Last weekend, when most sports fans were watching the NFL playoffs, pro bowler Kelly Kulick made history. Kulick is the first woman to win a Lumber Liquidators Professional Bowlers Association tournament. If you hadn't heard about her feat, you're not alone. Her obscurity is a testament to the sport's marketing challenges.Forget the loud shirts, the drunken slobs, the kids' birthday parties. Bowling well is not easy. To imagine you could bowl professionally just because you've managed a strike, using an alley's cheap plastic ball under easy lane conditions, is like imaginging you could beat Tiger Woods if you get a hole-in-one on a miniature-golf course. But Kulick is an athlete, and bowling is a sport -- a very poorly marketed sport.
From Flintstone to Lebowski
Where does this crisis in public perception come from? There are many figures to blame from pop culture. One is Fred Flintstone, the unofficial mayor of Bedrock, hurling his ball down the lane with all his might. (Actually, Fred lofts his ball, which only novices do, and which damages the lanes, driving bowling-center managers crazy.) Then there's the movies. Kingpin and The Big Lebowski are both great movies, but both treat bowling as camp, not as a serious sport.
Of course, there's some validity to the stereotypes. I'm a league bowler, and I've occasionally worn my lucky Mickey Mouse Hawaiian shirt in a bid to score one of my rare strikes. And bowling centers in trendy urban neighborhoods cater to amateurs who only bowl for fun.
But pro bowling is a niche sport that's trying mightily to attract a TV audience. "ESPN has relegated it to Sunday afternoons, and saddled it with strange commercial after strange commercial," notes the Sporting News. That may be changing, as Kulick's accomplishments reach major media outlets like The New York Times. It's about time. Bowling deserves better.
Kulick, 32, from Union, N.J., takes bowling more seriously than most civilians and the United States Bowling Congress's 2.5 million certified league bowlers. Kulick bowled 50 games over three days to win the tour's premiere event, the Professional Bowlers Association Tournament of Champions at Red Rock Lanes in Las Vegas. She crushed a former Player of the Year, Chris Barnes, 265-195 in the championship match to win a $40,000 first prize. She also won a two-year exemption on the PBA Tour, virtually assuring her a chance to make a living as a pro bowler, because she does not need to qualify for individual events.
But so far, these victories haven't left her swimming in endorsements. These days, when she's not bowling, she handles secretarial work at her father's auto-body shop.
The fact that Kulick stuck with her sport is remarkable, considering the Professional Women's Bowling Association folded a few years ago. In 2006, she was the first woman to win an exemption from the PBA. "The pins don't recognize gender," says Kulick, who began bowling at 6 and grew up watching the sport on TV. Apparently, the players don't recognize gender either. The men on the PBA tour, she says, have treated her with the utmost respect.
In the coming months, it will be interesting to see if Kulick can gain a tenth of the fame of bombshell driver Danica Patrick, the first woman to win an IndyCar race, in 2008. Golfer Annika Sorenstam got grief from some players when she decided to play in a PGA tournament with men in 2003. Kulick, though, is winning over fans -- including Buffalo Bills wide receiver Terrell Owens, who tweeted congratulations to her.
Kulick is optimistic that she'll win more fans as word of her accomplishment spreads. "They know about bowling now," she says.
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