When Kyle Troup bowls a strike, he sometimes pulls a hair pick out of his pocket and uses it to comb his mass of curls. And in making that motion, he’s sort of completing a circle.
Troup and young bowlers like him figure prominently in Fox’s plans to give bowling a better position at the weekend-sports table. “There are just a lot of fun, young stars in the PBA,” says Bill Wanger, executive vice president and head of programming and scheduling at Fox Sports. “We want to broaden their appeal.”
Some of TV’s first bowling programs also relied on participants who put as much emphasis on personality as they did on getting a ball down the lane. Early TV bowlers were known to whip the ball with a belt if they missed a chance for a strike or jump over the ball rack. “One would holler ‘Soo-ee,’ because he grew up on a farm,” says Nicholas Hirshon, a journalism professor at William Paterson University who has studied bowling programs in TV’s first decades.
“Bowling for Dollars” was a long-running TV program that featured, well, you can probably guess. Now it’s a strategy for Fox Corporation and the new owner of the nation’s biggest bowling association. Fox Sports will this weekend present its second season of Professional Bowlers Association matches as part of a four-year deal it struck with the sports league in 2018, ending decades of bowling matches that aired on ABC and, later, ESPN ( ESPN made a bid to renew its agreement with the league, says a person familiar with the matter, but was not able to come to new terms).
Fox’s quest has been aided by a change in ownership of the PBA, which was purchased in September of Bowlero Corp., the owner of Bowlmor Lanes and other bowling centers. The company’s goal is to tie professional bowling with the leagues and family events it hosts at its venues. “We are passionate about the sport at all levels,” says Colie Edison, the CEO of the PBA, and Bowlero’s chief customer officer. “The professional side can definitely get better.”
Fox has thrived for years on football and baseball, but raising the profile of sports like bowling is critical to the company. In March of this year, Fox completed a $71.3 billion deal of the bulk of its cable and studio assets to Walt Disney, resulting in a smaller media outlet far more reliant on its Fox News Channel and its portfolio of sports rights. In recent months, Fox has paid top dollar for rights to Thursday-night NFL games; renewed its long association with Major League Baseball; and expanded its rights deal with the New York Racing Association.
Part of the process involves making bowling more fun to watch. Fox has added new elements to the viewing experience, including blue graphics that track the change in oil patterns on the lanes and a box that keeps updating the maximum score each bowler can get. The PBA’s Edison points to “clutch technology” that allows the network to superimpose other graphics on the lanes, including lighting bolts to show a player’s successful frame, or a sponsor’s message.
“You’re not just up against the pins. You’re up against the lane itself,” she explains. “Some of the new technology exposes that to the viewer.”
To get more attention for the sport, Fox is putting more bowling on Fox Broadcasting and has created new events like this Sunday’s PBA Clash, a 90-minute event that runs adjacent to an NFL football telecast and features bowling stars taking part in a competition for $50,000.
Even so, one sports-marketing expert is skeptical Fox can get younger viewers hooked. “I really don’t see any way bowling captures the millennial and Gen-Z audience,” says Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis. He sees younger sports fans eager to take up Topgolf and esports, but not bowling.
Fox believes the sport has direct appeal to viewers in the “Midwest and the Rust Belt,” says Wanger, and intends to incorporate bowling stars into some of its other sports properties. The company is also mulling ways to tie Fox Bet, its new sports-betting subsidiary, into the bowling mix.
Besides, fewer sports are as easy to understand. Bowling has its roots in serving a pastime for people visiting the neighborhood bar on the way home from work, notes Hirshon, and has long appealed to a broad mix of adherents. ”Knocking down those pins?” he says. “It’s about as simple as you can get.”