Bill Bighaus: It’s time for Billings to get back in the bowling business | Bowling

BILLINGS In looking back with fondness at the 2002 American Bowling Congress championship tournament he directed in Billings, Brian Lewis also couldn’t help but look ahead with a couple of “what ifs.”

What if, for instance, the Magic City put together another bid to host the national tournament once again in 2031? The year 2031 is one of two available in the next 10 years, the other being 2028.

Also, what if Lewis manages to keep his string of national bowling appearances alive over the next 10 years?

“It would be perfect for me in 2031,” Lewis said in a recent phone interview with The Gazette and “I could come and get my 50-year (participation) plaque in Billings.”

The 61-year-old Lewis, who is no longer associated with what is now known as the United States Bowling Congress (USBC), was the ABC’s tournament director in Billings 20 years ago.

“I remember the final bowler getting three strikes in the 10th (frame) to end the tournament,” he said. “That was a great end to a great tournament all the way around.”

The prestigious event, which ran for 135 days from early February to late June on 48 temporary lanes constructed in MetraPark’s Expo Center, attracted 10,806 five-member bowling teams from all 50 states and six foreign countries.

“Coming in (during the fall of 2001) and seeing the horses and cows, I can recall thinking ‘Oh boy this is a real multi-purpose building,'” Lewis said with a laugh. “I thought ‘I suppose we can turn this into a bowling venue.’ It became a first-class bowling venue.”

When Brian Lewis, director of the 2002 ABC championships, first arrived at MetraPark’s Expo Center in October 2001, the facility was hosting a livestock show. A few months later, the barn had become a state-of-the-art bowling alley and was the world’s bowling hot spot.

Despite 9/11, it was, at the time, the largest ABC Tournament ever held outside of the 80-plus lanes at the National Bowling Stadium in Reno, Nevada, and the fourth largest overall.

There were divisions based on skill level, bowlers age 12 to 89 participated, and nearly $3.5 million was offered in prize money.

Billings, one of the smallest cities to ever serve as host for the championships, was also the site for the ABC annual convention, plus ABC’s Hall of Fame ceremony in 2002.

It was all quite a spectacle, a true mega sporting event that brought vitality to the city and also boosted tourism.

Perhaps this is as good a time as any to assess the feasibility of doing it all over again in 2028 or 2031.

“Billings rolled out the red carpet,” Lewis said. “The bowlers really felt that.”

Around 480 new bowlers arrived in Billings every day during the tournament.

Businesses across town displayed colorful banners and signs welcoming them, with that display of friendliness and support now part of the lasting legacy of the 2002 event.

“One of the questions I was asked quite a bit by bowlers (after 2002) was ‘when are we going back to Billings? We had so much fun,’ ” Lewis said.

“Bowlers love to visit the smaller cities with a lot of ambiance. They left happy with the city and the area and, mostly, with their bowling.”

When the championships concluded in 2002, the general feeling and newspaper headlines were in agreement that the event, then in its 99th year, would be back at the Expo Center in 2010 or 2011, at the latest.

But it has never returned.

“If Billings is interested (in 2028 or 2031), it’s time to get the powers that be together,” Lewis said.

It will be a challenge to re-up, but let’s try to bring the bowlers back, and turn “Big Strike Country” into a bowling hot spot again.

Any bid for what is now known as the USBC’s Open Championships would need the blessing of the county commissioners and others.

It also would take an immense financial commitment from area businesses/organizations, and we should all get behind them.

“I will help in any way,” Lewis said.

The national championships in 2002 were certainly an economic bonanza for Yellowstone County, with an estimated economic impact of $35 million to $40 million.

The county’s Expo Center, with 48 lanes, “is certainly workable in my opinion” in 2028 or 2031, Lewis said. “It will depend on the (financial) package, too.”

This year’s tournament, now in its 118th year, is being held on the 60-plus lanes at the South Point Bowling Plaza in Las Vegas. For the next five years, the competition will shuffle between Reno and Las Vegas.

The one exception is Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 2025.

In landing the 2002 tournament, the $1.5 million bid to the ABC, which helped build the lanes, was pledged by public and private sectors inside and outside of the county.

Unfortunately, fund-raising efforts to support the original bid fell short of expectations, and the county’s taxpayers were left to cover a nearly $400,000 shortfall in the end.

That has turned out to be a game changer, and stumbling block, whenever discussions pop up about entering the bidding process again.

But it’s also tough to ignore another huge economic impact from a national event we’ve put on successfully in the past.

“Fifty thousand bowlers had to stay somewhere and eat,” Lewis noted. “Put a pencil to that.”

Billings certainly has plenty to build on from 2002. We just need to plan, track and execute more effectively on the financial side.

Lewis, who lives in Barrington, Illinois, is a former chemical engineer and is now the executive director of the non-profit Foundry Educational Foundation, based in the Chicago area.

He was the ABC/USBC onsite tournament director from 2001-2008.

The following year (2009) Lewis became the USBC managing director of tournaments, and was based at the USBC headquarters in Arlington, Texas. He served in that role until 2014.

Besides Billings, Lewis also directed tournaments in Knoxville, Tennessee (2003), Baton Rouge (2005), Corpus Christi, Texas (2006) and Albuquerque, New Mexico (2008). He was in Reno on three occasions (2001, 04, 07).

“I have a bowling memorabilia bin in my garage,” Lewis said. “I kept things near and dear to my heart.”

The Magic City is included in that bin after it set a national record that still stands with 64 perfect games bowled, including three by Montanans. The 21 299s also established a new record.

An estimated 500,000 tournament games were bowled.

“I was constantly and constantly amazed at how many folks would turn out to watch the bowlers each and every day,” Lewis said.

That was certainly the case in April 2002 when two talented homegrown teams, B&H Bowling Supply and Sunset Bowl, took to lanes 37 and 38 before a packed grandstand.

“There was real electricity in that venue,” Lewis said. “The Billings bowling community was a strong bowling community.”

It’s the perfect time, it seems, for Billings to try again, and get back in the bowling business.


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