Such a bowling geek was Rob Glaser that he rallied a small posse of deep-pocketed execs four years ago and bought the Professional Bowlers Association for $5 million.

It was chump change to the three moguls – Glaser, Chris Peters (Microsoft employee number 105), and Mike Slade, a marketing guy who became CEO of Paul Allen’s venture, Starwave. But many observers considered the trio to be the real chumps. Professional bowling had lost longtime broadcast partner ABC when its contract expired in 1997 and the league was hovering near bankruptcy. Even when bowling was still on the Wide World of Sports, two-thirds of its viewing audience was over 50 years old. Getting the public excited about pro bowling would be like trying to bring back the Commodore 64 as a mission-critical corporate computer.

Glaser saw it differently. “Take any of the rules of how modern sports are run – professional bowling did none of those things,” he says. “Most matches weren’t televised. The league didn’t have personalities who generated excitement. So there was a great opportunity. If we were going to make bowling relevant to an MTV, videogame-trained generation, we had to make it exciting.”

The new kingpins have added some spectacle to the sport, throwing out the old PBA rulebook and encouraging a more emotional, in-your-face style of play. A bowler rolling a strike no longer quietly returns to his seat – he shakes his fists in the air and talks trash to his opponent. Down-the-lane seating puts the audience on top of the action, and rock bands keep the crowds pumped between matches. Most important, the owners landed a stable TV contract. A deal with ESPN, first signed in 2001 and extended through 2007, means live championship matches every Sunday afternoon during the five-month season.

The opening tournament, on October 31, will culminate in a championship held in Miller Park, the Brewers’ baseball stadium in Milwaukee. The league will install a mobile bowling center on the right field grass, and spectators will be treated to the thoroughly weird sight of bowlers in the outfield.

The numbers, which Glaser likes working with so much, have never looked better. TV ratings are climbing; 775,000 households watched pro bowling on ESPN last year, up 25 percent from two seasons ago.

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