There's supposed to be a line in a country song that goes something like this: "I don't know whether to kill myself or go bowling."
But, hey, spare me that kind of gutter talk.
They have it all wrong. Bowling isn't some retro-'50s remnant. It's a game for the '90s, for the MTV generation, for television sports viewers with itchy remote-control fingers. You can check your attention span at the door.
As Nelson Burton Jr., ABC's bowling analyst, said this week: "In bowling, we give you a fresh game every 16-17 minutes."
Hah, you snort. But check out the numbers.
The Professional Bowlers Association Tour, which is in town this week at Fair Lanes Kings Point in Randallstown, has been on ABC for 30 years (including tomorrow, 3 p.m., channels 13, 7). Bowling consistently has won its time slot. This season, the PBA has drawn a 3.9 rating. By contrast, ABC's college basketball FTC has drawn a 3.0 and CBS' a 3.1. (A rating measures the percentage of all television households watching a program.)
Part of bowling's appeal, especially against basketball, Burton said, is that immediacy. A viewer has to wade through a couple of hours -- not to mention Dick Vitale -- to get to the last two minutes of a basketball game. In bowling, it's 10 frames and out.
"As far as out-rating basketball," said Burton, who teams with announcer Chris Schenkel, "bowling is an international sport, and college basketball is so regionalized."
And then there's the matter of connecting with the viewer.
"How many people bowl?" Burton said. "Fifteen million people are going to bowl this week. . . . The last time I took a 22-foot set shot was 30 years ago."
Burton said ABC's show is geared toward people tuning in to tune up their games.
"We kind of format ourselves 30 to 40 percent to the instructional level," he said.
That may help offset the general lack of stars who could build a following with frequent television appearances; only the top five bowlers appear each week.
"We only have the luxury of showing five people out of 160," Burton said.
But there may be a computerized evil advancing on the bowling centers of America. High tech is taking over -- just check out the equipment in the Kings Point Fair Lanes -- and that means automatic scorers. We could be on the way to an entire generation of bowlers who don't know how to keep score.
"If you don't have an educated general public, they won't get as much out of it," Burton said.
They might even flip channels.
National Basketball Association fans have missed some games on Channel 2, because the station has a contract for Atlantic Coast Conference basketball that predates NBC's acquisition of the NBA. Rather than try to join games in progress, Channel 2 has opted to pre-empt and show ACC telecasts. Other conflicts are certain to arise during the NBA playoffs, when Channel 2's Baltimore Orioles schedule will knock off basketball. . . . WBAL Radio (1090 AM) has added a March 11 Orioles game from spring training because of a scheduled appearance by Jim Palmer. WBAL's first game from Florida will be Thursday at 1 p.m., preceded by 45 minutes of "Orioles Talk." . . . The cover boy of ESPN's March programming guide is the Orioles' Gregg Olson.
ESPN has set its baseball announcing lineup, with a few changes from last year. Former major-league pitcher Jerry Reuss, a new face, will team with Chris Berman on late Tuesday games, and Steve Physioc and Dave Campbell become the late Friday announcing team, moving up from alternate games. Paul Olden joins ESPN to work alternate games. On "Baseball Tonight," Berman and Gary Miller join the host rotation. . . . . ESPN's coverage of college basketball conference championships begins tomorrow at noon, with the first of five title games, which includes the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (possibly featuring Coppin State) at 7:30 p.m. The East Coast Conference game from Towson State is Tuesday at 4:55 p.m. On Wednesday, ESPN has all three qualifying "play-in" games for the NCAA tournament, beginning at 4:55 p.m.
ESPN's baseball lineup
The regular announcers for ESPN's coverge of major-league baseball (all times p.m.):
Day, time Play-by-play Analyst
Sun., 8 Jon Miller Joe Morgan
Tues., 7:30 S. Zabriskie T. Hutton
Tues., 10:30 Chris Berman Jerry Reuss
Wed., 7:30* Gary Thorne D. Campbell
Fri., 7:30 Gary Thorne Ray Knight
Fri., 10:30 Steve Physioc D. Campbell