Despite Oklahoma’s strong tradition in amateur bowling, the state had rarely hosted major events in the sport until recently.
The U.S. Bowling Congress had its nationals in 1985 and 1993 in Tulsa, and the Professional Bowlers Association had tour competitions at 66 Bowl in Oklahoma City in the 1960s and at The Lanes at Coffee Creek in Owasso in 2005.
Today, Oklahoma has become a regular sojourn for some of the top professional bowlers in the world and their fans – mostly due to the influence of national champion Mike Edwards of Tulsa.
“It all kind of goes back to about five years ago,” says Edwards, the only bowler in the American Indian Athletics Hall of Fame. “The PBA had planned an event in Wisconsin, but organizers had to cancel at the last minute.”
He and his friend Chris Skillings, general manager of FireLake Bowling Center in Shawnee at the time, scrambled to secure the facility for the competition – even building two special lanes with spotlights and backdrops for the televised finals.
“The ratings were unbelievable,” Edwards says. “We had sellout crowds and the PBA loved it. FireLake is a great facility and they go all-out to make an event successful.”
Those efforts sealed the deal for the PBA, so Shawnee is a regular tour destination. In January, the center will host the Oklahoma Open, with the final rounds scheduled to be shown on Fox Sports 1.
In addition to Shawnee, the PBA has made its way to Owasso, which hosted last year’s FloBowling Fall Open.
“We like Oklahoma,” says Tom Clark, PBA’s chief executive officer and commissioner. “There are many recreational and regional bowlers and a very knowledgeable fan base in the state.”
FireLake, owned by the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, is a state-of-the-art facility with 24 lanes. Each PBA event there is held in conjunction with the tribe’s Grand Hotel and Casino. In the past five years, 30 hours of PBA action has been broadcast on national TV from Shawnee, Clark says.
Now that the PBA has aligned with Fox Sports, viewership is expected to snowball. Fox has agreed to air 60 hours of bowling each year, nearly twice the amount broadcast by ESPN.
“It’s starting to catch on. And it’s great to recognize Shawnee,” Edwards says. “In the past year with Fox Sports, more people are seeing professional bowling in general.”
Adding Oklahoma to the PBA mix has given the state positive exposure and boosted the economy, he says. Each PBA event draws around 100-150 bowlers and their families from around the world to Shawnee, an eight-day economic boon for the city.
“Bowling in Oklahoma has a robust history. It’s been big for a long time,” Edwards says. “Now it’s even bigger.”