Scoring twist may boost bowling

Not to disparage the PBA Tournament of Champions and Akron, Ohio, its home base during the halcyon years of bowling on television, but imagine knocking down tenpins on a way bigger stage.

Imagine a spectacular arena that would attract bowlers from a multitude of nations where flags would wave and people at home might stay up until the wee hours of morning to watch.

Imagine the grand old game with an exciting new scoring system, and the winners getting to chat with Bob Costas in the studio at the end of the day, and maybe even getting his or her picture on a box of Wheaties, a la Mary Lou Retton or that redheaded kid with the wild hair who does the half-pipe.

Imagine what might happen if bowling became an Olympic sport.

Imagine, too, if Denmark put together a women’s Olympic bowling team that looked like its women’s Olympic curling team.

This is what PBA and other bowling officials imagine, except maybe the part about the Danish curling team.

This is why Sunday’s World Bowling Tour finals at the new South Point Bowling Plaza were contested with an experimental match-play format.

That’s right, it was match-play bowling, and it was just like match-play golf, except on hardwood and with pin placements that were always the same.

An American bowler (Liz Johnson) rallied to beat a Swedish bowler (Sandra Andersson). It was sort of like the 1999 Ryder Cup, only none of the other American bowlers and their spouses ran onto the lanes and trampled the oil pattern.

PBA officials have been flying back and forth to Lausanne in Switzerland to get bowling placed on the Olympic roster.

If bowling were to become an Olympic sport, it would be a giant shot in the arm for a time-honored pastime and industry in which interest has fluctuated. And then perhaps bowling could stop reinventing itself, and Terrell Owens wouldn’t have to come out and roll a few frames.

These talks are only in their preliminary stages, but it is believed that switching to match play could be bigger than Lebowski to the Olympic bowling effort. Match play, the reasoning goes, is easier to understand than traditional bowling scoring, takes less time, and generally results in closer finishes.

TV loves a close finish, which explains why stock-car racing now has a playoff system, and golf has a playoff system, and baseball has expanded theirs — and whatever pro tennis might be doing, because I’m sure pro tennis must be doing something to manufacture drama, too.

I’m told a lot of the pro bowlers aren’t keen on match play. This doesn’t include one of the oldest pros who was strolling the lanes before Sunday’s matches.

“You’re seeing a lot of changes in the sport, all positive,” said Carmen Salvino, the 80-year-old Hall of Famer, as he signed bowling pins for appreciative fans at the sprawling $35 million, 90,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art bowling addition to the South Point Arena and Equestrian Center. “Look at this place. This is wow. Unbelievable.”

Salvino was exaggerating slightly when he said anybody can bowl in a qualifying block, but “I like it when you have to look in the other guy’s eye. When it comes to the 10th frame and you need a double, that’s what tests your manhood, baby.”

And your womanhood, if that’s a word.

In the first match using the match-play format — high score on the first ball wins the frame, with spare shots used only to resolve ties — Andersson was 3-up after seven frames before Johnson came back to win the women’s semifinal in overtime.

So the first match played under the experimental rules went down to the last shot, and then beyond, to the 11th frame. I’ll bet somebody will send the tape to Lausanne after ESPN gets around to showing it.

The men’s final also went to extra frames, with Finland’s Mika Koivuniemi defeating Sean Rash of Montgomery, Ill., on a strike in the 12th.

“I haven’t made up my mind yet. I’ll have to go home and think about it,” Andersson said after she blew the lead during a match in which nary a spare was thrown.

“It takes away the spare shots, and that’s bowling in my eyes.”

Said Johnson, who lost to Kelly Kulick in the women’s finals, “It’s definitely exciting.”

As the public-address announcer told the crowd seated in the comfy chairback seats on the risers, match-play bowling probably is going to take a little getting used to, if this wasn’t a one-time deal.

Johnson was an 11-time winner on the women’s tour before it suspended operations in 2003. So if match play results in bowling becoming an Olympic sport — and if interest and sponsorship would then trickle down to help the women’s tour start up again — mark her ball solidly in the match-play pocket.

“If that’s what it takes, yeah,” she said as the men rolled practice shots before their finals, and the beautiful new bowling plaza at the South Point came alive with the usual cacophony of bowling sounds, such as spectators asking where one could get a cold beer.

At the end of the day it was still bowling, even if the scoreboard looked weird.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski

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