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Pro bowling tour pulls out of Medford

The Medford stop on the Professional Bowlers Association Tour had been as stable as a stubborn 10-pin despite constant change in the sport.

Then the economy barreled down like 16 pounds of high-rev risk, and the tournament was gone.

Citing a severe decline in sponsor funds and realizing he'd be unable to meet his financial obligation when the tour arrived in January, Lava Lanes owner Ric Donnelly on Friday elected to pull the plug.

He and PBA Commissioner Fred Schreyer worked for the past week, said Donnelly, to come up with a solution to save the Jan. 4-10 tournament, which has been embraced as one of the tour's best since it debuted in 2002.

But Donnelly still is paying off last season's event as this one loomed.

"It doesn't make sense to lay another year's debt on top of the prior year's debt," said Schreyer. "That's really the issue."

The host center pays a fee to bring in the PBA. The 2010 cost, said Donnelly, is $80,000. It's due in January and, he said bluntly, "I'm not going to have it."

The Medford Visitors and Convention Bureau has been a major sponsor from Day 1, and it was again on board. But overall sponsorship was down nearly 60 percent, said Donnelly, noting the difficulty of getting local businesses behind the effort.

"It's pretty obvious this is not the best of economic times for our country, our state or our county," said Donnelly, adding that he's lost money on the tournament every year.

He chalked up the losses to advertising expense because of the abundant publicity the nationally televised tournament brought.

But future losses could be in the $40,000 to $50,000 range, he said.

"I just don't think I can take that kind of financial hit," said Donnelly. "That's not good business. I had to get by my emotional decision and make a tough business decision. We can hold our heads high because we put on a great event for eight years."

This was to be the second year of a two-year contract, with an option for a third year.

The tournament began as the Medford Open in 2002 and, despite being in the relatively out-of-the-way Rogue Valley, it rolled with the ever-changing landscape of the sport.

When dramatic restructuring knocked out a number of events in the West, including one at the late Earl Anthony's center in Tacoma, Wash., and near PBA headquarters, Medford remained.

It was named after Anthony in the 2003-04 season and was won by Hall-of-Famer Pete Weber.

Tied with several other tour stops for longevity, the Medford tournament faced another overhaul in January, with a new name and format: the Don and Paula Carter Mixed Doubles Tournament.

That event now moves to the middle of February in Wheat Ridge, Colo.

Medford was to kick off the second half of the PBA season.

A taped tournament now will air a week later than planned to replace Medford's slot on ESPN. What to do with the vacated Jan. 3 slot will be determined following discussions with ESPN, said Schreyer.

Donnelly and Schreyer both said the breakup was unfortunate but amicable, that they remain friends and, should the economy rebound and sponsors return, each would welcome a resurrection.

"It's a shame," said Schreyer. "We're missing a good tour stop. I think Ric is an honorable business guy who didn't want to bring it in without confidence he could cover it and pay for it in a relatively responsible manner. And that's been harder and harder to do the last couple years."

News of the tournament's demise caught those in the bowling community by surprise and was met with dismay.

Marshall Holman, himself a Hall of Famer who regularly bowled in it on a commissioner's exemption, said he often is given undue credit for playing a role in bringing the PBA here and admitted he's not privy to the inner workings.

"But in my mind, if they're not coming back, it's not for a lack of the community wanting it," he said. "Anybody who was ever here has great memories of Lava Lanes and the support of the fans."

"I can see why this happened," he said, "but it's still quite a shock."

Holman provided the tournament's most electric moment in 2003.

Having settled into life as a league bowler, the 22-time tour winner made it to the first round of match play and defeated Walter Ray Williams Jr., now the game's all-time victory leader, 4-2.

Another who has had a few special moments in Medford is Wes Malott. He won his second-straight title last January, becoming the only two-time victor here, and parlayed his success into player-of-the-year honors.

The Pflugerville, Texas, resident, known as "The Big Nasty," was on his way to a son's school assembly Friday when he got word.

"I'm very surprised," said Malott. "That's one of the favorite stops of not only myself, but of all the bowlers and PBA staff. I'm sure everyone will be disappointed to hear that, for whatever reason, it couldn't be worked out. It was an honor to be able to defend my title last year, and I was definitely looking forward to trying to three-peat in Medford."

He, too, expressed hope the tournament returns and praised Donnelly and others involved "for treating us first-class."

"It's a place we have a really good relationship with all our fans, and that makes it that much more special to come there."

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

Ric Donnelly of Lava Lanes. Jim Craven/8-2-05