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Medford will see double when PBA returns

It might be difficult to recognize, but the Professional Bowlers Association Tour will return to Medford's Lava Lanes in January.

The event will have a new name, a new date and a new format.

The Don and Paula Carter Mixed Doubles Tournament will be Jan. 4-10, a week earlier than last year, and will signal the start of the second half of the PBA season.

It will be the ninth consecutive season here, fulfilling a two-year contract. There is an option for a third year.

If a doubles tournament seems like a major alteration for one of the tour's longest running stops, then it's in line with what the ever-malleable PBA is doing as it reshapes itself to better promote and streamline its business.

In an extreme overhaul, the PBA will stage most first-half events in the World Series of Bowling, a five-week festival of sorts beginning the first week of August in the Detroit area. Nine events will be taped and aired on ESPN through the fall on Sundays.

That plan alone will amount to immense savings in travel costs.

The PBA will then return to traditional weekly touring after Christmas, beginning in Medford. The only live telecast in the first half will be the World Championship finals Dec. 13 in Wichita, Kan.

"That's a pretty big step, a pretty significant move," said PBA Commissioner Fred Schreyer. "We're kind of excited about it. We're making radical changes in our approach, and we think it will work really well on a number of levels."

Also, the U.S. Open will move to February to maximize its television exposure; and the late Earl Anthony — whose name was attached to the Medford event — will be similarly honored as the tour leaves here and goes to his home center in Dublin, Calif.

Some programs will continue, such as the Women's Series; the Versatility Swing, featuring the five animal-pattern championships; the Plastic Ball Tournament; the Extreme Challenge, where two lane patterns are used in the same event; and the season-ending Marathon Open.

In all, the season will have 23 events in 14 cities.

The mixed doubles format coming to Medford was held last season in Reno, Nev., and attracts all the top men and women bowlers.

The Women's Series made its initial visit to Medford last season.

"It was a nice touch and we did request that the women come back," said Lava Lanes owner Ric Donnelly. "It was fun to have two tournaments. I think it'll be good. The more people at the show, the better."

The men and women bowl qualifying rounds to determine the top 16 in each group, from which 16 mixed teams are formed.

Round-robin match play determines the five stepladder finalists, who will bowl a Baker format on the show.

Norm Duke and Liz Johnson are defending champions. They defeated Jennifer Petrick and Steve Harman this past winter.

Wes Malott is the two-time defending champion in Medford and the only multiple winner here.

"If he wants to three-peat," Donnelly said of Malott, the reigning player of the year, "he'll have to have the lady hold him up."

Donnelly expects the format to be well received.

"It's definitely different from what we've been used to doing the last eight years," he said. "But it's exciting and something new for the fans."

He noted a pro-am just for the women last season was sold out.

"A lot of bowlers enjoyed watching how good the women are," he said. "Now that they're teamed up in doubles style, it makes it as good or better."

The PBA hopes its other changes are positive as well.

Having the players take a hiatus at a time when they've traditionally competed is risky, Schreyer admitted, but the reward is enticing. The PBA can tailor promotions to specific players on each telecast because it already knows the outcome.

During the fall, the PBA goes head-to-head with the NFL on its Sunday telecasts.

Bowling has done OK, said Schreyer, noting that has been the PBA's time slot for years. But there's little room to grow opposite such a behemoth.

"I'd be lying if I said I'm not aware that we're going against the NFL and it caps the potential audience we can receive," he said. "We have data from a number of years and have reason to expect what we can extract in that period of time. Rather than devote resources to that period of the schedule, when our audience is limited, we wanted to be more creative."

He's confident the bowling fans who have always watched will continue to do so in the fall.

"We think we know what our core audience is and will do a good job of reaching them," said Schreyer.

There isn't full acceptance of the changes among players, he said.

The most common concern is they won't go to communities and interact with fans who have fervently supported them in the past.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 776-4479, or e-mail ttrower@mailtribune.com