In the 1970s professional 10 pin bowlers made twice as much as NFL players.

In the 1970s professional 10 pin bowlers made twice as much as NFL players.

There was a time when professional bowlers reigned supreme. In the "golden era" of the 1960s and 70s, they made twice as much money as NFL stars, signed million dollar contracts, and were heralded as international celebrities. After each match, they’d be flanked by beautiful women who’d seen them bowl on television, or had read about them in Sports Illustrated.  Today, the glitz and glamour has faded. Pro bowlers supplement their careers with second jobs, like delivering sod, or working at a call center. They share Motel 6 rooms on tour to save on travel expenses, and thrive on the less-than-exciting dime of beef jerky sponsorships. Once sexy, bowling is now synonymous with cheap beer and smelly feet. In an entertainment-saturated culture, has the once formidable sport been gutter-balled? What exactly is it like to be a professional bowler today?  History of Bowling as a Sport

Pinsetters in NY subway bowling alley, c.1910; Source: Wikipedia Bowling most likely originated in Germany around 300 A.D. as a religious ritual in which participants would roll stones at clubs to absolve their sins. The annals of history reveal little about where or how bowling gained traction, but according to written record, the sport was so popular in England by 1336, that King Edward III had to ban it to keep his troops focused on archery practice. Years later, King Henry VIII would ban bowling again for everyone but the upper crust: it had supposedly infatuated the working class so much that they were neglecting their trades and impeding the financial progress of their counties. By the time bowling was introduced to the United States during the colonial era, it had developed a rapport with the "common" man. Kickerbockers, built in New York in 1840, was the United States’ first modern, indoor bowling alley. Less than a year later, nine-pin bowling was banned in several states due to gambling and racketeering; enthusiasts added a tenth pin to circumvent the law. At the turn of the century, most bowling alleys were tiny, dingy, and frequented solely by men; rules were sparsely defined, and the game was unregulated and without governance. But in 1895, Joe Thum, a restaurateur considered to be the “grandfather of modern bowling,” pooled together representatives from local bowling clubs to create the American Bowling Congress (now known as the USBC). The organization set in place the rules and equipment used in bowling today. In the following years, a variance of organizations were created: the Bowling Proprietors Association of America (1932), the International Federation of Bowling (1952), and the Professional Bowlers’ Association (1958). With a working-man image and promotion by the U.S. Armed Forces, bowling became a billion dollar industry by 1945. Major technological advancements streamlined the sport and made it more accessible: pinsetters (young boys who literally stood behind the bowling pins and set them back up after each roll) were replaced by machines in the mid-1930s. Likewise, wooden balls were ousted for more dynamic plastic models. From the 1940s to the 1970s, bowling saw a golden age, and the sport’s professionals were its unbridled kingpins.  When Bowlers Were Rockstars

Source: Reminisce Throughout the 1930s and 40s, “Beer Leagues” dominated professional bowling. The best bowlers were recruited by beer companies -- Miller, Stroh’s, Budweiser -- and pitted against each other in tournaments. The era’s superstars -- Buzz Fazio (Stroh’s), Dick Weber (Budweiser), and like -- faced off on televised events that attracted millions of viewers. During one 1961 performance on ABC’s Make That Spare, pro bowler Don Carter won $19,000 ($149,000 in 2014 dollars), and a brand new Ford. The creation of the PBA in 1958 brought even more attention to the sport; by 1965, the PBA tour was televised on ABC Sports nationally, and had formidable sponsors in Coca-Cola and Ford Motors. A 1963 article in Sports Illustrated harped on the glamorous explosion of the bowling scene (2014 dollars have been added in brackets): “This year the PBA will put on 38 tournaments and give away more than $1,050,000 [$7.9 million] in prize money. Of its 942 members, 65 are touring pros who compete in at least half of the tournaments. The minimum any one of them makes is $10,000 [$75,700] a year. Moreover, 15 of the bowlers are in the $30,000-a-year bracket [$227,200], and there are four or five, including Don Carter, the most famous name in bowling, and Harry Smith, who earn upward of $75,000 annually [$568,00].” Harry Smith, the top bowler in 1963, made more money than MLB MVP Sandy Koufax and NFL MVP Y.A. Tittle combined. Sports Illustrated adds that Smith enjoyed a life of copious luxury: “Harry does so well that he is able to support a wife and four children in style, tool around the circuit in a maroon Lincoln Continental and indulge a taste for epicurean delicacies. In short, he is the personification of the prosperity that has suddenly overtaken the world of professional bowling.” In 1964, “bowling legend” Don Carter was the first athlete in any sport to receive a $1 million endorsement deal ($7.6 million today). In return, bowling manufacturing company Ebonite got the rights to release the bowler’s signature model ball. At the time, the offer was 200x what professional golfer Arnold Palmer got for his endorsement with Wilson, and 100x what football star Joe Namath got from his deal with Schick razor. Additionally, Carter was already making $100,000 ($750,000) per year through tournaments, exhibitions, television appearances, and other endorsements, including Miller, Viceroys, and Wonder Bread. A Miller High Life beer commercial starring bowler Billy Hardwick (1969) To be fair, these guys were incredible bowlers. To qualify for PBA competition, a bowler had to carry an average of over 200 points per game over the course of two years; considering that the hypothetical mean score is a 79, that’s no easy feat. Qualifiers also had to prove themselves in scratch matches and regional events. Nonetheless, by 1965, the PBA was offering unheard of prize money: $100,000 for its Tournament of Champions alone. With the rise in popularity of televised bowling and its superstars, recreational bowling also saw a boom in the 1960s: over 12,000 sanctioned alleys were constructed during the decade. The U.S. Bowling Congress peaked at 4.6 million recreational members. As one long-time “just for fun” bowler puts it: “Bowling was the thing to do back then. Every weekend, those places would be packed with kids, parents, grandparents. Everyone bowled.”