Worth The Price By Frenchy Letourneau



    Republished courtesy of TenPin Alley Bowling Newspaper, Las Vegas, Nevada

    ColumnistFrenchyLetourneau.jpg The PBA was an annual event for 40 consecutive years in Las Vegas, all at the dearly departed Showboat.

    After a brief stint at The Orleans (both events won by Ryan Shafer), we locals gasped at the thought of the PBA not coming back.

    Thanks to former Fountain Bowl manager Dennis Matthews, who was hired by Station Casinos to run the Strike Zone in Henderson, we were once again treated to a week of professional bowling and a national telecast.

    When Dennis transferred to Station’s Red Rock Resort & Spa, not only did he bring the PBA with him, but the managed to secure the main event, the Tournament of Champions, sponsored by H. & R. Block.

    The glory days of the Showboat Invitational are remembered by us old timers as a week of eye candy, all free for the taking. Those events showcased all the stars of professional bowling and sprouted some one-hit wonders. Many people took time off from work, and most days, it was hard to find a seat anywhere. I remember standing on my tiptoes my first year during the telecast in 1980 as Wayne Webb notched his first of three wins that year, including the Tournament of Champions.

    Although the Showboat Invitational was not a major in the eyes of the PBA, it certainly was in the eyes of the players. The prize funds were always higher than regular stops, and the grueling 24 games of qualifying and 24 games of match play as well as the TV finals allowed only the strong to survive. Top prizes of $11,111 and a fund of $77,777 made for good press, and the voice of Chris Schenkel articulating the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas will never be duplicated.

    When I moved here in October 1979, I didn’t drive down the strip or visited Caesars Palace or take in any of the activity normally expected of first time visitors. My first day here, I had to see the Showboat. I had to shoe up and bowl on the lanes I watched the pros bowl on for almost 20 years. Little did I know that my first 300 would be rolled in league 16 years later on the old TV pair, 59 & 60.

    Fast forward to 2008. Red Rock Lanes has managed to resurrect the class of the old Showboat days with a spacious concourse, bowler and fan friendly service, and a week of action with the best bowlers in the world.

    The PBA planned to give the players a week off to recover from the rigors of PBA life the first week in February. The plan was to use the ESPN slot to play past events. Up steps Dennis Matthews, who offered Red Rock Lanes for the PBA to host a Doubles tournament so many of the players could get an extra check as well as a week off, and also give ESPN something fresh for the PBA on Super Bowl Sunday. This gave the fans seven consecutive days of PBA action, and like the Showboat, something above and beyond the norm.

    The only element different from the Showboat is the daily admission fees.

    Aside from the expected grumbling from some of the old timers, fans eagerly paid the price of admission for the daily activities and the TV shows.

    The new PBA is working hard to become self-supporting and free up the gracious financial support of the new owners who have operated in the red for way too long.

    The PBA and the USBC are also working hard to make professional bowling an identifiable professional sport, like tennis and golf. That is a slow but promising effort that endeavors to engulf the mainstream media and the marketable 18-35 age group that supports the other sports.

    That ideology carries with it some changes that are necessary.

    You cannot walk into a professional basketball, baseball, football or soccer game and just sit and watch. The gate fees are an important part of the financial equation that keeps these sports operating and profitable. Sure, TV and the sponsors that participate in that effort are important too, and bowling has held its own very well on TV over the years. During the glory years, not many sports could boast the high ratings of the Pro Bowlers Tour that preceded Wild World of Sports on Saturdays for two decades.

    Granted, bowling venues are sometimes limited to just so many fans, and the PBA is looking into venues that hover between standard bowling centers and arenas, which appear to be too large for bowling competition.

    The National Bowling Stadium in Reno is a step in that direction.

    Red Rock Lanes is spacious and accommodating in a more intimate setting, and if the Tournament of Champions becomes a mainstay, it would grow to standing room only in just a few short years.

    The Firestone events at Riviera Lanes in Akron, Ohio sold out every event, and the seating was extremely limited compared to the fans who wanted to be there. They could have easily doubled the audience had they had the space.

    When I asked Dennis about the ToC returning in 2009, his outlook was very positive.

    The Firestone in Akron was legendary. It would certainly be great if Red Rock could resurrect the legend.

    My only wish is that the Tournament of Champions return to the last event of the season, to a culmination of a season of first time winners and seasoned veterans all looking forward to converging on Las Vegas to take a shot at being listed among the best of the best, and ending the season in Super-Bowl fashion. This made a whole lot of sense, and the build-up to the Firestone that we experienced in years past could once again be a part of the overall excitement of the PBA experience for generations to come.

    Imagine a first-year exempt player winning his (or her) first PBA title and yelling out, “I’m going to Red Rock!”

    And yes, we are extremely grateful to H. & R. Block for coming on board to sponsor the event. Support of major sponsors is certainly a step in the right direction.

    Email address: tenpinvegas@hotmail.com