Tech mogul strikes pro-bowling dream

Former Microsoft VP Chris Peters harbors a burning ambition: To become a professional bowler. And he's putting his money where his heart is.

Tech millionaire Chris Peters' quixotic quest for salvation through bowling seemed gutter-bound.

Facing a midlife crisis two years ago, the 41-year-old Peters quit a top job at Microsoft Corp. and dedicated himself to becoming a professional bowler. He spent three afternoons a week at a suburban Seattle bowling alley, hired a coach, splurged on the latest gadgets and even tried to install a lane at his spacious Lake Washington home. But his average never crept above 170, far short of the 200 minimum required for membership in the Professional Bowlers Association.

So he began working on a new technique that could assure his participation in the pro tour.

He wants to buy the league
Friday, the 2,800 members of the PBA are scheduled to vote on whether to authorize their board to negotiate the sale of the bowler-owned association to Peters and a group of investors he heads.

There doesn't seem to be much doubt about the outcome. Peters's quest to become a pro bowler was mentioned in The Wall Street Journal last year, and ever since, he has been hailed as a potential savior for the whole benighted sport of bowling.

That a successful high-tech mogul could see bowling as the balm to his ennui raised hopes that bowling might begin shedding its reputation as a shrinking preserve of middle-aged, beer-bellied, hopelessly undigital people. (Indeed, the number of weekly league bowlers has fallen under four million, down from a peak of more than nine million in 1979.)

"We don't have the kind of money other sports have," says 36-year-old Parker Bohn III, the PBA's reigning Player of the Year, who won five tournaments and $241,000 in prize money last year. That's not bad, but nothing such as the paydays commanded by other top athletes, like basketball's Michael Jordan or golf's Tiger Woods. As Bohn says, "We're definitely missing a digit compared to a lot of other sports."

Peters was at the National Bowling Stadium in Reno, Nev., last weekend, schmoozing the PBA members competing in the American Bowling Congress's Senior Masters tournament and promising change. His strategy for bringing back the glory days -- bowling was the first regularly televised sport and commanded high ratings through the early 1980s -- involves, not surprisingly, the Internet. In addition to global Webcasts of tournaments, Peters spins a vision of viewers clicking to instantly buy balls and other equipment used by their favorite pros.

Peters's group also promises to pay off the PBA's estimated $3 million of debt and to sweeten tournament prizes by $1 million over the next two years, according to a letter the PBA sent to members.

That seems to have sold the bowlers. "His heart is into the sport of bowling," Bohn said after dining with Peters in Reno. "I feel he can only bring more of the better type of people to the table to help support the tour."

Peters himself declined to comment, citing a confidentiality agreement about the deal. But the fact that his early foray into big-time bowling has given way to a more businesslike Version 2.0 might have been predicted, given his history at Microsoft.

In 1995, while others at the company were still debating the Internet's importance, Peters became the first vice president at Microsoft to build a Web site. His Bureau of Atomic Tourism site still supplies information about destinations such as the underground Titan missile complex near Tucson, Ariz.

Bowling held the same " '50s kitsch" appeal for him as nuclear memorabilia did, Peters once said. But Peters, a slight man whose bald spot is beginning to show, was a confirmed nerd from age 12 on. "I never lifted anything heavier than a book," he said in an interview last year.

That was fine for 16 years at Microsoft, where he rose to be vice president of the company's huge Office division. Stock options and other pay brought him tens of millions of dollars. But as he neared his 40th birthday, he says, he was overtaken by "a very Woody Allen-esque fear of mortality."

It was time, he knew, to bowl
In 1998, he secured an open-ended leave of absence, started working out three days a week, and took up bowling. He seemed sheepish about his quest back then. Bowling, he said at the time, "is an utterly ridiculous way to waste time." And he was dismissive of his new crowd. "You may find this hard to believe," he said, "but there are not quite the smart, interesting people at bowling alleys that there are at Microsoft."

He wasn't a natural-born bowler, either. "When he first walked in, he didn't have a lot of pure ability," says Gary Larson, pro-shop manager at Sun Villa Lanes, where Peters bowls.

But Peters persevered, and spared no expense. He uses a red Triton Heat ball with an off-center core to get more angle on his hook, and an Indigo Quantum that rolls true for picking up spares. The rest of his gear bag is filled with SST-5 shoes with detachable soles to adjust the slide, a wrist brace for increased ball rotation and special tape to line the ball's thumb hole. His plans to add a home bowling alley stalled only when he found his building was too short to house the pin-setting machine.

He made strides. "Now he's remarkably better," Larson says. Last year, he collected $250 for third-place in an Amateur Bowlers Tour tournament, and once bowled a 278 out of a possible 300.

But he remains many pins short of the 200 average that's the minimum for making the pro circuit. He was also worried that the PBA, whose troubles are well-known, might not survive long enough for him to improve enough to ever qualify. He met with PBA commissioner Mark Gerberich at the Festival of Bowling last fall in Reno, to learn, as Peters put it then, "more, rather than about the game of bowling, about the bowling industry."

What he's learned is that bowling still has potential. Though fewer people are bowling in leagues, more than 54 million people over the age of eight bowled last year, making it the biggest participatory sport in the country, says the American Bowling Congress. And pro bowling, which has been refurbished with gold-colored pins and screaming crowds, commands a decent-size audience on ESPN, says Lee Berke, vice president of corporate development for SFX Sports Group, a part of SFX Entertainment Inc., which produces the ESPN telecasts.

"The PBA has had its ups and downs over the last few years," Berke says. "That's why the idea of a new investor that could help you invest for the future is so appealing."

If the members vote to move forward, the PBA and Peters could conclude a deal in as little as a month. Bowling officials say Peters's financial involvement would give him no special consideration as a competitor. But he might gain a few tips. Bohn says he and Peters haven't bowled together yet, but adds, "I hope we get a chance, if for nothing else, to help him out a little bit."