There aren’t many lifelong sports in the world. You won’t see Michael Jordan, who just turned 44, driving to the basket past 23-year-old LeBron James.
Most athletes fight age and retirement every day.
Head out to the bowling lanes, however, and age evaporates like a puddle on a sunny day. It doesn’t matter if you’re 18 or 80; bowling is a fun, frustrating and friendly game.
But for an ambitious few, it’s more than just a game. Members of the 50 NCAA women’s bowling teams, it’s a championship sport whose victor gets a trophy identical to those coveted by winners of basketball’s NCAA Tournament or baseball’s College World Series.
These highly competitive women roll custom-made bowling balls down lanes that are more like golf greens than you might think. Reading the undulations, patterns of oil, and slight imperfections in each lane can mean the difference between glory and gutter.
The coach of Central Missouri’s team, Ron Holmes, breaks down the difference between competitive bowling and recreational bowling like this: Take your average bowling score and subtract 25 from it. That’s your likely score on competition-ready lanes that are less forgiving for inexperienced bowlers.
On tournament lanes, the ball can become a sponge that collects oil or a snowplow that redistributes it. Each throw changes the playing surface like a middle-of-the-round storm morphs a golf course. Coaches are the caddies, always in the ears of bowlers advising them on their next shot.
Next, let’s bump an additional 20 points off your newly-lowered score because you’re not used to the pressure of bleachers full of crazed fans whose reactions hinge on the ability of the 10 pins in front of you to keep their balance.
MU’s gutter ball
You won’t find any of this passion or NCAA-level bowling on the campus of the University of Missouri, however.
When the MU athletics department was asked to get on at the ground floor of this emerging sport, MU passed, and a state filled with bowling enthusiasts and history was denied a collegiate team at its largest university.
It’s time to pick up the spare, because the benefit for the sport and the university is undeniable.
Missouri, a state with more registered bowlers than all but 11 others, does have two NCAA bowling teams, but neither is a Division I school.
Holmes, who coaches the fifth-ranked Central Missouri team, made the pitch to the MU athletics department in 2000 when bowling was one of a handful of the NCAA’s emerging sports.
Holmes admits his presentation was shaky. Like a student who forgot his homework, he entered the office at Hearnes Center without any experience in promoting collegiate bowling. Armed only with a lackluster black-and-white information packet, Holmes tried to convince Gene McArtor, who was MU’s senior associate athletics director at the time, that adding bowling would benefit Mizzou.
“I don’t think it went very well, probably because of me and my experience,” Holmes said. “I really didn’t hear a whole lot back from them.”
McArtor, now MU’s director of project management, said he was regularly hearing pitches from special interest groups promoting the addition of sports like men’s soccer, lacrosse, or ice hockey.
“We listened to the proposal, but we were not looking to add any sports and didn’t have the financial capability of adding any sports,” McArtor said.
In reality, concerns about costs are misplaced. Holmes, now a veritable expert on collegiate bowling, points out that bowling is the least expensive of all the NCAA sports to install and maintain.
“At the Division I level, it was the cheapest way to go as far as adding a sport that can compete right away,” he said. “It can be immediately successful with a very minimal investment.”
More than beginner’s luck
The chance to win right away makes bowling stand out in the NCAA. Football teams like Florida International, which moved up to Division I-A in 2005, won’t contend for a national championship in our or even our grandchildren’s lifetimes.
But Vanderbilt University, which didn’t have much of a team three years ago, already has risen to second in the bowling rankings.
Brian Reese is director of sport operations at Vanderbilt. He said his school was looking to add a sport without having to construct any multimillion-dollar facilities.
Some universities, like Nebraska, have on-campus lanes, but that’s not a necessity.
“Every city has bowling alleys, and we work real closely with ours,” Reese said.
According to the United States Bowling Congress, the basic expenses of a low-end collegiate bowling program can be covered for less than the cost of a Honda Accord — about $18,000. This includes competition fees, lodging, transportation and equipment but not scholarships or the salaries of coaches.
