It's almost like the set-up for a joke: In 2000, three former Microsoft executives bought the entire Professional Bowling Association -- players, trophies, tournaments -- for $5 million. But they weren't laughing: The trio hoped that with new marketing strategies they could reinvent the PBA and its tournaments, once among the most popular televised events and now nearly bankrupt and friendless in today's high-paced sports-media arena. Chris Browne's low-budget documentary A League of Ordinary Gentlemen follows several participants over the 2003 PBA season, its first year as a re-configured entertainment.
The most critical figure is Steve Miller, a former NCAA football coach and marketing poobah from Nike. He's brash, profane, and while he can barely conceal his disdain for a sport he calls "road kill," he's fired up to make it work. Caught in a daze around him are four pro bowlers that the film chooses to highlight, in part because of their disparate stories.
Pete Weber is the hot-headed son of the sport's greatest champion, Dick Weber: As bowling's bad boy he responds well to Miller's tactics, many of which are lifted from professional wrestling. His chief rival is Walter Ray Williams Jr., a stable clean-liver with prodigious athletic skills but few telegenic gifts. Representing the tenuous future is Chris Barnes, a young, handsome new father still negotiating the pressures of competition. Bringing up the rear is the bankrupt Wayne Webb, who admits that 27 years on the pro-bowling circuit cost him any hope of a stable life or alternate career.
Early on, the film dabbles in casting bowling's demise against larger issues such as class, media fragmentation and America's trend toward in-home amusements. Yet after positing such chewy queries, the film focuses simply on the intertwined fates of the aforementioned bowlers, in what is ultimately a bittersweet story of men competing less against each other than against the vagaries of entertainment.
You'll have to forgive this first-time filmmaker for a couple of significant mistakes. In the film's prologue, a collage of stock footage and talking heads weighing in on bowling's cultural legacy, Browne fails to identify any speaker. Is that Robert Putnam, who wrote the late 1990s social study Bowling Alone, or just some other guy talking about it?
The other omission is a bit more puzzling: Having chosen PBA's gamble to reinvigorate the sport as the film's overriding question, Browne neglects to give us the results. An outsider could be forgiven for looking at the season's championship event, with its couple hundred spectators, and not immediately knowing whether that constituted a successful rebirth of the pro-bowling circuit. When the final shot depicts a top bowler chipping ice off his motor-home roof in an empty suburban parking lot, the outlook doesn't appear hopeful.