Bowling in the Olympics, Bowling’s Awesome Numbers, and Other Fun Facts From Bryan O’Keefe, USBC Gold Coach

Once again this year I had the privilege of joining the Cambridge Credit teams at nationals in Reno. While there, I tagged along with Bryan O’Keefe to watch wife Shannon at the USBC Women’s Championships.  She bowled the very first squad of the event so I got to see the opening ceremonies. Brian is a Team USA and newly minted Gold level coach at the ITRC in Arlington, TX and is chock full of interesting and fun bowling facts, beginning with:

The Women’s U.S. Open is the largest female sporting event in the world with over 20,000 participants. All the more impressive that good friends Brittney Hillman, Kimberly Power, Terri Stynes, and Jackie Wycoff are defending champions. The opening ceremonies were quite impressive!


Newly minted GOLD coach Bryan O’Keefe

We then chatted about the state of bowling, and of course how horrible everything is. Guess what? It isn’t. Consider this fact:
All other organized sports would KILL to have bowling’s participation numbers. There are over 2 million USBC members. Over 70 million people bowl in the U.S. annually. There is no other sport that even touches these numbers. Yes, bowling participation is declining and everyone is trying to understand why and what to do about it. But this is true of other sports as well. Golf has lost over 5 million participants and is panicking over what to do about it – to the extent of considering increasing the size of the hole.
We should brag about bowling’s amazing numbers and do everything we can to keep and grow the sport.

Then we got onto the topic of the PBA tour. Needs sponsors, needs money, needs HELP. My assertion is it is all about TV show ratings – the numbers are not good enough to attract big-money sponsors. Bryan told me about one thing that is coming that could change that:

Bowling is being seriously considered for the 2024 Olympics. If this were to happen, bowling would enjoy an unprecedented ratings bump for the year or two following the Olympics as all other sports have. Kevin Dornberger, head of WTBA (formally FIQ) is lobbying the IOC heavily as we speak. This is a very political process, but bowling has a leg up in that it has the aforementioned participation and 207 local organizations around the world. The first step here is to get on the “short list” which happens in the next year or two and then the IOC considers it for a couple years, with the decision coming after that. If and when we find ourselves on the short list there will be a worldwide social media campaign needed to sway the committee in the right direction. Watch out for this movement!

As part of the Olympics discussion, we got onto Team USA, which brought out another interesting fact:

The IOC insists that a country’s best players be on that country’s national team. If you remember basketball’s Dream Team, this is when this rule went into effect. This is why Chris Barnes, Sean Rash, Shannon O’Keefe, Kelly Kulick, and many other top players are represented on Team USA.

We then chatted about the ITRC where Bryan coaches. I learned a lot, for instance:

You can schedule individual or group clinics at the ITRC. For a ½ day, full day or even across two days, you can arrange for a group to come to the ITRC. They have everything – coaching, lectures, CATS, video, equipment analysis, and more – you are guaranteed to come away a better player. I’m going to lobby to get a group of us to go from Auburn and Shrewsbury, Mass. where I coach juniors. Check it out here.

During the team event, Bryan looked a little uncomfortable, and revealed that:

He suffers from vertigo.
When his spine tightens up it causes him to have balance issues. Shannon was massaging his neck, trying to loosen up the muscles. Despite this he shoots 716 in team event.

All in all another great nationals experience! Can’t wait for our trip to the ITRC and nationals next year in El Paso!

All Symmetrical Oil Patterns Are Unfair!

I once bowled a tournament at my home house in Bloomfield, CT (RIP) where 14 out of 16 finalists were left-handed.  Somebody asked, “Is this some sort of special left-handers only tournament?”

I bowled NEBA in Laurel Lanes this past weekend.  They put out a sport shot and no lefties made the finals.  See the pattern here.

Were either of these situations “fair?”  No.  What did they have in common?  The oil patterns were symmetrical – that is, identical placement and amounts of oil on both sides of the lane.

The problem with symmetrical patterns is that lanes change over time and there are more righties than lefties.  If the lanes start out hard, the right gets easier and the left stays hard, so lefties can’t keep up and usually miss the cut.  If the lanes start out easy, the scoring on the right deteriorates while lefties keep their great look down the stretch and will often win.  This is why lefties dominated NEBA for a good part of its 50 year history, until NEBA got smart and started re-oiling for the finals.



Here’s the lesson: if you are going to make them hard, make them a little easier on the left (for example, put less oil outside or a little more in the middle). If you are going to make them easy, make them a little harder on the left (e.g. put more oil outside or less in the middle).  You have to experiment, and of course it depends on the lane surface, brand of oil, number of games, and other factors.  But even the worst attempt will improve where it stands today.

Smart lane men already know this (as does the PBA).  But, sorry to say, most people just download the symmetrical pattern (or use the preloaded one in the machine) and press the button, which means it is going to be unfair to somebody.

