Recent Championship Takes the Tech Out of Bowling (and Yes, There is Tech in Bowling)

What happens when current day hot-shots play their games without the accoutrements? One high-stakes bowling competition set out to find out

Few things in sports have changed less than bowling shoes. From the color schemes to the odor spray, they’re as constant as stale bowling alley hot dogs and, um, ‘uniquely’ qualified bar staff. But, what about the balls?

While ten pounds has remained ten pounds, little else has been maintained. The impact of technology has received plenty of coverage with regard to golf, swimming and tennis, but achieving a perfect game in bowling over the past 30 years has also become less of an art and more of a science. In homage to the good old days, the Professional Bowling Association (PBA), hosted the first ever Geico Plastic Ball Championship, where competitors rolled with identical decades-old balls. We offer a brief review for those heading to the lanes next weekend and hoping to impress a date.

Sports enthusiasts love to speculate about how Rod Laver would fare against Andy Roddick if they both used wooden rackets, or just how far Tiger could drive it with a wood actually made of wood. The powers-that-be in bowling decided to answer those types of questions with the Plastic Ball Championship. What might sound like a gimmick was anything but that, with $180,000 and official rankings on the line.

The rate of perfect games has, since 1980, increased by a factor of 20 at the league amateur level. While lane conditions are a huge and complex component (that we won’t dive into here), so is the ball. Balls in the early 80’s were made of a polyester material, and modern balls are made of a more complex resin. The resin balls actually absorb some of the lane oil, while polyester balls end up pushing the oil down the lane. The resin balls also have an increased surface roughness that allows the ball to ‘bite’ and hook more while going down the lane, increasing the likelihood of a strike.

Enhancements aren’t limited to the ball’s exterior. Manufacturers have a variety of options at their disposals for altering the radius of gyration by playing with the core shape pattern within the ball. By creating eccentricities within the outer sphere, the radius of gyration is increased, providing more ‘flare,’ or turn, again resulting in higher potential scores.

Balance holes, which are drilled into the ball’s surface, were introduced in the early eighties to meet static balance requirements (think kids on a see-saw), but intentionally introduce a dynamic imbalance (linked to centrifugal forces- think tires and car vibration), yielding up to one degree of priceless hook with no additional skill (according to USBC). While the balls used in the Geico competition all had identical coverstocks and interior geometry, the players were allowed to drill holes in ways consistent with modern day rules.

The overall result of 30 years in ball technology advancements is an infinite amount of options that are tailored to the specific lane oil configurations for any given event. Paul Ridenour, senior research engineer for the Unites States Bowling Congress, described the options in an email.

“Based on the cores and coverstocks of modern bowling balls, different balls will provide different results on lane patterns. Based on the ball and drilling pattern of the bowling ball, a bowler can create an arsenal of equipment for different conditions, just as a golfer has different clubs in his bag,” said Ridenour. “Tiger Woods does not need to hit a driver when the ball is 120 yards from the hole just as Pete Weber does not need an overly aggressive bowling ball with a strong layout to strike on the PBA Cheetah pattern.”

So, what did we learn from the competition? Not much. Jeff Carter won his first tour title, defeating the aforementioned Weber. Carter, who was described by the PBA as a ‘contemporary power player’, wasn’t the old-school player one might have expected to benefit by turning back the clock.

“This tournament took some variables out of play that I’ve struggled with in the past,” Carter said. “I just put my game into slow motion and went from there.”

Hmm. So maybe that Tiger Woods fella ain’t so bad after all?