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Topics........Open, anything you want, preferably about bowling

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Guest Column By Gary Beck
"with permission from Bowlers Journal International."

It has been several years, but I recall it as if it were last week. I had agreed to bowl in a new mixed league and was attending its first organizational meeting. Things were moving along as expected. The schedule? Unanimously approved. The league format? Unanimously approved. Weekly league fees? Unanimously approved. Then came the shocker. The league overwhelmingly voted to equally divide the prize fund at season's end; i.e., the last-place team would “earn” the same amount as the first-place team. Their reasoning? They didn’t want the league to have any losers.

Reflecting on that experience and looking at the sport today makes me wonder: Is bowling’s current plight the result of trying to build a society in which everyone can win and no one will lose? It’s easy to understand the logic in trying to give everyone an equal chance to win: There are a greater number of “not-so-skilled” bowlers than skilled ones, and engaging their interest should help grow the sport, right? Perhaps initially. But in using handicap to make them equal, aren’t we doing more harm than good over the long term? In our attempts to cater to a mass audience, have we lost sight of what drives participation in sports?

If you watched "Pro Bowlers Tour" in its heyday on ABC Sports, you couldn’t miss the "Wide World of Sports" lead-in — bringing you the ”thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” from across the globe. But, in a society where scratch league competition has all but disappeared, where is the thrill in a victory achieved when an absence of talent resulted in an abundance of handicap? Where is the agony in a defeat that is simply shrugged off with, “They had more handicap”?

America has thrived as a society built on the principles of free enterprise where individuals and companies are rewarded based on their talents and results. Yet bowling has taken a different course and created a culture that rewards mediocrity rather than hard work, dedication and skill.

Consider USBC’s rules and recommendations on handicap. Rule 100g states that the handicap “percentage will be 100 percent unless otherwise provided by league rules.” USBC goes beyond recommending full handicap when it further warns, “Studies have shown that even with a 100% handicap, the higher average team has an advantage.” But if bowling is really a sport, haven't those with higher averages actually earned an advantage?

It isn’t just the structure of our competition that perpetuates mediocrity; our reward system encourages it as well. Each year, hundreds of city and state associations hold their championship events. Universally, the rewards for the scratch champions — the association’s best bowlers — are dwarfed by those bestowed on their handicap counterparts. For example, in one city event, the scratch team champion earned $850, whereas the handicap champion received $4,000. This mentality permeates our entire sport, even at the youth level. For several years, the national finalists of the Pepsi Youth Championships in the handicap division received paid travel expenses in a true national championship event. Their scratch division counterparts had to pay their own way to a non-Pepsi event. Further, their scores were worth only half as much as those by the handicap bowlers in earning scholarships.

Many have blamed bowling’s decline on a scoring environment which makes it easier to strike and easy to average 200. The culprit may be more fundamental than 3:1 oil ratios, entry angles, and coefficients of friction, however. Competition is at the heart of any sport, and by fostering an environment that reduces advantages gained through increased skill and offers greater rewards to those with less talent, we’ve stripped our sport of its very spirit. I’m not sure if a more demoralizing message could be delivered to a group of competitors than, “Practice, improve, and raise your average; in return, we promise an increased likelihood of defeat and decreased rewards.” Is it any wonder bowling leagues suffer significant turnover each year?

If bowling is truly going to rebuild the sport, I believe the following developments are essential:

1. Adjust the basic structure of competition. Stop trying to make everyone equal by using 100% handicap. It de-motivates 100% of your league’s participants, penalizes the good bowlers, and rewards the remainder for inferior performance. Instead, follow the lead of sports like volleyball and softball by offering different leagues for different levels of ability. I’m not suggesting trying to turn every league into a scratch league, but unless a competitor’s skill plays a significant role in success or failure, they’ll soon lose interest and move on to something else where it does.

2. Adjust the structure of rewards. To be effective in growing the sport, our rewards should be designed so as to make it desirable to work hard and improve. Today, the opposite is true. Rather than offering “optional” scratch entries into city and state tournaments, associations should simply allocate the prize fee so that the scratch champions in team, doubles and singles earn the most lucrative awards. They beat everyone; their reward should reflect that. The majority of prizes will still be awarded in the handicap division, but the incentive would discourage competitors from staying there.

Just like life, athletic competition can be unforgiving. There are winners and there are losers. There is victory and there is defeat. Unless bowling stops trying to make everyone a winner, I’m afraid we’re all doomed to lose.