A timeline of bowling’s biggest
moments in pop culture
A little known fact about bowling: The sport that we’ve all played at some point during our lives, either at a classmate’s birthday party or on a first date, was originally an activity exclusive to bar patrons. Before Prohibition began in the 1930s, bowling alleys were typically located in saloon basements, and were therefore most welcoming of adults looking to keep busy between drinks. Encouraged to adapt once alcohol was officially outlawed, bowling’s gatekeepers decided to widen the game’s periphery. As a result, stand-alone alleys began to sprout up across the country, and opened the lane for players of all ages to get into the game. The sport that has since gone on to be one of America’s oldest and most beloved pastimes.
Following bowling’s post-Prohibition pivot to family-friendly fun, interest surrounding the sport began to reflect that reality. Cartoon characters like Fred Flintstone and Homer Simpson brought the lanes to our living rooms, capturing the sport’s child-like whimsy through twinkle toes and gut-bursting gags. As the game continued to evolve, so did the way people viewed it. Bowlmor recently made its Times Square flagship bowling alley the location for a fashion show with celebrity guest judge Christian Siriano. It was all part of a nationwide shoe design challenge that resulted in aspiring designer Sam Riley’s striking design featuring antlers and bowling balls being added to the brand’s roster of rentals.
It’s obvious today that bowling is viewed as more than just a leisure activity. It’s now a part of the American fabric, threaded with childhood bonds and family ties. As the tradition of the game is passed down through generations, every few years this affable subculture seems to experience a moment affirming it as a legitimate part of pop culture. From film and fashion to viral memes, below is a timeline of key moments that have kept bowling center-lane and top-of-mind.
'THE BIG LEBOWSKI' PUTS BOWLING ON THE BIG SCREEN
LATE 80s - 90s
By 1998, bowling had moved from our living rooms to the box office. That year, Joel and Ethan Cohen wrote and directed The Big Lebowski. The crime comedy revolves around a middle-aged man adrift in life named Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), who spends most of his days in a bowling alley. Much of the film’s runtime is spent with The Dude and his friends Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and Donny Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi) lounging in front of scoreboards, rarely without a beer in hand.
The intimacy in which The Dude’s safe space was filmed helped create bowling’s most notable cult classic and contributed to the way those sorts of gathering places are appreciated today. In Lebowski, the bowling alley is a home away from home, not unlike the blacktop basketball courts in White Men Can’t Jump, or the family-owned salon in Barbershop.
BOWLING BECOMES FASHIONABLE
EARLY - MID 2000s
A governing rule of culture suggests once something becomes popular, it also becomes fashionable. No other pop cultural figure lived this truth more faithfully than early aughts Charlie Sheen. First donning his classic bowling shirt and creating his signature look in 2003, Sheen as Charlie Harper on Two And A Half Men gave dads of a certain age the fashion icon they deserved.
This particular trend, however, has lived on long past Sheen’s peculiar relevance and the show’s eventual finale—the latter of which came in 2015. From fashion houses like Gucci and Fendi to streetwear brands such as Off-White and Supreme, bowling attire has inspired bold looks from some of the biggest designers in the world.
CELEBS TAKE THE LANES
MID - LATE 2000s
By the late-2000s, bowling for publicity and charity had become common. In 2008, as part of the promotion of his fifth studio album Brass Knuckles, Nelly treated a handful of radio contest winners to a private concert and game of bowling, showing up to the latter with his own ball and shoes. What’s important to note is the southern rap star wasn’t just cashing in on a trend at the time. The “Country Grammar” rapper is an avid bowler and actually once held the house record of 257 at a local alley in his native St. Louis.
While the late-aughts revealed some of the culture’s most prolific celebrity-bowlers, it should also be noted that public figures have loved the lanes both before and after this moment—many of whom have been spotted in the country’s most popular alleys. To name just a few, John Legend, Lady Gaga, and Michael Phelps have all thrown parties at Bowlmor Lanes’ popular Times Square location.
CP3’S INAUGURAL PBA INVITATIONAL
Alongside Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, and most recently Kyler Murray, Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul should be recognized as an all-world dual-sport baller—as the nine-time NBA all-star happens to be an avid bowler as well.
In 2009, Paul hosted his inaugural PBA Celebrity Invitational tournament, featuring the likes of Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox and NFL Hall of Famer Terrell Owens throughout the years. In a way, this annual tournament has helped position bowling as a worthy peer of America’s three major sports. The televised event—which this year took place at Bowlero Woodlands just outside of Houston—has attracted the youngest audiences of any bowling tournament in the history of ESPN. A whopping 50% of its viewership is a part of the coveted 18-49 demographic that the NBA, NFL, and MLB currently have an all but monopolized grasp on.
LIL WAYNE BRINGS “MISS KATIE” TO THE GUTTER
Of all the celebrities who have taken up bowling over the years, Lil Wayne has turned out to be one of the most dedicated. In 2009, the rap legend had just released Tha Carter III (his most critically-acclaimed album to date) and decided to sit down with journalist Katie Couric for an interview ahead of the Grammys. Famously, that interview took place at a Bowlmor Lanes in New York, where Couric marveled at one of Weezy’s four customized bowling balls.
The interview revealed the fact that Wayne had been bowling since he was 16 years old, and that each of his custom balls were fitted specifically for his hand. With the New Orleans native having been considered by most to be the best rapper alive at the time, watching him go head-to-head with “Miss Katie” as the two tried to beat each other to the next strike might be the most important celebrity moment in bowling history.
CHAMPION BOWLER PETE WEBER GOES VIRAL
For a glimpse at the sort of rebellious angst and off-beat swagger that makes Pete Weber one of bowling’s most eccentric figures, the PBA champion’s win at the 69th annual U.S. Open is a good place to start. The tournament gifted the sport its most memorable celebration of all time: “Who do you think you are?! I am!”
As the story goes, Weber was allegedly yelling this at someone in the crowd who had heckled him throughout the tournament. The puzzling phrase, more so than the win itself, branded Weber an Internet celebrity and engineered one of bowling’s first memes. As we’re probably only two or three short decades away from memes being considered legitimate sources of historical record, Weber’s eight-word declaration could quite possibly live on for years to come.
BUSTA RHYMES “GIVES IT TO” ESPN AND THE PBA
MID 2010s - Now
For better or worse, hip-hop is oftentimes the final frontier for full pop cultural integration. Whether rooted in appropriation or appreciation, once you’ve aligned yourself with America’s largest cultural export, your trend, movement or, in this case, sport, is forever validated. Despite artists such as Lil Wayne developing a deep affinity for the game years prior, bowling’s true stamp of evergreen approval came in 2013.
As part of its “Love the Lanes” campaign for the PBA tournament, ESPN licensed Busta Rhymes’ “Give It To Me” for a commercial. The song scores a slow motion mashup of various PBA bowlers in action, including Weber at the tail-end of his iconic celebration the previous year. Much like that moment in 2012, this strange yet surprisingly satisfying commercial lived on through social media virality for quite some time.