FIQ/WTBA, Dornberger now lead bowling's Olympic efforts By Mark Miller

    09/27/12

    Column

    Bowling's Olympic hopes that previously relied on the United States Bowling Congress are now in the hands of the World Tenpin Bowling Association

    MarkMillerExaminer_small.jpgWith more than nine million people competing in leagues and tournaments in the late 1970s, bowling was unquestionably the biggest participation sport in the United States and arguably in the world.

    Author Mark Miller

    Since then it has clearly lost such high status. Membership in the United States Bowling Congress now is below two million for the first time in 60 years. Meanwhile, there are more than 3.3 million competitive soccer participants and well above five million softball players in the U.S. alone.

    While bowling's decline has been attributed to a wide variety of changes in American society, the grassroots growth of soccer and softball has largely occurred since the U.S. hosted major worldwide events like the 1994 FIFA World Cup,1996 Olympics and 1999 and 2003 FIFA Women's World Cup for soccer and the 1996 Olympics for softball.

    All provided considerable mass media attention which attracted casual sports fans and non-soccer and softball corporations to their bandwagons. Golf is hoping for a similar resurgence when it returns to the Olympics in 2016, more than a century after it last was a medal sport.

    With more than 4.7 billion people viewing the 2008 Beijing Olympics (70 percent of the world's population), it's no wonder golf sees the Olympics as a golden opportunity. "The Olympics is seen as the most significant driver of the growth of the game around the world," Golf Channel President Mike McCarley told the Wall Street Journal.

    "If we want to grow golf globally, this is the best shot," said David Fay, former executive director of the U.S. Golf Association and a member of the International Golf Federation that was behind that sport's Olympic promotion.

    Bowling desperately needs that same type of global exposure but already made one major (and what many people feel too expensive) push to gain Summer Olympics medal sport status. While those efforts resulted in an Olympic exhibition in 1988 and opportunities to impress International Olympic Committee officials at several ensuing Games, bowling still is on the outside looking in.

    That last initiative was led and primarily funded by the Olympic Effort Group that included the American Bowling Congress, Women's International Bowling Congress, Bowling Proprietors' Association of America and the Brunswick Corporation.

    With most of the individuals previously involved either deceased or no longer involved with bowling, new entities and people would be needed to rekindle the movement.

    2012PCKevinDornberger.jpgEnter the Federation Internationalé des Quilleurs, World Tenpin Bowling Association and Kevin Dornberger (pictured right), president of both organizations. After learning the lessons of the past and knowing what's expected in the future, they know getting into the Olympics might be bowling's last chance at worldwide sporting respectability.

    "There is a changed mindset with the IOC," said Dornberger, the Arlington, Texas, resident who has been WTBA's president since 2007 and FIQ's president since last September. "Before it was who do you bribe. Now you sit down and learn the good, bad and ugly. It's been very open and candid.

    "The IOC has been very transparent of the issues. They said we don't have the visibility, sponsors, governance and youth development that we need to have. They want sports that are played, publicized and sponsored."

    Which brings us back to soccer and softball. Their efforts to bring major events to the U.S. and ensuing growth particularly at the youth levels have resulted in everything bowling seeks to become. That includes the potential for more people to visit bowling centers, pro shops and coaches for practice, equipment and advice.

    "We haven't talked specifics but there's no question sponsorship is huge like at the Super Bowl," Dornberger said. "They don't want to add sports that are played in a basement."

    The IOC wants to add sports that generate buzz by keeping fans engaged from the minute they arrive at the venue until after they leave. Dornberger cited his hometown Dallas Mavericks pro basketball team that features entertainment like dancers, drummers and music when play is stopped to keep peoples' attention.

    "The WTBA has to work on that," he said. "We can't have an hour for re-oiling. People will leave. We have to appeal to people who aren't bowlers.

    "Even when you build lanes on a street (like at this year's U.S. Women's Open in Reno, Nev.), it's still bowling. It's only a bowling tournament."

    Bowling's major worldwide exposures before 2011 were the WTBA World Championships held every two-to-four years but often in obscurity outside the bowling world. To try to change that perception, Dornberger and the WTBA created the World Bowling Tour. What began with nine total events last year has nearly doubled in 2012, all designed to bring world-class competitive bowlers to the ends of the earth.

    "The tour is by far our most important asset," said Dornberger, who previously championed the effort to allow professionals into WTBA events. "There are 15 stops scheduled for 2012 with the help of the PBA. By 2013, our goal is global TV for 15-20 events with global sponsorships that aren't bowling related. It's aggressive but you have to be aggressive."

    To make each event even more special, the Professional Bowlers Association and WTBA created an alliance so that PBA members can participate and earn PBA titles on the WBT. That means top pros now can compete for titles worldwide.

    "If we can grow the tour, if we can get to be an international entity by 2013 it will be satisfying and sufficient," Dornberger said. "We want to bring events that pay $100,000."

    Dornberger has been pleasantly surprised by the response received throughout the world, but especially by people interested in global bowling outside the U.S.

    "If we can get spectators, media and sponsors that would move us forward in the eyes of the IOC and the sport," he said.

    Creating the World Bowling Tour was just one major initiative. Another was changing FIQ's governance structure. Until last September, it had separate volunteer presidents for the organization overall and its WTBA and World Ninepin Bowling Association divisions but no employees.

    After determining that wasn't what was best for the sport, the organization restructured with paid WTBA and WNBA presidents who added the duties of chief executive officer and treasurer. It also deemed the FIQ president would be either the WTBA or WNBA president with Dornberger elected to that position for a four-year term.

    For Dornberger, it meant going from spending 10 percent of his time as WTBA volunteer president to a full-time job, his first since stepping down as United States Bowling Congress chief operating officer in 2009.

    "In 2011, I probably spent 150 days on the road to develop relationships which you have to do for partnerships," he said. "I couldn't have done when I was at USBC."

    With the World Bowling Tour and new governance firmly in place, the next initiative is youth development. Again, bowling would like to follow soccer and golf where their successes have been fueled primarily by large increases in youth participation. After seeing athletes compete in the World Cup and Olympics, young boys and girls have flocked to the pitches and diamonds to try to become the next big stars.

    "We need to develop the sport at the grass roots sport level, not at the recreation level, not at the national team level but in between," Dornberger said. "We need schools teaching them. The American concept of things is not really what we want for the worldwide concept. Getting the sport into school systems around the world would be big.

    "In some areas bowling is babysitting, something to keep the kids off the streets. Scandinavia is as advanced an area as any of the countries. There's no question bowling is a sport. The same in the Philippines. Bowling is in sports centers there, not in bars."

    To help develop youth bowling like that elsewhere, Brunswick established a $50,000 grant for federations. It's quite possible the money will initially be used outside the United States.

    "My concern for the U.S. market is you have to have recreation to keep the building open but you can't ever forget the sport is the cause of the activity," Dornberger said. "You have to have a path that is not about fads and a niche so I don't know if it is possible to go down a path from recreation to sport in this country.

    "I understand the proprietor view worrying about keeping their doors open. Ideally you are looking long term but maybe they can't. FIQ/WTBA is looking at a future which may not be how they look at it in the U.S.

    "Our long-term view is we must start new youth programs that emphasize the sport environment instead of a baby-sitting environment. The proprietor aspect is where is their growth going to come from if not through the re-emergence of the sport?"

    So what are bowling's Olympic prospects? Zero for this year in London or in 2016 but Dornberger said the IOC may add a sport in 2020.

    "Nothing will have the impact on the U.S. and the world as getting in the Olympics," Dornberger said. "It's up to us. If we do get in and are successful it will make for major advancements for the sport."