If you want to go pro or are interested in knowing how much professional bowlers make, you might (or might not) be surprised to hear that salaries in professional bowling don’t come close to the averages of professional athletes in other professional sports like baseball.
Most Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) bowlers have other jobs alongside setting aside time for practice and competing. And if you asked a PBA bowler how he started bowling, he’s likely to tell you that he went through a series of low-paying bowling tournaments that weren’t enough to cover his living expenses.
This is not to discourage you if you want to turn pro, but rather to make you aware of the state of affairs in the pro bowling landscape.
How Much Do Pro Bowlers Make When Winning Tournaments?
The Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) tour is the tour most bowlers want to be a part of. Most other countries have bowling tours for their pro bowlers and top athletes, but the PBA is the most premier and one where the salaries are best.
On the other hand, there are other tournaments and competitions bowlers can compete in to increase their chances of getting paid in the game later on.
This includes youth leagues for the kids, local tournaments, and regional tours when you have a PBA membership. How much money you make depends on the type of tournament you’re in – one tournament might pay you only when you win and another might pay you both for participating and winning.
If you’re competing at a low level, the tournament is likely to not pay you when you win, let alone for participation. In cases like this, you have to cover your own travel expenses (or share a room to save money) and have enough money if the tournaments are out of town.
This is where the love for the sport comes in. If you do it because you love it, not getting paid at the start of your career won’t faze you.
According to Zip Recruiter, the average annual salary of a professional bowler is $42, 450. This is not as much as in other sports, and with averages, one still has to dig deeper into the numbers.
Most professional bowlers earn less than this. The average salary for pro bowlers is at this rate because of the averages of the top professional bowlers in the game (about $200,000 to $300,000).
That’s the 80/20 rule in action (80% of the salaries go to the top earners, i.e the 20%).
The top earner this season on the PBA tour is Jason Belmonte at $275,290. Pro bowlers like Sean Rash and Chris Via rank 7th and 18th with a salary of $133,650, and $42,850 respectively.
The first-place prize money for pro bowlers on a regional PBA tour is about $2,500. This is not at all bad, but it’s not enough for a pro bowler to make it his full-time job.
It also means that a professional bowler who competes in tournaments below is paid less. Because of this, top bowlers are known to make money from other in-game streams as a way of increasing their earnings from the game.
For pro bowlers who’ve already built a brand, sponsorships and endorsements are a common way to earn some extra income. Many bowlers also go into making gear and accessories, like bowling balls (some still do this under sponsorships).
Taking part in bowling exhibitions is another way you can increase your income as a pro bowler. A final one for the top earners is setting up bowling coaching clinics e.g., Next Level Bowling co-founded by Norm Duke.
How Do Bowling Salaries Compare to Other Sports?
Daniil Medvedev, the winner of the 2021 US Open (tennis), got a cheque for $2.5 million. Jon Rahm, the winner of the 2021 US Open (golf), got a pay envelope of $2.25 million.
Chris Via, the winner of the 2021 US Open (bowling), took home $30,000. Anticlimactic? I agree.
But why is this so? Well, the bowling game has gone through a steady decline over the last 50 years.
In the 1970s, over 9 million Americans were in bowling leagues. The bowling culture today is not nearly as vibrant with the number falling to 1.34 million in the 2017-2018 period.
The first sports athlete to receive a $1 million endorsement deal ($7.6 million today) was a bowler, Don Carter. The deal was with ball manufacturer, Ebonite, and at the time, it was 200 times what the golfer Arnold Palmer got from Wilson.
The average professional bowler salary in the 1970s was $446,710.
Like Messi is a household name in soccer and Tom Brady is in football, Pete Weber or Walter Ray Williams Jr today are household names in bowling; but, unless you’re into bowling, you wouldn’t know that.
One major factor in professional bowling’s decline is how debt-ridden the PBA was by the turn of the century. So much so that they were bought by a Microsoft employee, Chris Peters, and some of his co-workers for only $5 million.
By this time, opportunities for sponsorships for a pro bowler were far less than they were in the 1970s. The endorsement deals pro bowlers got from bowling companies were also not as much.
As the sport declined, TV coverage as a way to create awareness and make money also decreased. And as TV coverage goes down, sponsorships and endorsements deals also decline, and the cycle continues.
This is more so because of the importance of TV at that time. When the masses don’t know who you are, your chances of landing sponsorships and increasing your salary are low.
Today, league bowling contributes to less than half (40%) of the earnings of a bowling center. This was 70% in 2000.
Yes, these numbers aren’t encouraging if you want to make a decent living off your favorite professional sport, but it’s not too late to change the current bowling scene.
Changing the Bowling Landscape
In the age of social media, the PBA doesn’t need to worry about TV as a sole mode of advertising. This doesn’t mean TV coverage isn’t important (it still is), but that there are numerous other opportunities for the PBA and pro bowlers to land more coverage as time goes by (meaning more salaries).
Also, more than a third of children bowl, which means the PBA can turn their interest in the game into something more tangible with time. Be it more fans within the sport, or more players.
One final factor that can contribute to a potential comeback of the bowling game is simply encouraging people to take part. Some bowling centers are in bad shape which causes fewer people to participate in the game.
Refurbishing these centers and then advertising them by hosting tournaments without an entrance fee is a great way to entice people into the sport.
When done well, all this accumulates into a future worth looking forward to.
If you want to go pro, make sure that a love for the game comes before the money. Though every bowling fanatic hopes the scene will change for the better, it will take time to come close to the heights reached in the golden age of the 60s and the 70s.
It seems far away, but it all starts with the changes initiated today. Hopefully, we’ll have a different conversion a few years from now.