By Kevin Bickel
There are a lot of reasons to become a professional bowler but the salary is not one of them. Over the PBA’s 56 year history, only 40 players have earned more than $1,000,000 over the course of their careers. In the 2012-2013 season, the top 3 earners were:
- Sean Rash (USA) – $248,317
- Mika Koivuniemi (Finland) – $227,851
- Jason Belmonte (Australia) – $186,465
These are the top 3 bowlers in the world for the 2012-2013 season; the best of the best. Of course those are respectable salaries, but they are shockingly low for professional athletes, let alone the top 3 bowlers in the world. To give you some perspective, the minimum salary for both NFL and NBA players is roughly $500,000. Looking at a more comparable sport, the average PGA player (at the equivalent level) made about $600,000 in 2011. It wasn’t always like this, though. How did it get to this point?
A Look Back
Let’s take a look back at the PBA’s earning leaders from decades past. The following are averages from the top earnings leader in each year – these are the earning averages of the very top bowlers each year. The average pro bowler salary is roughly 1/4th that of the top earner. All earnings are adjusted for inflation and are displayed in today’s dollar value.
- 2000-2009 – $270,690
- 1990-1999 – $359,597
- 1980-1989 – $381,153
- 1970-1979 – $446,710
- 1960-1969 – $343,001
As is shown by this very rough estimate, pro bowlers’ salaries peaked in the 70’s and have been steadily decreasing ever since. A combination of factors led to professional bowling’s decline in popularity which is a topic unto itself. Namely, though, the decrease in bowlers’ salaries can be attributed to the PBA losing big-name sponsors, the increase in television competition (bowling is no longer aired on ABC), and the rise in high scores thanks to advanced bowling technology.
Sponsors & Supplemental Income
Of course pro bowlers can make money outside of their tournament earnings as well. The bowlers you see on TV all have bowling manufacturer sponsorships and likely receive a small salary or signing bonus. The common manufacturer sponsorships are ball companies (Storm, Ebonite, Brunswick, etc.), shoe companies (Dexter, Etonic), and accessory companies (Turbo Grips, Vise Grips, Master, etc.). These sponsorships likely aren’t a significant portion of their income, though.
Many professional bowlers also travel and attend coaching clinics, either as part of one of their sponsor’s events or as their own venture. Storm puts on regular bowling clinics and Turbo Grips offers an annual Collegiate Expo, both featuring pro bowlers. Conversely, Norm Duke co-founded Next Level Bowling, similar to Jason Belmonte and Diandra Asbaty’s International Art of Bowling.
Cost & Risk
Living on the road isn’t cheap, but that’s exactly what these bowlers do half of the year. Every person on the tour has their regular life and expenses back home – wherever that may be – and they also have their living expenses on the road for months at a time. For most, this also means time away from family – another cost not measured in dollars.
On top of the pressure of the intimidating competition they face every day, the bowlers also face the risk of losing and the stress that comes with that. When your livelihood relies on your performance, losing and bowling poorly is that much worse. On the other hand, it makes winning that much sweeter, which is why we often see bowlers express such intense emotion on TV after a win.
It is for these reasons that bowling at this level is mostly a mental game. Nobody exemplifies this better than Billy Hardwick, who failed to cash in his first year on tour and became the PBA Player of the Year the following year. When asked about it, he said the only thing that changed was his outlook and mental state on the lanes.
To make a livable wage as a pro bowler, you essentially have to be one of the top 100 bowlers (actively participating in tournaments) in the world. With low barriers to entry and an age range from 18 to 55+, the competition is vast and arduous.
Have you cashed in a PBA Tournament? Tell us your story!