The lefty/righty issue is hotly debated and has created a lot of hatred and resentment between lefties and righties.  It’s too bad because it is so easily explained.  Fixing it takes some playing around, but it can be done.

And by the way, am I writing this because I missed the cut at Laurel?  Absolutely!  But to be honest and fair about it, it has hurt the right more than the left over the years because even in tournaments the tendency is to wall them up in an effort to “please the customers.”

One last thing – congrats to Tim Banta for besting the venerable Bill Webb at Laurel!

Beyond Mike Fagan’s Moneybowl: How Do We Get Started Fixing the Average Problem?

Truthfully I have never anxiously awaited my copy of Bowler’s Journal until this month, when of course I had to wait for it to be forwarded since we just moved. I got a call from George Aboud (he of mystery hand problems) telling me that Mike Fagan had written on statistics and averages.  How cool!  Since I wrote on fixing the average system earlier (for the record before the Moneybowl issue came out), I was hotly anticipating what Mike had to say.

Bowling Center “Slope.”  In the article Fagan mentions a bowling center “slope,” that is, an adjustment for each center based on the scoring pace for that particular house.  So, for example, if a bowler averages 210 in one house and 214 in another, there should be a normalization factor that makes those two averages seem equal.  He dismisses oil pattern as a non-factor and focuses solely on a house-to-house adjustment, and since most leagues bowl on easy house shots this makes sense.

The slope idea is perfect but I do see oil pattern as part of the equation for several reasons.  First, any competent lane man can put out a tough or an easy shot, making the same house play like two entirely different centers.  Secondly, we want to ENCOURAGE bowlers to request different, more challenging patterns so they can see how they fare on different conditions at the same center (and become better bowlers). Finally, many tournaments put out different patterns than the house shot and need a way to normalize averages and handicaps beyond letting sandbaggers win and then re-rating them.  Oil pattern is THE ONE additional piece of data USBC has to track and the rest we can derive through the magic of computers and data analysis.  The good news is that factoring in oil pattern isn’t hard – all we have to do is record the pattern in play for any sanctioned score bowled, even if it reads “house shot.”

Deriving “Pattern-to-Par” (PTP) multipliers. Once we have this data we can, as Mike points out, analyze scores for bowlers in that and other centers, with one big lynch pin being the same bowlers who bowl in multiple leagues in multiple centers.  From here we derive our PTP (Pattern to Par) multipliers, which allow us to MULTIPLY an average to normalize that average to par, then DIVIDE to take the normalized average and predict what that same bowler will average at a different house and/or on a different pattern.  Normalizing an average to par (i.e. multiplying it by the PTP) is the first step in comparing all bowlers to the same standard and achieves the unbiased comparison of players Fagan is looking for.

Let’s Get Started!  How do we start?  Easy.  USBC has all the data – all we have to do is extract it and start analyzing.  We need them to change their average databases to include oil pattern.  For previous years, we can generally just say “house shot” for most leagues and get the starting point we are looking for.  PTPs will evolve over the years and become more accurate as scores from more different patterns are recorded.  The rest are computer algorithms that aren’t very hard to write and apply.

We Have The Technology. Len Nicholson told me I was crazy to try and implement this idea.  Others have told me that “bowling isn’t like golf, you don’t have the same talent and you will never get this done.”  Hogwash! National champion Mike Fagan is calling for change.  I am a 25-year software and database guy.  My fellow junior coach Mark Schipp is an applied math expert.  We have many friends who are Information Technology experts and are passionate about bowing.  I don’t speak for Mark, but I am willing to contribute time and expertise on how to do this, (read: fly me down to Arlington and we’ll brainstorm) both in analyzing prior years’ scores to arrive at baseline PTPs and how to start recording and analyzing the right data to refine those PTPs going forward.  It wouldn’t cost a lot of money, and wouldn’t be that hard! The main obstacle is USBC acknowledging the need for such a system and asking for help from the bowling community to get it done. Mike Fagan thinks this is a good idea and so does every other bowler I’ve ever explained it to. LET’S GET STARTED!

A Better Average System, Or, How Good Are You, Really?

The scoring explosion is even further out of hand.  I joined a new league last week in Auburn, MA.  I had a great look with my pin down Major 52 (thanks Larry Litchstein!) and was in the process of shooting 773 (update – in week two I went -1, that is I shot 772).  My book average last year was 219, which means that based on 90% of 240, I get 19 pins of handicap.  My opponent asked how I got so much handicap, and I told him my 219 was because my other league used different patterns throughout the year, including one quarter with a Challenge Series Pattern (1:3.61 ratio) – like a Sport shot.  Since I didn’t bowl on the usual walled up house shot all year (like this league did, which is why they had to move the handicap base up to 240), my average was more reasonable. The truth is if my look stays like it is you could easily argue I shouldn’t have had any handicap from the beginning.

