Bowling's Score Inflation: Good or Bad for the Game?

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Why do some sports welcome radical technological change and others reject it? I'm talking less about safety equipment that usually has a more indirect effect on style than about products that increase speed or scoring dramatically. Golf inspires more patents than any other sport, but the the USGA has a history of meticulous testing to keep new designs within carefully defined bounds.

Bowling is different. It also has rules, of course, but standards for balls, pins, and lane treatments have permitted a transformation of the game, as the Wall Street Journal recently explained:

In the most recently completed United States Bowling Congress league season, nearly 52,000 "perfect" 300 games were rolled. (A perfect game is 12 straight strikes over the 10 frames.) The total represents a 59-fold increase from 1970. And that's even as the number of bowling centers has fallen by about half during that period, taking the number of league bowlers down with it.

But the experts at equipment maker Storm Products Inc. say that scoring in leagues these days is inflated because of space-age bowling equipment deployed on lanes oiled in patterns that maximize scoring. Steve Kloempken, a technical adviser for Storm, says today's bowling balls practically hook by themselves, via nanotechnology that enhances traction on the lane at the molecular level. Yesterday's solid, hard-rubber balls--similar to the ones bowling alleys let you use for free--needed to be aimed with perfect precision. Inside today's balls are heavy cores designed into asymmetrical shapes that optimize spin and rotation, all to create the perfect, strike-making angle into the head pin.

Amateur scores are inflated because of more forgiving lane conditioning than in tournament play, but even among pros, the ethos of the game has changed from developing skills in converting difficult spares to getting the ball to hook consistently in a spot and at an angle at which a strike is assured. (Experiments with ramps have shown there is such an ultra-sweet spot.)

Fifteen years ago, when I interviewed the author of the best selling bowling textbook, Par Bowling: The Challenge, the legendary teacher Tom Kouros, he lamented the tendency of the new balls to erode the ethics of the game and its accumulated knowledge and skills. Mr. Kouros's textbook shows how mentally and physically complex the game really is.

The Journal article clearly shows traditionalists haven't been able to stop the innovations that have been changing the game -- partly because the balls rely on sophisticated computer-assisted designs and materials unknown in the sport when the original rules were laid down.

Even for believers in classic bowling, there may a bright side in the new equipment. It has helped bring young bowlers into the sport, high school students who might have been too impatient with the old ways. Some of the them are developing new styles that maintain interest, like this New Jersey high school student with an unorthodox two-handed delivery. The more participants, and the more common perfect scores get, the greater the chances for rediscovery of the virtues of the old game -- as in recorded music's generation-spanning vinyl revival.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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