Add professional bowling to the list of sports that are making an official comeback during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Professional Bowlers Association will be making its return on June 6 with its inaugural PBA Strike Derby. The event will be broadcast live on FOX and will feature eight PBA Tour players who are competing in a two-minute competition to record as many strikes as they can. They will then be placed into an elimination bracket, with the contest continuing until the first champion is crowned.
This is the first event in PBA’s rolled-out plan to resume play. All of its competitions will be held at Bowlero Jupiter in Jupiter, Fl. without fans in attendance, and only player, official, and TV production personnel allowed onsite.
The following contest will be the PBA Summer Clash on June 13, which will air on FOX. The one-ball elimination format will add two more players into the mix – PWBA Tour stars Shannon O’Keefe and Danielle McEwan – bringing the total number of competitors to 10.
In July, more players will be participating in the four-night “PBA King of the Lanes” series on FS1. Dates have yet to be announced, but the format will begin by deciding the ‘King’ of the lanes to defend the title against a different player in a one-game match. The winner from each night will continue to fight new challengers.
Front Office Sports spoke with PBA CEO Colie Edison about what a bowling event looks like during the coronavirus era, new features that the league plans to introduce, and how it will continue to engage with its at-home fans.
The questions and responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
Front Office Sports: How different is hosting this weekend’s event compared to one under normal circumstances?
Colie Edison: This is not part of the original PBA Tour schedule, and it’s not for a PBA Tour title. However, it is still featuring our top athletes in a really dynamic, fast paced, energetic format. So a few things are going to be different – first and foremost, we have no audience. While I don’t think that the PBA audience is essential to our live event experience – as you might experience at the NBA, NFL, or MLB – it will be different not having a live audience.
However, our productions work really well for having a really limited number of people on set. That enables us to do it very safely, and that is the guiding principle in everything that we’re doing here is health and safety.
We’re only having a field of eight players at our Strike Derby event and 10 players at our Summer Clash event; again, that is because you want to limit any type of exposure and really follow all the CDC guidelines. We’re also going to have our crew and operations support in PPE, which will be available to the bowlers as well when they’re not bowling. We’re doing temperature checks, sanitizing the entire property, and really limiting the number of people inside the building at the time.
FOS: During a normal event, how many people do you have working onsite? How many do you estimate you’ll have this weekend?
CE: You really need to think that a normal event is actually a week or longer, so we have pre-tournament qualifying events where we bring in hundreds of players that eventually get dwindled down to the five and a stepladder final that you see on television. It’s important to remember that there’s usually many days of qualifying match play that happens before the televised event.
The World Series of Bowling was our last event that we were able to do before the pandemic hit. We were the last TV sports property on March 15th before we had to postpone the tour and, in the days leading up to that, we were almost at a thousand people between players, operations and fans in the building for the two weeks leading up to our TV show.
We’re going to keep our footprint very small for the shows that we’re doing this June and July. The total headcount is likely to be near or under 50 people.
FOS: How will the PBA engage with its fans who are unable to attend the event this weekend?
CE: For the first time ever, [fans] will actually be able to partake in online gambling for the PBA. We’re excited about our partnership with FOX Bet and in the states where FOX Bet is operating legally, which is New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Colorado.
For the first time ever on the FOX Bet sportsbook will be the Strike Derby, so that is definitely a new dynamic form of deep engagement for audiences. For our social channels, which we update live and in real time, we’ve been producing a ton of content during this pandemic and we’ll continue to do so. It’s really about pushing them all towards this tune in because for us, we want the largest number of audience size possible on the linear channel, because that is where we’re going to be able to grow as an organization.
FOS: How does the PBA look to define success this weekend?
CE: For us, it’s going to be the audience. That’s going to be the main KPI. I think why it was important to get on air so quickly is because we do think there is a captive audience that is prime time on two Saturday nights in a row on FOX’s broadcast. We are rarely given these types of opportunities, so to be able to create an elevated television experience and to capture as many eyeballs as possible will be the key metric that we’ll look at for success.
I also think that’s really a big part of the format that we’re doing here. We’re testing the Strike Derby, but we’re testing it live in front of a huge audience because we think it’s something new and fun – and that’s what the audience craves these days.
Look at what golf just did [with The Match]; we love that. Would we love to be competing for PBA Tour major titles? Of course, but in the absence of that, let’s create something fun and dynamic that will show people how much the PBA has changed and why they should be tuning in week after week.
FOS: How else is the PBA planning to engage with its social media followers during these fan-less events?
CE: I think content is key. We have a really dynamic weekly schedule on our social channels. I actually host a show called PBA Q&A, where I am speaking to our top players and learning a little bit about them. Amazingly, a lot of the players have all built up their own content series. Whether it’s Chris Barnes and Steve Williams who have [the online show Beef and Barnzy], they’ve really been creative and I think that’s the most important thing here.
It’s about being creative and flexible. The format that we’re bringing on air in June, I did not have planned in January, but we saw the opportunity and we were able to act quickly and creatively to get this content out there.