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Look Inside for Bowling Leaders
By Jim Goodwin

Aside from getting four quarters for a dollar, most people do not like change, especially in the workplace. People resigning, or being terminated, as a general rule, makes us uneasy; adds stress and worry for many. On the flipside of the coin, change can also signal progress, and it can send a message that people really are being held accountable for their performance. In recent months, we have seen many changes within the walls of the International Bowling Campus in Arlington, most notable the top two leaders – BPAA and USBC Executive Directors Steve Johnson and Stu Upson. These two gentlemen came into bowling within weeks of each other in 2009, and now they are both gone in the past few weeks; and the difficult process of finding the best qualified replacements begins anew. Johnson and Upson were heralded as brilliant business guys with the skills and knowledge to take bowling to the next level. Both came from the auto racing world, and the hope was that some of the success in that industry and some of the sponsors they worked with would gravitate with them to bowling. But apparently, after more than four years on the job, either they decided that they could not help bowling any longer, or their respective board’s patience ran out. It really does not matter which; the bottom line is that here we go again looking for new talent and new answers.

In their first few weeks on the job, we interviewed Stu and Steve together at the newly opened International Bowling Campus. Both seemed very capable, yet with very different personalities. Johnson was gregarious and outspoken. Upson was more reserved and introspective, but they seemed to have chemistry, and a genuine desire to work together for bowling. What led to their departure, however, were facts that simply could not be ignored – BPAA’s premier event, Bowl Expo, declined in participation and revenue, and USBC’s membership continued to shrink at an alarming rate. Was it their leadership, or lack of it, that caused these problems, or are those things that happen beyond anyone’s individual control? Was it simply the economy or lifestyle changes, etc, etc, etc? We may never know the answers; but what matters now, is who replaces leaders who fail to get the job done; and to the satisfaction of boards of directors, suppliers, exhibitors, manufacturers, members, and even casual participants.

Respectfully, we would like to suggest that those responsible for filling these big jobs and a few other key positions look within the bowling universe, and not look for yet another savior from another industry. In our view, that formula has been tried several times without success, and perhaps it is time to promote or recruit from within bowling. Examples are easy to recall. Years ago, the Women’s International Bowling Congress hired Sandra Shirk to be their leader. Shirk was a very smart young woman with a very impressive business resume, but her lack of passion for bowling and other factors made her a short timer. Not long after that, a newly formed Bowling Inc. and StrikeTen Entertaiment reached out and hired Steve Ryan, who brought experience from the National Hockey League. Ryan, like Shirk, was very intelligent and personable, but his favorite sport was Hockey, not bowling.

BPAA tapped the golf industry to bring in Bill Blue, and he became one of its shortest lived leaders. Don Harris was next – a guy with auto association experience. He helped start Bowl Expo. Enter Jack Kelly, well respected in the sports world, especially in the Olympic arena. Everyone was excited that he might help get Bowling into the Olympics. It did not happen. BPAA had better luck with John Berglund. An attorney, John had prior experience in bowling on the state level, and he seemed to do a very good job for eight years, growing Bowl Expo and building good relationships with the media and other groups; and he played a key role in creating the International Bowling Campus before resigning in 2009 to move to the Caribbean to start a perfume business and write a book about moving to paradise.

Were any of these leaders bad people? Of course not . . . but all were highly paid executives that were hired to grow the sport and the business, and with a couple of exceptions, it was mostly failure. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying they were total failures . . .and by the way there is no shame in failing as long as you give your all. But bottom line, the job that was expected just did not get done.

What is important today I will never forget the excitement that surrounded the opening of the International Bowling Campus in Arlington in January of 2010. It was a bright sunny day with a temperature in the mid-60’s, perfect for the outdoor ceremonies that time of year in North Texas. Hundreds of people from all corners of bowling attended, and every one of them had a gut feeling that bowling was on its way to happy days.

Today, four years later, the optimism seems to have derailed. Leaders and many others then a part of the new wave are gone. Bowling’s major organizations, after working under the same roof for a few years, find themselves at another crossroad. Not that they necessarily need it, but our advise is to take a deep breath and take whatever time is needed to make the right decisions about who steps into those key leadership roles next; and we sincerely hope people within the industry will get equal consideration with those who would have to spend at least a couple of years learning the industry and its major players. Frankly, we are not sure bowling can survive more learning curves.

Many years ago, my first real job was working for a very big bank. At that time, the top officers of the bank were mostly greatest generation vets and their peers. Many of them did not have fancy college degrees, but almost all of them had integrity and strong character. They led by example. There are many very smart people in bowling today. We are certain that within this great sport and business new leaders with passion and integrity and high standards can be found. We know they are out there. If found and hired, will they be brilliant on day one? No – but on-the-job training with integrity and passion for the sport and business.


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