A group of six bowlers from mainland China made history this week as the first players from their country ever to bowl in professional competition. The six players – ranging in ages from 30 to 54 – earned the right to enter the GEICO PBA World Series of Bowling VI by recording averages of 200-plus in a "PBA Pioneer League" program initiated by Frank Zhao, owner of Longmarch Bowling in Shanghai.
L-R Tao Zhu, Xiaogang Qin, Shenyuan Liu, Frank Zhao, Jiangfeng Lin, Tianbao Ding, and Weijan Li.
The Chinese aren't competitive, yet, but their appearance at WSOB VI may be a preview of the significant impact China may have on the world of bowling in the years ahead.
The term "pioneer" applied to the league program wasn't accidental and the six bowlers who are part of it understand they may be part of a very big future for bowling in China. Elevating bowling's popularity in Frank Zhao's mission, and he has a potential market of 1.4 billion people in China to work with.
The state of bowling in China is closer to 1960s standards than today's, Zhao said. The Chinese are decades behind in bowling technology, from lane beds to bowling balls and everything in between.
But this group of six, he hopes, is the beginning of a trend to bring China into the modern bowling world. That's why he brought PBA superstar Walter Ray Williams Jr. (pictured left) to China in 2012, and why he worked with PBA Commissioner Tom Clark (right) to create the league program to qualify his "PBA pioneers."
Only two of the Chinese players – 54-year-old Ding Tianbao and 52-year-old Qin Ziaogang – had ever been to the United States before (both entered the World Tenpin Bowling Association Senior Championships at Red Rock in Las Vegas in 2013).
Lin Jianfeng, 49; Liu Shenyuan, 33; Li Weijun, 46, and Zhu Tao, 30, made their first trips to America. All six noted they are greatly impressed with the bowling technology they've witnessed, because back home, they are bowling on lanes conditioned with old wick/roller equipment with ancient bowling balls.
They can't compete, and they know it, but even worse, it's hard to learn in the environment they currently have available.
Liu and Li are big Walter Ray fans. Lin and Qin admire Parker Bohn III. Zhu and Ding favor Norm Duke, while Ding quickly added Pete Weber to his list.
Bowling alongside the greatest names in the sport has been a thrill, and it inspired Zhu to note, "We also need idols, heroes. We can buy machines. The problems we can sort out with money aren't a problem, but we don't have any heroes…like (former NBA star) Yao Ming. Everyone in China watched Yao.
"We don't have heroes to encourage young people to start bowling. It's a very attractive sport. It's easy to play, but it's very hard to get addicted. We need idols to make people fall in love with bowling and if we do that, it'll be very popular in China."
The six players, along with Zhao, are doing their best to create awareness. They are flooding Chinese bowling fans with Facebook posts and photos, and Twitter feeds, and more.
As enthusiasm builds, Zhao is the businessman who hopes to make that happen the rest of it happen.
"There is a lot of work to do," he said, "but we have 1.4 billion people in China, and a growing middle class. The middle class will need many forms of sport and entertainment to have a better quality of life. Bowling is perfect for several reasons. Bowling is a combination of sport and leisure, but it's a sport first and then you have a level to make it fun. But without sport, it won't grow."
That's why the Chinese Pioneers came to Las Vegas. To learn the sport. And for the record, they never contended for a PBA title, but none of them finished last.