Disclaimer: The following is a work of realistic fiction for our special 2050 issue, published in June 2021. These stories are meant to spark imagination, not forecast the future of Akron.
When major league baseball’s popularity declined and nearly folded 25 years ago, it was not obvious to me or other sportswriters what would fill the void. Football was already technically more popular than baseball, and basketball was definitely ascending. So it was surprising, to say the least, when the bowling alley became the preferred venue for the princes and paupers of society to show up and cheer on their favorite athlete.
You youngsters may not even remember The Great Demise, as we used to refer to baseball’s dramatic fall into near obscurity. By the late teens, attendance was down and minor league teams were folding faster than local newspapers. In the early ’20s, after the great pandemic further damaged the brand, it came to light that the World Series had been rigged for the last 50 years and almost nothing could stop that ship from sinking. Cue “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”
Fortunately, we live in a world filled with baseball fans! By moving minor league teams international to baseball hotzones, the MLB was able to position itself in the global market. And now, with major league teams following suit, the game has truly gone worldwide. Before we know it, there will be a team on the moon.
With baseball at its lowest point stateside, a void was created that needed to be filled. Interestingly enough, a sport relegated to older men with paunches would rise to the occasion. Why? How? Wait, did you say bowling? These were all questions I asked back in the ’20s when things were unfolding before my very eyes.
Maybe it was the pandemic, or the end specifically. People wanted to get out and do something as a group. Bowling is the sort of sport families and friends can do together, regardless of experience or expertise. Also, bowling and libations go hand and hand. Perhaps another driving factor was the conversion of old-school alleys into hybrid spaces that offered better food, entertainment and a keen social setting for youngsters. It didn’t hurt that popularity in football plummeted as the evidence of severe injury became harder to ignore.
Another contributing factor, at least financially, was the partnership between the Professional Bowling Association (PBA) and various Esport leagues. Competitive gaming was and still is huge around the world. Offering up alleys for Esport competitions during national and international tournaments brought the PBA a lot of revenue. Gamers also got burned out after competitions and needed a way to release their energy. Throwing a heavy ball at pieces of wood was exactly what the doctor ordered. Regardless, bowling rose in popularity like a phoenix from the ashes, and Ohio was ready.
Akron has a rich history with the sport. After its formation during a meeting in a Syracuse, NY, hotel, the PBA was headquartered in Akron from 1958 to 2000, when it was purchased by another party and relocated to Seattle. Even with the PBA’s departure, Northeast Ohio has always had a decent bowling culture. Back in the teens, you could catch young folks out at some of the more chic establishments flirting, drinking and perfecting their game. Its ascendance to global sports dominance in the ’30s and ’40s also nicely coincided with Akron’s return to relevance as a city and cultural center.
That is why it was fitting when Mr. LeBron James, the King himself, became the majority owner of the PBA, decided to once again move the headquarters back to the city where it all began. As it turned out, there was a space available downtown that would be perfect with a little elbow grease and retrofitting.
When the Rubber Ducks, Akron’s now-defunct minor league baseball team, played their last home game in August of 2026, it was unclear what would become of their home field, Canal Park. The park was maintained and open to the public. Right field became a dog park. Concerts came and went. One year they flooded a section for ice-skating after a fire in Lock 3 closed the rink down. That didn’t go so well.
James saw an opportunity to invest in the stadium and create both offices and competitive spaces for tournaments. Although it took several years longer to secure financing, design and build, the final product is here and it is impressive, to say the least.
“The whole Trump era really turned me off to golf,” James reminisced during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “I was looking for a sport that offered both concentration and finesse that was a little easier on the knees. Bowling is what I found,” he continued. “I started researching and learned the PBA originated in Akron. I knew what I had to do.”
He did something, alright.
The PBA Canal Park facilities are gorgeous. They spared no expense and went right for the strike, creating a world-class competitive space. Remnants of the past remain too. They designed the lanes to fit where the old field was and the layout is still the same as the sandlot of yesteryear. Stadium seating still remains and fans can watch multiple games at once sipping on a beverage while munching on some popcorn. A retractable ceiling allows for outdoor play during the warmer months.
Perhaps the greatest innovation in traditional 10-pin bowling was realizing it could be played outside like bocce and, well…lawn bowling! Players have even learned to adjust their stance and release for the elements.
James is committed to continuing the trends already developing in the sport over the last two decades. “I didn’t realize how diverse the sport had gotten until I became involved. The building blocks for creating a sport that is representative to all were already laid. I just jumped on board and ran with it.”
All hail The King for giving Canal Park a new lease on life as a professional sports venue. Stay tuned for next week’s piece folks. If bowling hasn’t got you excited, I’ll be talking to professional Parkour champ Doug Doogey about the 2050 finals coming to Akron and how he anticipates the competition will go!
Dave Daly is a sports contributor and nature aficionado for The Devil Strip. If he’s not at the alley or on a trail, best check the theater for a Harry Dean Stanton film festival.
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