Although it isn’t televised or in the public eye as much as other sports such as football, basketball, or tennis, bowlers are still professional athletes, earning money from sponsorship deals, winning competitions, partnerships with big bowling brands, and their own signature products.
But, how much exactly do they earn? If you aspire to be a pro bowler, this is probably something you’ve been asking.
Figures have fluctuated massively depending on bowling’s popularity in given eras, and only the players at the top earn serious money. Others have to rely on other jobs and incomes.
Back in the Day
Bowling was at its peak in the 60s and 70s. Events were heavily televised, and athletes were frequently on the covers of magazines such as Sports Illustrated and seen on TV channels like ESPN.
During this time, they made twice as much as some NFL players and many were internationally famous.
In 1963, the richest bowler, Harry Smith, earned more money than both the NFL and MLB MVPs combined. In 1964, Don Carter was the first athlete (in any sport) to sign a million-dollar contract.
Nowadays, however, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Only 40 bowlers have earned over $1M in the PBA’s 62-year history, and the vast majority of these athletes attained this over 30 years ago.
Many bowlers don’t earn anything close to riches, and often have second jobs to ensure their incomes are high enough to sustain a normal lifestyle. They use their own transport to get to events and stay in low star motels and cheap hotels to save themselves from breaking the bank.
This stems from the 80s and 90s when the leading American league went bankrupt and the money reservoirs dried up. Many attribute this to the expansion of television channels.
Walter Ray Williams, Jr. is regarded as the best bowler of all time, due to having over 40 world titles. Only he is more acclaimed nowadays than Pete Weber.
Weber’s previously gone on record talking about professional bowling’s decline in popularity since the expansion of TV networks and the introduction of satellite broadcasting, making it more difficult for bowling tournaments to land sponsorships.
How Much Has Changed?
There’s been a revival of sorts in the past 20 years, so there is now a considerable amount of money on the table, but still, it isn’t what it used to be.
In 2013, the top ten bowlers were earning an average of $150,000. This is still a very respectable amount of money, but it doesn’t come close to the top 10 earners of other sports—Antoine Griezmann earns $27M a year and he’s #10 on the footballer list.
Similarly, Damien Lillard of the Portland Trailblazers earns a salary of $43M, and this is before the main earnings are added on: those from sponsorships. There isn’t a single bowler who is a household name, whereas other sports have hundreds of figures known around the world.
The closest bowling has to a superstar is Pete Weber. His father was Dick Weber, formerly the biggest name in World Bowling back in the golden era.
His net worth is $4.4M which is very respectable, and he’s one of the few bowlers who can live solely off of his earnings. He is certainly an exception to the rule, though.
The average earning is only around $7000. It’s a nice bonus, but absolutely not the sort of money one could live off, especially if they have a family to provide for and bills to pay.
If one compares to other sports, there is a huge discrepancy. Jordan Speith got $1.8M for winning the Golf US Open in 2015. Novak Djokovic received $3.3M for winning the tennis equivalent.
On the other hand, the Bowling US Open had a much smaller prize.
It was won by Ryan Ciminelli, a former bricklayer from New York State. He received a check for $50,000—it’s still a huge amount of money by all means, but it pales in comparison to other sports.
Even badminton earns more. Lee Chong Wei won his sport’s US Open and netted himself $120,000, almost 2.5 times as much as bowling—and how many professional badminton players do you know?
The fact is bowling isn’t at the level of prevalence it used to be, at least not in a professional capacity, and it would be impossible for the greats to earn as much as athletes from huge sports like football and tennis. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t reach the golden age again.
Some complain that media expansion means it’s lost its accessibility because of other options, but I disagree.
I think this is beneficial. It’s gaining in popularity, and things such as YouTube and Instagram videos mean it can be seen on more platforms by a wider group of people.
This will increase bowling’s popularity and audience, so it could one day reach the heights it did in its 1970s heyday.
Pete Weber and a few others are definitely comfortable, but the vast majority aren’t. Let’s hope this changes, for both the audience’s and the athletes’ sakes.