Thursday, March 10, 2016

Another Obscure Sport to Love

By Kevin Beane

Longtime readers of my column — both of you — are probably aware that I enjoy obscure sports and I am often on the lookout for new ones.

Having once lived on the Eastern Seaboard, I was vaguely aware that there were alternative forms of bowling, like candlepin and duckpin, that existed and were popular not too far from me. But for one reason or another, I only recently started looking for some long videos of these sports in earnest.

I take that back — I haven't really looked into duckpin yet because I've actually found myself too enthralled with candlepin bowling on Youtube. As a spectator at least, I always found tenpin bowling (which is the name of "regular" bowling, if you will) sort of wanting. These guys are just too good. Strike after strike after strike. It's common knowledge that plenty of neighborhood schmoes bowl perfect games with some regularity. This does not make for compelling viewing, if you ask me.

Boy, does candlepin bowling take care of that problem. With smaller, cylindrical pins and a much smaller ball, strikes are far, far less common. Same with spares. Leaving a pin or more out there is commonplace, even though you get three balls per frame (in candlepin-speak, a box) instead of two.

I want to say something like, "candlepin bowling is harder than tenpin bowling," but I don't feel qualified to make such a statement. What I can absolutely say is that scoring in candlepin bowling is muuuuuch harder, and even though score-keeping rules are largely the same as regular bowling, the best of the best in candlepin still have averages less than 150. Using the downed pins (called "wood" in this context) to assist in knocking down the remaining standing pins in a box is a big part of the game.

The candlepin videos I chanced upon were those of "Classic Candlepins," a high-quality production shot in Amesbury, Massachusetts. It seems to run on a Comcast channel in that region. I found that the lead announcer of that series, Kyle Bruce, had the kind of low-key, humorous, relaxing style that I like in announcers, and he made things easy to understand without (I suspect) boring the viewers who already completely understand candlepin bowling.

I thought to myself, "He's probably not so famous that I can't track him down for an interview," and lo, I found him on Facebook, messaged and Facebook-friended him, and he generously agreed to an email interview. What I discovered through that interview is that Bruce is a talented and passionate ambassador of the sport. Below is a transcript of that interview, and I beseech you to give candlepin bowling a go as a viewer regardless of where you are, or as a player if you're lucky enough to live in a part of North America that has candlepin lanes (slightly amusing note: I was going to distinguish our roles in the interview by initials, before realizing that wouldn't work because we have the same initials).

SLANT PATTERN: What made you embrace candlepin bowling so heavily as opposed to 10-pin bowling?

KYLE BRUCE: While my dad exposed me to ABC's Pro Bowlers Tour when I was a kid in the '80s, the only bowling centers I went to were candlepin. My uncle was a very good candlepin bowler then and bowled with some of the game's best and befriended a few of them and I got to meet them. For me this gave me a connection to the game that no other sport could match. Back then in the Boston area candlepin bowling dominated the Nielsen ratings, outperforming the Celtics and Bruins (which sold out the Boston Garden regularly), as well as the Red Sox and Patriots.

Saturdays at noon were a big deal then and at tournaments or league play I got to meet many of the bowlers who were on TV. For me, I knew I'd never meet Larry Bird and have a conversation with him, but I could with some of the bowlers. I also got to appreciate the nuance and skill of candlepin; not just rolling the smaller ball and having the third ball but playing wood and knowing angles and knowing how to approach bowling in different bowling centers as they have their own conditions. My dad and uncle also took me to TV tapings and at a young age I hoped that someday I'd be in front of the camera calling the biggest matches of the sport.

SP: Relatedly, a quick scan of your Facebook feed makes it appear candlepin bowling is sort of your main avocation. With all the other zillions of sports and non-sport pastimes that people take seriously, what made you gravitate towards candlepin bowling and getting so deeply involved?

KB: I recognize that the bowling industry and in my case specifically the candlepin bowling industry has been trending downward for the last 20 years or so. With less people bowling and the cost of running business rising many people have moved on and sold their businesses. Many proprietors aren't taking in enough revenue to modernize or maintain their centers and lose ground to the new breed of fledgling boutique-style 10-pin houses.

Candlepin bowling once had nearly 400 people in its Pro Tour, now the main traveling circuit has a membership that hovers around 50 paying members. A few young people like myself are doing what we can do breathe new life into the sport by producing shows like Classic Candlepins and a multimedia venture called Alley Chat, which is a podcast that also films tournaments, league play and interviews. I decided that I wanted to do my part to give the people the same people I got when I was a kid and I still get to this day in terms of feeling the anticipation and excitement of waiting for the next show or piece of content. I think it's the greatest sport in the world and things won't turn around without hard work and teamwork to get people bowling again and watching the show.

SP: Some sports are strictly regional (for example, not a ton of high school or college lacrosse is played west of the Mississippi), and so it is candlepin bowling being pretty strictly a New England sport. There's no obvious reason,to me, for these regional popularities. Any theory why that might be the case with candlepin bowling?

KB: I think it's stayed regional because when it was created in Worcester, Massachusetts in the 1880s it made it tough to market across the country because it is a difficult game to succeed in. In ten pin now it seems 300 games are much more common than ever before and I believe we are built around instant gratification more than ever. I'm not trying to take away the hard work it takes to sustain a big average in ten pin but to me pure excellence in candlepin cannot be achieved without a total commitment. Without the big sponsorships, no one has ever been able to make a living as a competitor in candlepin bowling, and it also hasn't secured a national TV deal like 10-pin has enjoyed with ABC/ESPN for decades. With the internet we can potentially reach a global audience, hopefully we can someday and spread the word about how compelling and fascinating a sport this is.

SP: I'm in Dallas. Is there a way I, or similar non-New Englanders, can play candlepin without breaking the bank? Do I just need to pester my local bowling alley to buy a candlepin set?

KB: The ICBA (International Candlepin Bowling Association, our main sanctioning body) bowled candlepin at the Bulverde Bowling Club (outside of San Antonio in Bulverde, TX -SP). There are no candlepin machines there so the pins have to be set up manually but it might be worth it sometime to try it. I know Dallas isn't exactly next to San Antonio, but it's the best I can come up with! I believe a new candlepin pinsetter is in the neighborhood of 10-12 thousand, so unless there's enough demand to warrant having them put in that is your best option short of flying east to try it out.

SP: Classic Candlepin is starting to amass a large number of youtube videos culled from the original broadcasts. If someone's curiosity it piqued, which Classic Candlepin match would recommend they start with?

KB: I'd consider watching the first Tournament of Champions series. I produced it myself and believe it's our finest work. It's the best project I've ever worked on and I've never worked harder to make something happen and see it through to fruition in my life.

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