Having signed a new five-year rights deal with Professional Bowlers Association in June, ESPN has unveiled a unique visual tool to illustrate the intricacies of the sport. The PBA worked with Brunswick, its official lane-maintenance provider, to develop a custom blue dye that illuminates the distribution of oil on the lanes, which is a key to bowlers’ strategy during competition. ESPN and PBA Productions used the dye in producing several World Series of Bowling telecasts, which are airing throughout December.
“Until now, one of the most crucial and least understood aspects of the game was invisible,” says ESPN Coordinating Producer Kathy Cook. “You can literally see the ‘playing field’ and the difficult conditions the bowlers face week to week, as well as how lane conditions dramatically change over the course of a match. Much like the shot tracker in golf, it’s a great layer for our coverage. As the World Series of Bowling progresses and our viewers become accustomed to seeing it, the dye will become an integral part of the fan experience.”
The way conditioner is distributed on the lanes is a primary factor in dictating a player’s strategy because of the ball’s reaction to the oil. However, the oil is transparent, making it impossible for viewers at home to see. Over the years, ESPN and PBA Productions have tried a variety of methods to convey these oil patterns to the viewer, but graphics and description alone have simply not been enough to illustrate how the conditioner evolves on the lane throughout play, forcing bowlers to make adjustments.
“Bowling is often seen as a simple game; this is both a blessing and a curse because, while people can identify with the simple notion of knocking the pins down, they can overlook the nuances and precision both in player shot execution and decision-making,” says PBA Commissioner Tom Clark. “Any education about the oil and oil breakdown and the decisions made based on those slight differences will help viewers understand there is a complex sport being played, and that can only create more interest.”
All World Series of Bowling events take place on the same bowling lanes, but the way the oil is applied to the lanes is different for each event. The events are named after these different patterns: Cheetah (shortest pattern in which oil goes down the lane for 35 of the lane’s 60-ft. total, Viper (39 ft.), Chameleon (41 ft.), and Scorpion (47 ft.). Different players with different skill sets have greater affinity for oil patterns that best suit their games (Clark compares the dynamic to tennis, where some players prefer clay over grass or hard courts).
“The bowling audience is diverse, novices and experts alike,” he points out. “The fact that there not only is conditioning on the lane but it is applied in a specific pattern and length down the lane, is eye-opening and educational to the novice. To the expert fan, it becomes easier to dissect and predict the moves players make as the oil transitions due to ball traffic on the lane, impacting the oil pattern.”
The PBA developed the dye (which is not available for recreational use) with the sole intention of improving the ESPN’s bowling telecasts. The PBA and Brunswick conducted a barrage of tests, including one with Hall of Fame bowler Norm Duke, to determine whether the blue dye translated to television and how it affected lane conditions. Eventually, the PBA determined that the positives outweighed the negatives and moved forward with using the dye.
“Never before have replays or segments shown the lane with the purpose of illustrating literally how the oil distribution has changed throughout a telecast,” says Clark. “During these WSOB shows, we do that every show throughout, and the analysis points out the areas of high traffic and what that means to players.”