That One Time We Tried To Save Bowling
Tales from the Creative Graveyard
Editor’s Note: Sausage-making can be a bit…gruesome. And while the outcome is most certainly delicious, the making can be a brutal process. Tales From the Creative Graveyard are a peek behind the curtain. They’re real, they’re raw, and in the end things usually go south. But they make for fantastic stories! And you know the saying, “If you can’t laugh at yourself…” We once again have an audio version, so you can hear it in Dan’s own words.
Let me preface this by stating that this is one of my favorite stories, quite possibly THE favorite. And while this campaign never saw the light of day, the unfolding of its inception—and its unforeseen demise—may well go down as one of the greatest moments of my career. So pull up a chair, grab some snacks, and—if I can tell this thing as neatly, hilariously, dramatically, and depressingly as the movie of it playing away in my mind—we’re both in for a treat. I promise not to embellish…too much.
It’s June 26, 2016.
I’m in Vegas.
I’m full of both fear and loathing. I hate Vegas, and I’m in Vegas.
Later that day, our founder Jim Becker will send me off into the desert (in a convertible, no less) to frolic around the Colorado River. He will turn to me and say, “You don’t look so good, I think you need to get out of here for a while.” And he’ll be right! I do need to get out of here for a while, and no, I probably do not look good. But that’s several hours from now. Right now I’m in a hotel conference room, surrounded by 20 C-Suite executives and managers, and the air is lifeless and listless and stale and smells vaguely of cigarettes. (Can I smoke in here?) And I hate windowless conference rooms, especially when they’re in Vegas. And I’m in Vegas and, as mentioned above, I hate Vegas.
But before we can even get to the desert and me jumping off a cliff into the Colorado River in my underwear, we should probably set up why I’m here.
I’m in Vegas for a funeral.
Bowling is dead.
Back in June 2015, the Olympic Committee announced that, in the interest of expanding their competitive offerings and appealing to a younger demographic, additional sports would be considered for the upcoming global games. 28 sports were winnowed down to 8 for consideration. Among them: Wushu (basically Kungfu), squash, and yes, bowling. It was a short-lived celebration. Bowling would soon be eliminated from the list—specifically because no one in the younger demo has any interest in bowling.
Like an organ transplant or experimental drug treatment, the whole Olympic thing was a last-ditch effort on behalf of the sport. Professional bowling was in decline…which is a nice way of saying a full-blown tailspin. As in engine, wings, and propeller all on fire, and a pilot tangled in his seatbelt, with an ACME-brand parachute pack containing nothing more than an anvil and an entire drawer of sterling silver flatware.
Between 1998 and 2013, a quarter of all bowling alleys closed. Those that didn’t, saw interest in bowling leagues plummet. Where leagues once accounted for 70% of a bowling alley’s business, by 2007 it was less than 40%. This drop in interest forced bowling alleys to convert to “entertainment centers,” with costly expansions that included arcades, bars, WhirlyBall, laser tag, and the like.
As an aside, the industry hates the term “alley.” As part of their, I dunno, aggressive-yet- ineffective-strictly-word-of-mouth marketing campaign, saying “alley” is a big no-no. They’re centers. Bowling Centers. *Hard eye roll*
No one sums up the whole scene as well as author Zachary Crockett in March 2014:
Today, the glitz and glamour has faded. Pro bowlers supplement their careers with second jobs, like delivering sod, or working at a call center. They share Motel 6 rooms on tour to save on travel expenses, and thrive on the less-than-exciting dime of beef jerky sponsorships. Once sexy, bowling is now synonymous with cheap beer and smelly feet.
Now EPIC’s historic love for bowling is no secret. Back in 2016, we boasted a number of 300 games among our staff, which included a former pro-bowler (there were trading cards— TRADING CARDS—of her!) Suffice it to say, we weren’t going to let Rome burn without at least grabbing a bucket or two.
And so in the cold, early days of 2016, several of us gathered in a conference room to determine how to save bowling, casually wearing our hubris like a hoodie, never once stopping to consider if bowling even wanted to be saved.
