He sees pro bowling as back on a roll

The possibility that Steve Miller would ever become president and CEO of the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) was virtually unthinkable two years ago. Now, he holds that job - despite describing his bowling background as "none."

Actually, that's not quite accurate.

"I've bowled, like 60 million other Americans," he hedges during an interview at the PBA headquarters. Behind him is a spectacular 28th-floor view of downtown Seattle and Puget Sound. Ahead, a vision for the future of the PBA taking shape.

How Miller got to this office hints at the PBA's new direction. After a career as a track-and-field coach, college athletic administrator, and marketer, he had decided to take early retirement. Then Ian Hamilton, a former colleague in the marketing department at Nike, called to say that he'd taken a job as commissioner of the PBA.

"I didn't even know what the PBA was; I thought he meant the PGA [Professional Golfers Association]," Miller confesses.

Miller agreed to do some overseas consulting for the PBA and eventually was enticed into becoming its president.

What convinced him to sign on was a new ownership group - three former Microsoft executives who forked over $5 million to buy the struggling PBA, which was bankrupt, then spent an additional $2 million when more debt surfaced.

He also took a close look at the PBA Tour. Over four months he visited cities like Akron and Toledo, Ohio, to see if his views of bowling were accurate. For him, bowling conjured up visions of run-down facilities, smoking and drinking, and lackluster competitions short on athleticism.

Although some of his stereotypical impressions held up, the "percentage of their correctness was drastically off," he says.

In fact, there was a lot to like, including fit, articulate, and highly competitive bowlers with interesting personalities.

The PBA now sees the "stars in alignment" for pro bowling, Miller says, both in the United States and eventually overseas, where Japan, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and Malaysia are among the beckoning markets.

"It's a sport that we can get on TV; it's got a history; it's got a hall of fame; it's got some heroes. And if we can reinvigorate it, breathe life into it, it could really have a big value," Miller says.

No lasers and rock music - for now

In something of a surprise, the new owners aren't calling for a radical makeover of the men's PBA Tour. There will be little in the way of new high-tech bells and whistles. In fact, during a lengthy interview with Miller, the word "computer" is hardly uttered, and little mention made of a new website, which he says still has a long way to go.

In one high-tech move, the PBA might project "virtual" sponsor names and logos onto the lanes. And eventually, TV viewers might be taught the biomechanics of bowling using "virtual" human figures.

The pro tour needs modernizing, but for now the Microsoft and Nike alums directing the PBA are emphasizing the need to reconnect with longtime bowling fans. The target audience, Miller says, is the serious recreational bowler.

"If I'm not mistaken," he says, "there were 7 [million] to 9 million people in leagues last year who each bowled 35 to 40 times. I'd be happy with 7 [million] to 9 million people watching our [telecasts]."

The important thing, he realizes, is not to be distracted by bowling's newfound chicness, evident in the popularity of bowling fashions, bowling dating, and the use of laser lights and rock music to make bowling centers happening places for young people and families.

Celebrities, too, are identifying themselves as bowlers, and in some cases, hosting charity tournaments. Plus there's "Ed," NBC's popular TV show about a young lawyer who returns home to Ohio to buy a bowling alley.

At this point, Miller sees all "the funky, glow-in-the-dark" developments as important backdrops, hinting at future possibilities. But in the short term, they are largely peripheral to the job at hand, namely to connect to those core bowlers who "don't care about 'Ed' ... and don't care about bowling dates." They want to see the best players in action, playing in competitions with real drama.

Toward this end, the PBA has created a schedule of 20 regular-season events, which began last month in Peoria, Ill. ESPN has signed a three-year deal to provide TV coverage. There's also a new tournament format and more than double the prize money. The pot is now a far more respectable $4.3 million, with $40,000 won each week by the first-place finisher.

Bleachers, fanfests, and 'buzz'

From his days growing up in bowling-minded Chicago, Miller recalls how broadcaster Chris Schenkel was a fixture on Saturday afternoon telecasts that starred big name bowlers like Don Carter and Dick Webber.

Bowling has been hard to find on TV in recent years, but the ESPN contract should provide a consistent presence. The PBA also plans on doing a much better job of telling stories - marketing the athletes, something Miller did in his days with Nike.

Miller may not be working with sleek Olympic runners and jumpers anymore, but he sees good potential in hooking fans on bowlers like Bryon Smith, a regular kind of guy who spent the summer building his own house.

The PBA is also seeking out modern bowling palaces, where arena-type seating, with bleachers on both sides of the lanes, can be arranged, and fanfests held. To make tournaments more compelling, they've been reformatted to produce as much head-to-head drama as possible.

All these developments are beginning to make "noise," to create a buzz. Even Forbes magazine showed up to report on the PBA's new Microsoft-Nike connections and what they might mean to the marketing and promotion of bowling.

Miller says team bowling and mixed-gender bowling could be in the long-term plan. But for now, the focus is on rebuilding a strong foundation.

"It's a balancing act," Miller says. "You have to be careful that you don't lose the integrity of the sport. Maintaining that will ultimately get us over the hump."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.