Once a legitimate ratings contender, professional bowling now ranks somewhere between the National Hockey League and competitive basket weaving in the American spectator-sport consciousness. Christopher Browne’s entertaining A League of Ordinary Gentlemen goes behind the scenes of the Professional Bowlers Association’s comeback bid following the league’s 2000 sale (for a mere $5 million) to a trio of retired Microsoft execs.
Players and pundits offer explanations for the sport’s declining reputation: class snobbery, the ongoing “privatization of leisure time,” outdated marketing strategies, the movie Kingpin. There’s a brief glance back to bowling’s Wide World of Sports heyday—distilled into a montage of vintage TV clips featuring mulleted bowlers—but the bulk of League focuses on the 2002-03 PBA season. After a few flourishes of Errol Morris-like editing, first-timer Browne settles into a tone resembling the ESPN telecasts so crucial to the PBA’s revenue stream, thriving on the intrinsic drama of competition and the league’s emerging star system.
The biggest star of both league and film is the sport’s designated bad boy, the hard-partying Pete Weber (son of the late PBA legend Dick Weber), seen here bowling with sunglasses and celebrating strikes with his patented “crotch chop” move. Formerly anathema to the PBA, such antics are tacitly encouraged by flamboyant new CEO Steve Miller. An ex-Nike sports marketer hired to revitalize the PBA’s image, Miller provides the movie’s highlight with a hilarious Patton-like pre-season address to the players (“Either we’re in this together or you can kiss my ass”). Combining an aggressive (and ultimately successful) approach to attracting new fans and sponsors with an attitude of utter contempt for his players, Miller’s management style suggests that the PBA might already have more in common with the major sports leagues than previously thought.