In the year 2016, approximately 45 million people ages 6 and up had bowled at least once. Let’s say that involved shoe rental, a couple of games, and maybe a snack and a drink. Doing some lazy math (the only math I know how to do): call that about $15 a person. That’s $675M annually. So if we can get every single one of those people to bowl one more time per year—just one more time—we’re talking about $1.3 billion. And if we can get a couple of those folks to buy a ball? Or convert them to league bowlers? Or bring a friend? Well, it’s easy to get carried away quickly. With minimal effort, we could transform an entire industry. We could be heroes, David Bowie … actual heroes!
So with visions of dollar signs in our heads, we began the creative process. “How do we get more people to go bowling?” We dig at this question for weeks, and in the end, the answer is catastrophically simple: You get people to go bowling by asking them to go bowling.
“Wanna go bowling?”
“Yeah! Let’s roll.”
And just like that, we have our anthem.
The comprehensive 360-degree integrated national campaign is beautiful. It’s vibrant, engaging, and it asks nothing of our audience too complicated or taxing. The audience set is divided between regular bowlers (those who bowl six or more times a year) and those that only bowl once a year. This allows us to vary our messaging between just encouraging folks to get out there and how to take the next step in the sport: buy the right shoe, upgrade a ball, or sign up for a league. We concept regional events and experiential touchpoints in major metropolitan cities. We create customizable creative assets for the bowling centers, and low-resistance points of entry to get involved and help out. Heavily researched and complete with a flawless media strategy, the whole damn thing is an airtight care package addressed to the bowling industry and sealed with hugs and big sloppy kisses.
Winter turns to spring, and spring becomes summer. All the while, our confidence grows. In the last week of June 2016, we fly to Vegas—our success most certainly assured.
Presentation day arrives.
We’re back to where we started: the windowless hotel ballroom. But it might as well be any Midwestern hotel ballroom, given the overwhelming drabness of it: four yellow-hued walls, a ceiling, and a floor. The end. At the front of the room is a projection screen and two tables, each with two seats meant for the presenters: me, our account executive, Tim Merath (now EPIC COO), and Jim Becker. In front of us is a series of tables set up in a U-shape with approximately 20 seats. These seats are meant for the presidents and C-suite suits from the major bowling manufacturers and the association execs we’ll be singing to for our proverbial supper. In the back of the room are three rows of 10 chairs for any would-be spectators. And against the back wall is a whole spread of meats and fruit and cheese and an aggressive amount of wine—we went all out.
Folks start casually filing into the room at 2:45 and, by 3:00, the room is alive with a quiet but energetic din. Attention is called to order and brief introductions are given: Bowling is in decline yada, yada, yada. It’ll take a bold move etc., etc., etc. …
I love presenting. It’s great theater. It’s a song and dance and I’m a song-and-dance man. I treat most presentations like the bombastic number that closes Act I in any Broadway show. Tim and I exchange an enthusiastic glance. We can read each other’s minds: “Dude, we’re doing this.” “I know … I can’t believe we’re doing this!”
“…and with that, I’m gonna hand it off to Dan Augustine, our Creative Director, to walk us through the presentation.”
“Right! Hi! Hello! I’m Dan Augustine, I’m EPIC’s Creative Director, and I wanna start by saying thank you for taking some time today, I know this is a big week for all of you and it mea—”
I’m cut off by a booming “Excuse me!”
All eyes turn toward the center of the U-shaped table. A fella that looks a lot like a young Edward Herrmann is pushing himself away from the table to stand.
“I don’t mean to interrupt,” he says, interrupting me. “But did anyone here even stop to think about what this is? You’ve got five presidents sitting in this room together. This looks a lot like colluding to build a monopoly. Did anyone talk to a lawyer? Can we even be here? Is this even legal?”
