Dec 2, 2019
We hit the lanes this week to delve into the fascinating story of the nation’s first and only attempt at a professional team bowling league – a seemingly anachronistic idea by today’s standards, but a concept that made total sense in the early 1960s when pro bowling was in ascendance and the sport was seemingly everywhere on television.
Bowlers Journal columnist and historian J.R. “Dr. Jake” Schmidt (The Bowling Chronicles: Collected Writings of Dr. Jake) joins the podcast to lay out the curious backstory, short-lived season(s) and unwitting legacy of the National Bowling League (1960-62) – an ambitious, but altogether logical attempt to professionalize bowling in the style of America’s other major team sports, and capitalize on the big money purses beginning to fuel national TV competitions during the late 1950s.
Amidst a bevy of popular made-for-TV competitions that featured various takes on head-to-head play – like NBC’s weekly Championship Bowling, and primetime’s Make That Spare (ABC) and Jackpot Bowling (NBC) – the coast-to-coast NBL hoped to offer bowling professionals a city-based team format, replete with purposely-designed television-friendly arenas and boisterous fans.
Despite investment from deep-pocketed funders like AFL founder Lamar Hunt and oilman/Cotton Bowl creator J. Curtis Sanford (whose Dallas-based 72-lane Bronco Bowl set the standard for NBL facilities); a well-publicized draft (with then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson in attendance); and a novel scoring system that featured situational bonus points and wild-card substitutions, the NBL stumbled out of the gate devoid of the very thing it needed most to succeed – a national television contract.
Outfoxed by the nascent Pro Bowlers Association – which was simultaneously pioneering a laddered individual vs. individual national tour format with a similarly fledgling ABC-TV – the NBL had to rely solely on individual gates while trying to convince other networks to take notice. Early crowds were sparse to virtually non-existent, and most pros found the money, light workload and broad television exposure of the PBA’s “Pro Bowlers’ Tour” to be the better path to ply their wares.
It’s a tale of what might have been – and we “spare” no question in our pursuit of the story of this most intriguing of forgotten pro leagues!