Niche sports finding city hospitable to tourneys

David Small learned to bowl when he was knee high, earned his pro card two decades ago and today owns Pro Bowl West along with two other alleys.

He’s been in love with bowling since it could be found regularly on television until today, when the number of bowling centers across the country has dwindled to less than half from the heyday of the 1960s.

So the man knows a thing or two about the sport.

And Small knows what a national tournament by bowling’s major governing body can do for the sport locally.

City officials are banking on such a tournament also helping Fort Wayne, at least in terms of economic impact.

Mayor Tom Henry announced Thursday the city is providing $20,000 in sports development grant fund dollars to help make several niche-sports tournaments happen in the city over the next six months.

Visit Fort Wayne, a nonprofit with the mission of attracting visitor spending, estimates the tournaments will bring in 25,000 people and $4.25 million to $4.5 million.

One of those tournaments will begin today at Pro Bowl West: the PBA50 Dick Weber Super Senior Classic.

?This is a huge deal,? Small said of the Classic, which is put on by the Professional Bowlers Association for competitors 50 and older. ?This can do wonders for bowling here.?

Along with bowling, expect roller derby at the end of this month, pickleball – a cousin of tennis popular in retirement communities – in August and wrestling in January.

Officials also hope the city makes a name for itself among those visitors.

?We’re trying to make sure the city of Fort Wayne is on the map,? Henry said.

Those tournaments, though, will also give those who run the venues hosting the sports a chance to show off.

At SportONE Parkview Icehouse, 2,600 participants along with 10,000 spectators are expected to be on hand for the State Wars-U.S. Roller Hockey Championships.

At SportONE Parkview Fieldhouse, nearly 200 participants are expected at the USA Pickleball Great Lakes Regional Championships.

And at Memorial Coliseum, 10,000 competitors are expected to participate in the National United Wrestling Championships.

Pickleball, which is played with paddles and a polymer perforated ball – think a whiffle ball – on a court smaller than a tennis court, has become huge among retirees in places such as Florida and Arizona.

The PBA tournament is expected to bring in 200 participants and 500 spectators to Pro Bowl West.

But the real payoff might be down the line, according to Small.

?If we can do this well, other opportunities might come up,? he said. ?If we do it right, it will open other doors.?

It’s a sentiment officials with the other venues echoed.

Plus, these tournaments might just catch the eye of the young and uninitiated, which could lead to that particular sport growing.

Small was barely 5 years old when his mother, Lois, taught him how to bowl.

Now, he tries to cater to families, believing that’s where the sport’s growth will come from.

?There are so many options for kids today,? he said. ?We’re competing against sports we’ve never competed against before.?

But what could be better, Small asked, than kids spending time with parents, which bowling offers in abundance?

And how could you beat a sport that doesn’t require you to be in tip-top shape to compete?

In the 1950s, the American Bowling Congress – a major governing body before the PBA – used to host tournaments at Memorial Coliseum.

While the PBA has had regional tournaments here before, there has never been a tournament with the caliber of bowlers who will begin rolling today, according to Small.

So, who knows who might be watching their first pickleball match next month, or who might get a thrill of watching their first roller-hockey game?

Who knows who might all of a sudden go out for the wrestling squad at school after watching the combatants clash at the Coliseum early next year?

Who knows who will be renting shoes at an alley a week from today and learning how to put a curve on a bowling ball just right, so it hits that pocket between the one and three pins?

?It gets in your blood,? Small said.

He, of course, could be talking about any sport with that.

[email protected]