There’s no system to adjust averages. So what’s wrong with the current handicap system?  There’s no adjustment for what pattern(s) you bowled on and in which house you bowled in.  There’s no reason why my 219 average in my last league shouldn’t translate to at least 235 or higher on this walled up shot.

Many bowlers are bowling on an easy shot and think they are better than they are. The bowling scoring explosion is worse than ever There’s been plenty of blame assigned to the ABC/USBC on this front, so I won’t pile on. Like alcoholism, the first step to recovery is to ADMIT YOU HAVE A PROBLEM.  We must first let people know how easy the lanes they are bowling on actually are, compared to, say, a PBA animal pattern, the USBC Sport shot, the Kegel Challenge patterns, or any other more challenging shot.

What pattern were the scores bowled on?  We need to get the USBC to add only one very important piece of data to league and tournament scores as they are captured: the pattern the score was bowled on.  If this were captured, statistics could be analyzed for scores bowled on that pattern for each house.  That could be compared scores bowled on other patterns at that and other houses.  You could even go back in time for leagues that had the same patterns out in previous years to jump start the analysis.

Out of this analysis could come a “normalized” average, that is, an average that allows us to compare everyone in the country in exactly the same way based on talent, not lane conditions.  We could also figure out what is “par” – that is, return to the idea that a true scratch score in bowling is 200 and compare the bowler’s talent against par with the pattern taken out of the equation. True scratch bowlers will average 200 or higher after their averages are normalized, just as true scratch golfers shoot par or better.

Pattern to Par (PTP) conversion.  To adjust a bowler’s average relative to par an average multiplier is needed.  Let’s call it the PTP – Pattern to Par.  Again, par in bowling is supposed to be 200.  The PTP would be applied to an average and it would “normalize” that average relative to a par of 200.

Example.  Let’s say a scratch (par) bowler averages 220 on the “Easy Street” pattern, a walled up house shot.  Let’s say the same scratch bowler averages 185 on a USBC Sport pattern – one of the tougher patterns out there.  Statistics have shown that the PTPs for those two patterns might look something like this:

Pattern To Par (PTP):

Easy Street PTP: .91

USBC Sport Shot PTP: 1.08

We then take the bowler’s average and multiply it by the PTP.  So on Easy Street, the 220 average * PTP (.91) = 200.  For the Sport pattern, the 185 average * PTP (1.08) = 200.

Real world example.  Let’s say a bowler averages 212 on Easy Street.  That bowler’s average compared to par is 193 (212 * .91).  If the bowler wants to be a “scratch” bowler, s/he needs to practice and improve enough to average at least 220 on the Easy Street shot.

Par average to pattern.  Now let’s say our 212 bowler bowls on a Sport shot.  What would s/he be expected to average? We need a way to take the bowler’s normalized average and convert it to the average expected for the Sport shot. To calculate this, we simply divide the bowler’s normalized average by the PTP.  So, our 212 bowler, who’s actual average compared to par is 193, now needs to have that 193 divided by the Sport pattern PTP, or 1.08.  193 / 1.08 = 178, so the bowler would be expected to average 178 on the sport shot.

Now let’s tell the bowler their true averages.  “178?  I’m better than that – I average 212!”  No, you are actually a 193 bowler compared to a 200 par and you should expect to only average 178 on the Sport shot where par is 185.  You need to practice!

“I really average 178??”

One more example.  Let’s say our bowler wants to bowl on the Route 66 pattern, one of the Kegel Challenge patterns.  Route 66 is easier than the Sport shot, but harder than Easy Street.  For Route 66 let’s say the “par” average is 195, making the PTP 1.03 (200/195).  Again, the PTP needs to be determined by analyzing scores across the country and the world.  As above, the bowler’s 212 average first goes to a normalized 193 (212 * the Easy Street PTP of .91), then is divided by the Route 66 PTP of 1.03 to arrive at an expected average of 187.  The 212 bowler’s average gets adjusted to 187 for Route 66.

Keep it fair!  This system would make handicap tournaments much fairer.  It would let bowlers know where they stand relative to par, and where they stand relative to other bowlers from other houses on different patterns.  It would provide a credible answer to my opponent when they question why I am getting 21 pins when I should get just a few pins if any.  EVERYONE WILL FIND OUT HOW GOOD THEY REALLY ARE.

Is the USBC up to this challenge?  The USBC is the ONLY institution that can implement this system.  They have a view of scores on all patterns in houses across the entire country.  Ideally, the system would be implemented across the globe so all bowlers of all abilities anywhere in the world could find out how good they really are.

The USBC tried to address the scoring explosion with the Sport shot.  The good news is that they have an average conversion chart that converts Sport shot averages to “normal” averages and back again.  The bad news is that there is no way they had enough data to properly  populate such a chart.  One must know the PTPs for patterns and houses across the country before such a conversion chart can be created with any kind of accuracy.

So how about it USBC – are you ready to take the first step in fixing the scoring explosion? Who’s ready to take up the call with me to the USBC to implement this system?