Pro bowling will have a U.S. Open after all

The U.S. Open, a major pro bowling tournament that had been canceled after failing to attract sponsors, is back on after pro bowlers and fans urged organizers to reconsider their decision.

An agreement between the Bowling Proprietors' Association of America (BPAA), a trade group, and the U.S. Bowling Congress (USBC), the sport's governing body, reached earlier this month calls for the U.S. Open to be held from 2015-2017. However, locations for the tournament, one of four majors on the Professional Bowlers Association's (PBA) schedule, haven't yet been determined, and no deal to broadcast the contest has been reached. Both the BPAA and USBC have agreed to provide $100,000 each to fund the tournament, which organizers say costs about $500,000 to put on.

"I applaud the higher ups at USBC and BPAA for not giving up and finding a way to bring back the pulse of the US Open," wrote pro bowler Jason Bellmonte, one of the PBA's biggest stars, who rallied his fans on social media to restore the tournament. "There are still a few more steps to be done to get the Open back on TV and have to a serious prize fund, but at least the Open is back on the schedule and we can start to market and sell to potential sponsors. "

Keeping the U.S. Open going, which has been held since the 1970s, is the latest challenge to face bowling. The PBA was rescued in 2000 by a group of former Microsoft (MSFT) executives, and it has struggled to attract and retain fans.

The overall picture for the bowling industry is different story.

One the one hand, about 69 million people bowl at least one game year, making it America's No. 1 participation sport. That surpasses the 29 million people that the National Golf Federation estimates hit the links in 2013. Fewer people, though, take bowling seriously.

The USBC says it certifies 1.8 million bowlers to participate in sanctioned leagues, down more than 30 percent from 2.7 million in 2006. Bowlers have traditionally preferred to participate in sanctioned leagues so they can be assured that prize money is awarded as promised. Sanctioned leagues also certify bowlers when they roll perfect 300 games so that their achievements can be officially recognized. That also allows them to have an official average, needed to participate in tournaments.

"Some of this has been offset by the rise of non-traditional organized open play, bowlers who mimic league bowling but customize the frequency and rules to suit their lifestyles and level of play," wrote USBC Interim Executive Director Chad Murphy in an email to MoneyWatch.

According to the industry, bowling is surging in popularity among Millennials, and the average age of bowlers now is 29. Women also account for 49 percent of bowlers. The number of bowling centers (industry insiders hate the term "alleys"), like the ones seen in the classic movie "The Big Lebowski," has been dropping for decades.

However, a growing number of bowling nightclubs have sprung up in recent years, such as Lucky Strike Lanes, which has 20 locations. That's helping bowling shed its blue-collar image. Rival BowlMor AMF, which operates in six states, is scheduled to open a new "concept" called Bowlero in The Woodlands, Texas, near Houston this week. Bowlero features themed bars made from a vintage Airstream trailer, a classic Chevy truck and faux fireplaces along with 40-lanes of bowling.

Still, converting casual bowlers who flock to these new bowling centers into PBA fans or league bowlers will remain a challenge. But at least they'll have bowling's U.S. Open to aspire to again.

  • Jonathan Berr

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