Lately, the Albuquerque Convention Center has been flooded with 500 to 1,000 bowlers each day.
Some travel to the United States Bowling Congress Open Championships to knock over the competition, but many come to throw a few frames and see the sights of a place they've never visited. Both men and women bowlers take part in high-stakes competitions for thousands of dollars, but they might also squeeze in a trip to Coronado Mall or Isotopes Park before they leave. The thrill of competition at bowling's highest level and the cash cow created by thousands of participants make the tournament an especially welcome visitor to the Duke City.
Over the four-and-a-half month-long tournament that began Feb. 16, 100 million pins will be knocked down by 200,000 bowling balls, hurled by an estimated 60,000 bowlers on 12,000 different teams. The tournament ends Monday, July 7.
Participants compete for the title in single, double and team categories, and while most won't rake in the dough, those who bowl well stand a good chance of earning back some of their tournament fee. It costs bowlers $45 per event to enter. The winners in each category can take home thousands, depending on how many folks take part. Registration is closed, but interested bowlers can pay $21 to become a USBC member and be on standby to fill in for bowlers who couldn't make the trip.
Before the bowlers could lace up their shoes and take the lanes, the Convention Center had to be turned into a bowling alley.
More than two dozen truckloads of materials were brought into the Convention Center's east complex on Dec. 15. After two months, about 30 local carpenters and a small USBC staff had turned enough plywood to build five three-bedroom homes into 60 bowling lanes. "It's truly a sight to behold," says USBC Media Relations Manager Matt Cannizzaro. "It's worth coming here just to see how we've transformed the complex."
The city's Convention and Visitors Bureau is less interested in how bowlers score and more concerned with what they do with the rest of their time in Albuquerque.
Competitors don't just travel with their team to the championships. Often they bring friends and family along for the ride. The influx of visitors means businesses stand to cash in on the tournament. That's the reason Albuquerque put in a bid to host it this year. The 2000 championships, which also took place at the Convention Center, had a positive effect on Albuquerque's economy, says Dan Ballou, director of sports marketing for the city's Visitors Bureau.
Ballou estimates the bowlers and their fellow travelers will shell out between $60 million and $70 million during the course of the tournament. "The people who come in tend to make their trip a mini-vacation," Ballou says. "Bowlers and their families have to stay at a hotel, rent a car, eat somewhere, and many want to see other attractions in the city. It's a consistent flow of people and it's a big economic boost for Albuquerque."
Anyone who thinks bowling isn't a sport should bowl for an entire week the way full-time pros do.
USBC hall-of-famer Steve Fehr
The host cities are decided several years in advance, and the winning locale can expect to pony up around $1 million to the USBC for the right to bring the tournament to town. "The biggest challenge for us is finding a chunk of time where the Convention Center isn't being used for anything," Ballou says. "We certainly make up for the cost of hosting the tournament with the impact it has on businesses."
Not every bowler at the tournament has time to explore Albuquerque. One team is too intent on making history to pay much attention to the city's charms.
Steve Fehr is in the USBC Hall of Fame. After 40 years of bowling, he and four teammates could become the first to win three consecutive championships in at least one of the competition's categories. "We know it's gonna be hard, but we've got a crew that is determined," Fehr says. "The odds are probably a thousand to one, but we're all walking in believing we can do it."
Fehr, who lives in Cincinnati, was attracted to bowling four decades ago because it wasn't about being the biggest, fastest or strongest. Perhaps more than in any other sport, practice can make perfect. "I was never a real big person, so I knew I wasn't going to be a football or basketball player," Fehr says. "I've always considered myself an athlete, though, and I try my hardest to stay in good shape."
Fehr says many believe the professional bowling ranks are filled with beer-drinkers and chain-smokers, but a closer look at those at the top reveals a different story. "The pros take very good care of their body," Fehr says. "Anyone who thinks bowling isn't a sport should bowl for an entire week the way full-time pros do. Try grinding it out and playing the 24 games in seven days and you'll find it's not as easy as people think."
While he insists bowling is more strenuous than most believe, Fehr is glad he'll be able to bowl well into old age. "What's really special about bowling is that little kids can do it, and people in their 90s can as well," Fehr says. "That's something no other sport can claim.”