PBA Tour bowler Shota Kawazoe of Japan high-fives fans after rolling a strike at Bayside Bowl in April. Staff photo by John Ewing

When the Professional Bowlers Association first came to Portland’s Bayside Bowl in 2015, officials frankly didn’t know what to expect. Portland, and especially Bayside Bowl, was unlike any venue the PBA had ever visited.

What they found was a raucous atmosphere with fatheads of the bowlers, creative signs and a loud, loud crowd. It was the perfect venue, one that the pro bowlers embraced.

“There’s nothing quite like it anywhere in the country,” said Tom Clark, the CEO and commissioner of the PBA. “I know as much about bowling as any human being, I’ve been to more bowling centers than you can count, and I’ve never seen a league like they have or the people with the enthusiasm and love for the game. That is the perfect fit of the new era of professional bowling.”

And in 2019, Bayside Bowl is going to pretty much be the centerpiece of the PBA’s new playoff format. In addition to hosting the Elias Cup for the fifth year – this time in July, not April – Bayside Bowl will be the site of the PBA’s first playoffs, a 10-telecast event that will see the top 24 bowlers on the tour play for a $100,000 first prize.

The playoffs will begin at Bayside Bowl on April 8, 2019, with a live show on FS1, and will continue for three more nights with taped events, to be shown later, that will whittle the field down to four. Those four bowlers will return for the semifinals on June 1, 2019, with the championship round the next day. Both will be televised live on FOX Sports at noon.

The Elias Cup, a team event held at Bayside Bowl the last four springs, returns July 16-18, 2019. All rounds will be televised live on FS1.

“We’ve never been live before for these events,” Clark said. “This will bring it to a whole new level.”

Charlie Mitchell, the co-owner of Bayside Bowl, said he knew the PBA would be well-received in Maine, but not to this extent.

“I knew what we had to offer,” Mitchell said. “And you’ve got to give credit to Tom Clark for taking that chance. He saw one of our league nights and knew he had something interesting to try.

“There’s a huge rebirth in the sport of bowling. And to put Portland, Maine, in the center of it – almost a third of the entire season will be played here – that makes Maine the center of the bowling universe for a while.”

The PBA, in its 60th year, switched from ESPN to FOX Sports this year and Clark said part of the deal was the start of the playoff system, which will seed the players after the first 13 PBA events.

“I wanted it to be in a place where we would have guaranteed great fan support, guaranteed energy, a guaranteed great location a and great bowling center,” he said. “The first playoff series would set the standard. And there wasn’t another place I considered (other then Bayside Bowl). They’ve been the best fans that we’ve ever had and that is why it deserves to be there.”

Bill Vint, the head of media relations for the PBA, said it was obvious when the first Elias Cup was held at Bayside Bowl in 2015 that the event was there to stay.

“Once we arrived in Maine for the first time and found out what it was like, there was no going back,” he said. “The people in Maine are great friends. They know bowling; they’re probably the most knowledgeable fans we know anywhere. They just love it.”

That’s not surprising to Chris Ogden, who moved to Portland about 10 years ago and took up bowling at Bayside. He bowls in the Thursday night house league and loves how the fans have embraced the Elias Cup pro bowlers.

“Independently, we do things to make (the bowlers) want to come back,” he said. “The fat heads, the fan props, the headbands, all that stuff. I know some places where ESPN will come in with placards and ask fans to hold them up. Here we do that six months in advance. We talk about, ‘Hey, who wants to hold the Jason Belmonte fat head?’ People come up with all kinds of things. It’s all about who can register the biggest reaction from the pros.”

He’s not surprised that the PBA is expanding here, but added, “When you step back and look at it, this is pretty crazy.”

Mitchell said tickets for the events will likely go on sale in a month or so. And they’ll probably go quickly. “We’re going to get them up as soon as possible,” he said. “We’ve already had requests.”

Bayside Bowl was packed with 450 fans for each session of the Elias Cup last spring. With more sessions, Mitchell said more fans will have an opportunity to see PBA bowlers. But first, he said, they have to figure out where they’re going to hold the events. The early rounds of the playoffs will likely be held in the older section of Bayside – “That’s kind of the spirit and soul of Bayside Bowl,” Michell said – with the Final Four and championship round in the new section. “We can put on a bigger show on the new side,” he said.

Another big change is that the Elias Cup is moving to summer. It has always been held in early spring.

“Most of the time we’ve been there, there is still snow on the ground,” Clark said. “This year we’ll be there in the summer. I know everyone gets happy up there in summer so we’ve got to make sure we get them into the bowling center. We’ve got to make sure they’re not all out on the water.”

That shouldn’t be a problem, Mitchell said.

“The shows are at night,” he said. “They can go to the beach in the morning, get in a nap and come and watch at night. It should be a lot of fun.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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