Nervous chatter races through the room. There are some angry reactions to Edward Herrmann’s dramatic sentiment. Someone tells him to sit down. He does, but the arguing is building and now there are a few shouts. I’m still standing there like a dummy, gobsmacked in front of the projection of our deck currently on slide 6 of 60; creative starts on slide 34. The association folks are fighting with the manufacturers. The manufacturers are fighting with each other. In a matter of moments, our presentation has become an all-out verbal brawl.
Like a glob of melted ice cream making its slow, suicidal plunge down the side of a waffle cone in mid-June in Vegas, I drip back into my chair. Over the course of five painful minutes, I slowly turn to face Tim. He doesn’t need to read my mind. It’s written on my face:
What. The. F**k.
Any concern for legal exposure surrounding this gathering is gone, there are now a dozen heated side conversations. And most of them are focused on budgets. Who is spending what, and where, and why.
Someone demands to know how much this idea is going to cost. (The idea that no one has yet seen.) Someone else says about a million dollars, and now it’s all out yelling. Pure chaos. It’s been nearly a half hour since I introduced myself. It’s getting loud. God, I hate Vegas. And just when I think tables are about to get flipped and set on fire, a fiercely intense but hushed voice comes from the back.
“I’d like to say something.”
The arguing stops.
Sitting in the back row, a man that looks and sounds like Marlon Brando in Godfather, but dressed in all white like Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau heaves himself up on his cane and addresses the mob. French horns take the place of my inner monologue.
“I’ve got $800,000 invested in NASCAR sponsorships and it’s doing NOTHING for us and now you want a million dollars for this?” (Aside: AGAIN! NO ONE has even seen this yet! We’re still on slide 6, the slide that reads: Who We Are.)
A long silent pause.
The realization of an investment squandered slowly sinks in. Someone mutters “you didn’t invest it! You just gave it to them with no plan!” And we’re Immediately back to loud fighting. Marlon Brando dismissively waves his hand at the embattled group and trundles out of the room. He’s gone. Take me with you, weird Marlon Brando!
At 3:45, having expelled most of their piss and vinegar reserves, the mob has come to a consensus: This meeting is over. Half-heartedly, someone in the back suggests EPIC Creative put a lot of work into this and maybe we should let them at least share their work. Jim Becker gives me a nod, and I run through 54 slides in 10 minutes. My bombastic Broadway show is delivered with all the grace and skill of an elementary school production—cardboard costumes, pants-wetting, forgotten lines, and all.
There’s no applause.
The last thing I remember? On his way out the door, one of the attendees looked at the spread of food, then turned to me and asked: “Is this free?”
I tell him yes, it’s free.
He fills his pockets with cheese cubes, tucks two bottles of wine under his arm, grabs another with his free hand, and leaves.
I don’t remember saying anything to my coworkers. We leave in silence. I imagine the joyless flatline beeeeeeeeeeeeep of a patient monitor as we close the door and fall in with the gross, Hawaiian-print adorned masses ambling through Mandalay Bay.
We took the scenic route to the Colorado River.
Thin lanes and windy canyon roads. The presentation left me worse for wear. I took Jim up on his offer to “get out of there” and climbed into a rented convertible piloted by our video crew; the Tobey MacGuire to their Del Toro and Depp. I wanted to lick my wounds, but did I have any wounds to show? We didn’t even present. No song-and-dance number. No charm. Was this a loss? It certainly wasn’t a win. We sped toward the Nevada-Arizona border and the terrain became more desolate—more cracked and sun-baked. The air is hot, but it’s real and unfiltered and I can’t fill my lungs with enough of it.
The Colorado River is trashed, and I’m astonished by the refuse blowing around the shore and in the water. We strip into our skivvies, leap off the cliff, and add our bodies to the floating garbage. The current is strong. I’m feeling overly reflective. I’m forcing it. I want this all to mean something. Being here, being in Vegas, having our creative baby sacrificed to the God of Gutterballs and Nickel Slots. But does it?
It is what it is.
The house always wins.
Let’s roll the hell outta here.
I hate Vegas.