National Bowling League

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The National Bowling League (NBL) is a defunct professional bowling league that existed from Oct. 12, 1961 to May 6, 1962. The league as formed as an attempt to ride the popularity of bowling television shows, and also to challenge to the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA).

The league was the brainchild of Len Homel, who thought of the idea in 1959, but didn't get support until an article by Don Snyder in 1960's "The Bowlers Journal". Unlike the individuals of the PBA, bowlers in the NBL were members of teams that competed against squads from other cities. A 135-match schedule was planned, five games a week, until the "World Series" of bowling.

League setup and home arenas[edit]

The NBL featured ten franchises in two divisions:

Eastern Division Home arena City
Detroit Thunderbirds Thunder Bowl Allen Park, Michigan
Kansas City Stars Midland Theatre Kansas City, Missouri
New York Gladiators Gladiator Arena Totowa, New Jersey
Omaha Packers Packer Stadium Omaha, Nebraska
Twin Cities Skippers Convention Center Arena Bloomington, Minnesota
Western Division Home arena City
Dallas Broncos Bronco Bowl Dallas, Texas
Fort Worth Panthers Panther Hall Fort Worth, Texas
Fresno Bombers NBL Lanes Clovis, California
Los Angeles Toros Jefferson Arena Culver City, California
San Antonio Cavaliers no home arena road team

The minimum salary was $6,000, with some making upwards of $20,000, a payday that rivalled many top PBA bowlers; the entire league payroll set at $800,000.

For his part, PBA secretary Ed Elias did not consider the NBL a threat to his organization: "At no time has the PBA ever opposed the idea of a National Bowling League. Having struggled through our early formative days, we knew full well the many problems that could arise for any such new organization. However, we were quick to welcome the idea of additional employment for the man who makes his living bowling. The National Bowling League offered just that, and if it had succeeded as originally planned, it would have meant additional income, prestige and recognition for the bowler himself, and added recognition for the bowling industry — something we are all seeking continually." [1]

No TV for the NBL[edit]

Bowling was popular on television at the time; NBC carried "Championship Bowling", while other local and national programs included "Make That Spare", "Bowling for Dollars", and "Celebrity Bowling." The NBL tried to place its matches on ABC, but that network also chose the PBA. (ABC televised PBA matches on the Saturday afternoon "Pro Bowlers Tour" from 1961-97; the program later aired on CBS and is now seen on ESPN.)

Without a television contract, the NBL had to rely on a strong gate. Using mostly smaller arenas and converted theatres (Dallas and Detroit were the only teams that played in actual bowling alleys), the league created "arena style bowling", using four to six lanes with bleachers that held anywhere from 1,150 to 3,250 people; this setup is now used today in the PBA. Kansas City's Midland and Omaha's Paramount were famous movie theaters that were transformed into NBL arenas. Some had spotlighted lanes, scoreboards, semicircular-pattern seats, a press box, concessions stands, and dressing rooms.

The NBL's first match was New York at Dallas, held October 12, 1961. The Dallas Broncos owner was oilman J. Curtis Sanford, who had come up with the idea of football's Cotton Bowl in 1937. He poured millions into his team, building the Bronco Bowl, a seventy-two-lane alley that made it one of the largest bowling centers in the country at the time. The Broncos' home matches were located in a special section that featured six lanes and 18 rows of seats in a semicircle; there was even a seven-piece jazz band to entertain between games. Dallas won their opener, 22-2, but the Broncos drew just 2,000 fans on opening night (well short of a sellout), and attendance got worse from there. (The lanes were eventually removed from the Bronco Bowl and it became a popular music venue for such acts as Bob Dylan, U2 and Bruce Springsteen before closing in 2003.) [2]

Other teams also got off to less-than-promising starts. Jesse Weingart, a co-owner of the original New York team, had his franchise rights terminated in April 1961 and he threatened to sue the league. [3] The new owners, unable to find a place to play in the Big Apple, wound up remaking a movie theatre in distant Totowa, New Jersey, some twenty miles from Manhattan; the Gladiators home opener on October 17 drew just 500 fans. Meanwhile, the San Antonio Cavaliers could not find a home arena at all and was forced to roll all its matches on the road.

The NBL fails[edit]

The Omaha and San Antonio franchises each folded on December 17, 1961, while Kansas City dropped out six days later. When the LA Toros gave up the ghost on January 15, 1962, the league dropped the divisional setup and declared Detroit the "first half" champion. The league staggered into the spring with the remaining six teams, as Twin Cities claimed the second-half title and faced Detroit in the NBL's "World Series" in May 1962. The Thunderbirds swept the Skippers in three straight matches (drawing about 1,000 spectators for the finale), and claimed the only National Bowling League title. On July 9, 1962, acting commissioner Edward Tobolowski officially announced the end of the NBL.

The book Let's Go Bowling! claimed that "most bowlers hesitated to give up their status as part of the PBA to join (the NBL)." The league even had a whiff of scandal when "rivals claimed one of their ilk tried to bribe Don Carter with promises of a pig farm."

External links[edit]

References[edit]

  • Dregni, Eric. Let's Go Bowling!. MBI Publishing Company. ISBN 0-7603-1794-1. 
  • Pollak, Mark. Sports Leagues And Teams. McFarland. 
  • Gipe, George. The Great American Sports Book. Doubleday.