the past there wasn't enough effort put on helping 'outsiders' understand what was going on, but we're working on that."
He believes that by solving the issue with spectators and media, the sponsors will be knocking on the door in greater numbers.
World Bowling has made representations to the Olympic Agenda 2020 roadmap, which was launched by International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach to look at ways of modernising the Movement.
The IOC will meet in Monaco in December to agree any changes, which could open the door for sports like bowling to get on to the Olympic programme as chiefs try to engage more young people with the Games.
"We didn't want to send our thoughts as though we were potentially a candidate for the Games," said Dornberger of his Agenda 2020 submission.
Zjan Shirinian is the deputy editor of insidethegames. Follow him on Twitter.
Date published: 27 August 2014