Bowling Tries to Stay on a Roll

PHILADELPHIA, July 16, 2005 — -- It has been said that the bowling alley is the poor man's country club. For generations, the shirts, the shoes, the leagues were a celebrated part of American culture. The Professional Bowlers Tour was a staple of weekend television, pulling in huge ratings through the 1970s.

But then something happened.

"Clearly, the '80s, the early '90s, suffered from that historical perception: I'm big, I'm fat, and I bowl," said Steve Miller, president of the Professional Bowlers Association.

Bowling's television ratings tanked. ABC dropped the broadcasts altogether.

"I think bowling did die," Miller said. "I think the reality is that bowling went the way of the buffalo. The truth is it didn't market itself. It didn't promote itself."

Combating Squareness

Miller, a former Nike executive, was hired to make bowling relevant. The first step was to crack the stereotype of squareness.

"Having a personality now is a good thing," said Chris Barnes, a professional bowler. "And it's grabbed a different audience than we've had for a lot of years. And I think it's grown our fan base."

Bowling is also trying to show off its athletes' special talents, featuring trick shot competitions that wow any crowd.

Ratings for bowling, now on cable, have jumped 15 percent in just the last year. And the growing popularity with younger bowlers is easy to see. With flashing lights, theme music and midnight bowling, the sport is enjoying a youth renaissance. It is the fastest-growing high school sport in the country.

'Really Cool With It'

In Grand Rapids, Mich., the boys and girls on the varsity team say there is no stigma in their school.

"Now that we won state and we're state champions," said Phil Dehann, a high school bowler, "everyone is, like, really cool with it now."

The appeal for kids and adults is clear.

"Not everybody is, is cut out to be a quarterback or an offensive lineman or a basketball star," said Brad Angelo, a professional bowler.

Bowling is the sport for every man … and now, every woman: This spring, Liz Johnson came closer than any woman ever to winning a PBA tournament.

ABC News' John Berman originally reported this story for "World News Tonight" July 4, 2005.