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Pro Bowling Association exempt fields have choked off supply of vital young talent

September 25, 2012
By STEVE BROWNLEE - Journal Sports Writer ( , The Mining Journal

Today I'm getting back up on my bowling soapbox, but I assure you it's only going to happen once in a great while.

I promised this column as a follow-up to one I wrote about the Professional Bowlers Association on television in January, but I got sidetracked by more pressing matters - a whole bunch of elite games and series rolled by our area bowlers - and then I forgot all about it until last month, when I was thinking about what topics I could and should address to start this season.

My topic today probably sounds pretty dry - the demise of the PBA's exempt field. That's just something the hard-core fan should worry about, right?

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True, up to a point, but I think it has a long-ranging effect for the sport. To the good, I'm glad to say.

First, I should explain what "exempt" means in the PBA. About 50 to 60 top-flight pros would automatically be placed into the field of 64 at each stop, guaranteeing at least $2,000 each week just for showing up. It insured an income for top stars the organization was cultivating.

Great for them, but it had a really bad, I hope unintended consequence - it choked off the supply of bowling talent.

In pre-exempt days, the PBA could draw 200 to 300 entries for any given event, everyone having an equal chance to cash based solely on ability.

But starting in 2004, the "unwashed masses" had to bowl a qualifying squad to get into the field of 64.

I first heard about the change for this season by my good friend and fellow bowling junkie Pat Sertich, a Marquette native who now lives in Sheboygan, Wis.

Pat and I have traveled to watch eight or 10 national PBA events in the past decade, and I remember the first qualifier I saw in Indianapolis. There were 101 or 102 bowlers fighting for four - just four - spots in the regular field. The other 97 or 98 could just go home after they missed out.

Now if you're a young bowling phenomenon, exactly how do you break into the pro ranks? Travel the country hitting qualifier after qualifier, hoping to finish in the top four out of 75 or 100 entrants?

Not very good odds, if you ask me. And considering there really isn't much money in pro bowling, those odds just became worse.

This isn't golf, where a guy on the minor-league Nationwide Tour can make better than $100,000 a year. You can count on one hand how many of even the elite bowling pros make that much in a season.

All kinds of borderline names with national tour experience got pushed out of the PBA when they had an off-year with the exempt tour.

How do you expect a youngster to make it without any of that experience at all?

The women's tour died a slow death with its own exempt tour in the 1990s, and I'm convinced that's why they were only getting 50 entries per event by the time things ended.

I've said for a couple of years on the PBA message board: open the tournament fields up to one and all. If Sean Rash, Pete Weber or Mika Koivuniemi are still good enough, they'll make their payday anyway.

If not, get out of the way and let some of the fresh-faced, 18-to-25-year-old raw talent get its feet wet.

Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246.



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