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'X' marks the spot

With an all-exempt PBA Tour looming, action is fast and furious as bowlers compete for wins and points in hopes of securing a job next season

Welcome to the all new 'X Game' ' with rad fields, kickin' prospects for next year and action so intense, sparks fly as if from a skateboard grind.

— Dude, we're talkin' bowling.

'X' has long stood for strike.

Now it stands for Xempt.

As in the exempt format the Professional Bowlers Association Tour is working toward as it comes through the Rogue Valley for the third Medford Open at Lava Lanes.

In its 46th year, the PBA is undergoing such dramatic change that the sport predicated on rolling a ball at rounded pins has developed, of all things, an edge.

For the first time, players are bowling for their professional lives, trying to earn points to qualify for the tour next season.

The level of competition on tour is extremely intense, says Fred Schreyer, who took over as PBA commissioner in March.There are a lot of people fighting to get points to qualify or trying to win to get that one-year exemption. Clearly, we've seen the impact of the exempt tour announcement in that respect.

Historically, just about any pro could enter a tournament.

Beginning next fall, however, the 16 standard tour events will feature 64 bowlers, 60 of whom will have exempt status for the year.

Fifty of the exempt spots will come from this season's tournament winners and points leaders. The others will emerge from tour trials, weekly qualifiers, a commissioner's exemption and an elite pro-am winner.

The result has been full fields at every stop as players scramble for a piece of the pie. Each ball, each game, each match carries added importance.

It's another step in the evolution of the tour, says Schreyer, formerly Nike's director of sports marketing and later legal counsel to athletes. We're trying to create a product that continues to push professional bowling to the forefront of the sports landscape. We're trying to continue to draw new fans and increase the popularity of the tour.

The first steps came in the spring of 2000, when the PBA came under new ownership.

A decades-long format of total pinfall over 42 games to determine the five finalists was scrapped, replaced in part by match play for the final 32 qualifiers.

Now, the all-exempt tour and all-match-play tournaments loom. Next season, the 64 bowlers will be bracketed each week based on rank, much like the NCAA basketball tourney: — vs. 64, 2 vs. 63, etc.

Reactions have been varied.

While limiting the field to 64 will weed out marginal players, it also will eliminate longtime stars.

I've bowled the tour for 20 years, says Dave Husted of Milwaukie, who no longer tours full time but has competed in a handful of events each year on the West Coast swing. Starting next year, basically, I won't be able to bowl any.

He could try to pre-qualify for tournaments, but the Hall of Famer and 14-time winner would vie against young regional players looking for their big chance.

You won't see me doing that, says Husted.

A couple of other veterans, Walter Ray Williams Jr. and David Traber, would like to see the exempt number expanded, perhaps even doubled.

Traber entered the second half of the season right on the number, in 50th place.

My personal opinion is that I'd rather it not be an exempt tour, says Traber, who is in his 18th year as a full-time touring player and owns four titles. I just don't think there are enough exempt spots.

Many young players, attracted to the tour by the recent earnings potential and format changes, like the direction.

I don't think the guys who have only been out here for a couple of years know any different, says Bryan Goebel, defending champion of the Medford Open. I don't think they sit back and wonder if it's good or bad. It's what it is.

While not everyone is wild about all the changes, most agree the tour is in eminently capable hands and being run by bright minds.

The numbers reflect as much.

Match-play elimination, bigger purses, enhanced marketing and consistent scheduling had quite an impact last year: 6 percent increase in TV ratings, 20 percent jump in membership, 35 percent spike in tournament entries.

Next year every player will be guaranteed a check and the prize fund is expected to climb another 10 percent or so, says Schreyer.

Another benefit the tour expects is enhanced promotional opportunities because of the exclusivity of the small pool of players and since matchups will be established days in advance.

We want to raise the profile of the guys who bowl on the exempt tour, says Schreyer. It distinguishes you as one of the best of the best.

And a premium is put on competition. Toppling a lot of pins is one thing, but toppling more than the guy sharing your lane is quite another.

It translates to television in a little better fashion, says Schreyer. featuring guys going head-to-head, it puts an emphasis on competition and makes it more watchable.

He realizes everyone is not in lock step with the alterations.

At the same time, most of them realize if they aren't in the top 50 on tour, they're not making a living at it anyway, he says.

Which would mean 'X' truly marks the spot of the treasure.

Mika Koivuniemi is the current PBA points leader heading into this week?s Medford Open.