Pro bowling returns from coronavirus shutdown with 'PBA Strike Derby'

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The sports world will take another step toward normalcy on Saturday night when the Professional Bowlers Association returns to live action following a lengthy pause in play during the coronavirus pandemic.

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Eight of the world’s top pro bowlers will face off in the inaugural PBA Strike Derby at Bowlero Jupiter in Florida. The exhibition event challenges players to bowl as many strikes as they can during a two-minute window. The Strike Derby is the first of three special events the association has planned over the next two months.

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Like other pro sports attempting a comeback from the pandemic, the PBA will play without fans in attendance and rigorous safety guidelines in place to protect players from the virus. The speedy return provides bowling with a rare opportunity to attract sports-starved fans at a time when most other leagues are still sidelined, according to PBA CEO Colie Edison.

“We think we can draw in a really big audience to our show on Saturday night and it will expose a lot more people to the PBA,” Edison told FOX Business. “Everyone has these antiquated perceptions on what bowling is. They envision an older man with a beer belly out on the lanes and it’s just nothing like that. What you’re going to see this Saturday night is top athletic form.”

PBA bowler Tommy Jones bowls during the 2019 State Farm Chris Paul PBA Celebrity Invitational in Houston, Texas. (Bob Levey/Getty Images for PBA)

The PBA pursued a comeback in Jupiter after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared sports an essential business in April. A host of precautionary health measures will be in place for the PBA Strike Derby, including enhanced sanitization and social distancing practices at the venue.

Bowlers won’t share any equipment and all staffers will have access to personal protective equipment. Only essential production staff and the bowlers themselves will be in attendance.

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“The entire footprint is a lot smaller. There’s going to be less people on site,” Edison said. “When it comes to social distancing, I’d actually argue that bowling alleys have perfected social distancing from the beginning. We have lanes that are separated into pairs.”

U.S. pro sports leagues shut down in mid-March after the worsening pandemic made it impossible to safely hold events. The NBA, MLB and other leagues forced to suspend seasons are preparing to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket sales and other sources of income.

Since ticket revenue at PBA events goes to the host venue rather than the association itself, Edison said the prospect of bowling without fans in attendance isn’t a significant financial setback. The PBA is aiming to bolster the quality of its televised product to boost the value of its media rights, the sport’s primary source of revenue.

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The PBA Strike Derby will be open for mobile sports betting for the first time through Fox Bet Sportsbook in Colorado, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

While the sport will return in the midst of an ongoing public health crisis, Edison said the bowlers haven’t expressed any reservations about returning to the lanes.

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“It has been the most enthusiastic response from these bowlers,” Edison said. “These are athletes who have really been sidelined from bringing in revenue for their families. This is how they earn their living and so when we postponed our tour, these guys have been anxious to get back out on the lanes since day one. I think that they also trust that the PBA is going to do it safely.”

The PBA Strike Derby will unfold in a similar manner to Major League Baseball’s Home Run Derby. After an opening two-minute round to determine seeds, the eight bowlers will be placed in an elimination bracket. The last bowler standing will be named champion.

The comeback event will air at 7 p.m. ET on Fox.

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