With the omnipresent need to comply with Title IX, bowling is a logical way to give scholarships to female athletes.
But McArtor, who brought women’s soccer to Mizzou during his tenure, said MU was already in compliance with the gender equality requirements when Holmes approached him.
The problem with that line of thinking is it forgets that schools always need more slots for men’s scholarships. Finding women’s sports are the only way to open up those additional opportunities.
That’s partially what drew in the University of Nebraska, the only Big 12 school with an NCAA bowling team.
Reese, who moonlights as chairman of the NCAA Women’s Bowling Committee, said the lack of conference affiliations might concern some schools looking to add bowling. His school, Vanderbilt, and Nebraska both are seen as independent in the eyes of the NCAA.
“We know the SEC is never going to add bowling, and the Big 12 isn’t either,” he said.
Finding a home
The fourth-ranked ’Huskers have won two national championships since the NCAA made bowling an official sport, and they owe much of their successes to coach Bill Straub.
Straub said the state of Nebraska, which has 1.9 million residents but no professional sports teams, always rallies around its college teams.
“The people who are in Nebraska are cheering for the successes of the sport, whether it be the football team or the bowling team,” he said.
As for the sport’s potential at Mizzou, Straub said he is not sure why it hasn’t been considered more diligently.
“Columbia’s a good bowling town,” he said. “To be honest, the state of Missouri has a whole lot better background for bowling than does the state of Nebraska.”
Ron Hawkins, manager at AMF Town & Country Lanes in Columbia, spends his days hearing that sweet, dull roar of the ball peppered with the thunderous clash of 15-inch wooden pins.
Hawkins said the people of Columbia who bowl recreationally would naturally become fans interested in seeing a competitive women’s team in tournaments.
“The interest is growing because it’s a sport anybody can participate in,” he said.
The state is full of bowling celebrities. Well-known professional bowler Pete Weber, whose father is bowling legend Dick Weber, grew up in Missouri.
The fact that the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame is in St. Louis is enough for the U.S. Bowling Congress to call St. Louis a contender
for “Bowling Capital of the Nation.”
Someone needs to tell Missouri’s high schools that bowling is popular in the state.
Missouri is surrounded by states that offer varsity bowling at the high school level.
Kansas, Illinois, Arkansas and Iowa all have girls varsity bowling.
Missouri only sponsors club-level bowling, which prevents the youth of the state from blossoming into legitimized bowling competitors.
Kerwin Urhahn, executive director of the Missouri State High School Activities Association, said individual schools must ask the state to add programs — not the other way around.
“We can throw the topic out there to see if there’s an interest, but normally it has to be a grassroots effort that comes from the schools,” he said.
Though he agrees that Missouri is a bowling state, Urhahn said he hasn’t yet heard from a school interested in adding bowling to its varsity ranks.
That would make it tough for MU to recruit top bowlers from Missouri.
The University of Central Missouri’s roster is evidence of this lack of top-level, in-state talent. UCM has just two Missourians on its 16-member squad.
Despite everything that hints that the time is right for bowling at MU, one set of numbers isn’t so hopeful.
According to the U.S. Bowling Congress, the number of bowlers in Missouri has steadily decreased each year. In the past 10 years, the state has lost 32 percent of its registered bowlers, which works out to at least 2,000 bowlers lost every year.
But even with those depressing numbers, and despite the diminishing amount of free time for the average person, more than 75,000 Missourians are still registered bowlers.
Perhaps the way to reverse that decline in bowling’s popularity is to increase its presence in the state. All you need to do is watch and hope MU does the rest.
When it comes to bowling, the saying is true: Seeing is believing.
“The old stereotype that bowling is not a sport is not accurate at this level,” Holmes said. “Smoking, non-trained athletes and other things that used to go along with bowling are not there. Once you see it, it opens your eyes to that level of play.”