Authors: David F. Zinn
College of Business, Lander University, Greenwood, South Carolina, USA
David F. Zinn
Assistant Professor of Sport Management
College of Business
Carnell Learning Center, M54
320 Stanley Ave.
Greenwood, SC 29649
David F. Zinn, EdD, currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Sport Management and the NCAA Faculty Athletic Representative at Lander University. A former NCAA Women’s Basketball Coach and Athletic Director, Zinn’s major research interests include global sport, sport geography, sport leadership, and intercollegiate sport.
Strikes, Pins, Gutter Balls, and…Maps: A Review of the Spatial Geography of NCAA Women’s Bowling
Spatial geography is important to the understanding of any human activity as this field helps to determine where and why specific activities occur and flourish. As proximity to campus and access to sport opportunity are important determinants in college choice, the spatial relationship between campuses and hometowns are important components in the marketing of programs to potential recruits. The intent of this study is to examine the geography of Women’s Bowling, a relatively unstudied and newer NCAA championship sport, in terms of the locations of institutions sponsoring the sport and the relationship with hometowns of student-athletes on current rosters.
Rosters for women’s bowlers participating in the 2023 season were downloaded from team athletic websites and distances from reported hometowns and campuses were calculated via Google Maps to provide an approximate distance from a student-athlete’s home to the institution for whom they compete. Distances to hometowns were averaged per team and by NCAA division to determine relative distance to campus and states where bowling recruits tended to originate.
Data from the 2023 season indicated that the sport of Women’s Bowling is highly geographical in nature. While bowlers were willing to attend an institution further away from their hometown at the Division I level as compared to Division II and III institutions, most bowlers tend to commit to programs relatively close to their hometowns. Additionally, data suggests that large percentages of these athletes are from areas located in a relatively small section of the USA.
Spatial geography plays an impactful role in both the sponsoring of women’s bowling and in the recruitment of student-athletes into these programs. Data suggests that, with a few exceptions, the further a school is located from the Great Lakes area, the fewer collegiate programs and the fewer potential student-athletes exist. Additionally, participants in the lower levels of NCAA competition tend to commit to schools much closer to their listed hometown than those who play on an NCAA I team.
Applications in Sport
The findings of this study may prove beneficial to administrators considering adding Women’s Bowling to their offerings and to coaches who are looking for prime recruiting areas to develop their teams. Also, as most of these teams are located at smaller colleges and universities, this data may prove beneficial in considering how limited resources might be best allocated.
Keywords: Bowling, Distance, Geography, Location, Spatial
When asked why he accepted the position as the Head Football Coach at Virginia Tech, Frank Beamer stated that he believed coaching in Blacksburg, VA would give him access to all the talented athletes he needed to compete for conference and national championships within a 200-mile radius of campus (3). Years later, the football coaching staff at the University of Alabama conducted an informal study which indicated that the states of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia produced the majority of first and second string players in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), providing an inherent recruiting and competitive advantage to schools in those geographic areas (6).
The theoretical concept posited by these coaches is that of spatial geography, the belief that “space and place” are central to the understanding of any human activity (1). This theory is important to the understanding of sport and the study of sport geography because the main purpose of a sport offering or facility is to provide access to a relatively local population. A basic understanding of physical geography might intuitively lead one to assume that beach volleyball players are more likely to originate from California than from Iowa and downhill skiers are more apt to hail from Colorado, Utah, or Vermont than Florida. A justification for this assumption would not be individuals possessing more innate abilities but rather due to regular access to those activities. While geography does not create causation – a theory that youth in Minnesota would automatically demonstrate a high level of proficiency at ice hockey would be blatantly false – the access individuals have to an activity impacts interest levels, sufficient practice opportunities, technical instruction, and, potentially, ultimate success in a given competitive sport (1).
Given that a national study of nearly one million students revealed that the median distance students leave their hometown for college is 94 miles (11), an understanding of the spatial geography of a particular activity and proximate access to potential student-athletes may play a role in an intercollegiate athletics program’s viability and success. Thus, the purpose of this study is to examine the geography of Women’s Bowling, a relatively new championship sport sponsored by institutions at all three competitive levels of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in terms of the location of these programs and the hometowns and states represented by players on collegiate rosters. This research may be useful to intercollegiate athletic administrators who are considering the addition of Women’s Bowling to their athletic departments or to current coaches who are searching for areas in which to recruit prospects to their programs.
Practitioners of geography focus primarily on location, regional differentiation, and the relationship between humans and their environment. These three concepts are important to sport, particularly given its global impact on economic, social, and political dimensions. Further, sport geography enhances the understanding of how and why an activity may exist as researchers examine relationships between sporting environments and those who participate in them by considering the availability of facilities, teams, and opportunities to practice/compete (1).
Geography and Central Place Theory – the belief that sport offerings and programming tend to develop in predictable locations based on physical and human geography – has long been used to describe why certain groups of people have demonstrated high levels of proficiency in particular activities (1). Many who watch the Olympics tend to attribute physical geography and/or culture to the success of certain nations in specific events, such as distance runners from Kenya (2). Studies show geography remains an influential factor today in terms of institution affiliation, competitiveness, and student-athlete interest despite recent athletic conference realignments that have expanded leagues in terms of members and distances across the United States (14). Additionally, though culture, economic status, and other factors play important roles in sport participation, the Spatial Demand Curve of Sport Geography predicts that the further away an individual physically resides from a sport offering, the less likely he or she is to visit that sport facility or participate in the activity (1).
Concerning the sport of bowling, several early forms of the game were played in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome by individuals who rolled stones or other types of balls at various types of targets (8). The sport gained popularity in Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance as an outdoor activity though, in 1455, England’s King Edward IV banned outdoor bowling in an attempt to encourage citizens to practice archery. This generated a continental movement of the nascent sport indoors and onto lanes called “skittles.” Indoor bowling continued to grow in popularity throughout Europe and German immigrants brought a modern version of the game where participants rolled balls at nine pins arranged in a diamond shape to the United States in the mid-19th century. There, the game evolved into its current format of rolling a ball at ten pins set in a triangle shape at the end of a wooden lane and became increasingly popular in urban locations and in areas of substantial German descent (7).
Today, statistics show that approximately 67 million people in the United States bowled at least once in the past year and bowling ranks as the number one participation sport in the nation. With nearly 31,000 United States Bowling Congress-certified leagues being run in 3,795 USBC-certified bowling centers throughout the USA in 2022-2023, the sport has become immensely popular with participants from youth to seniors (4, 13). Additionally, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) reported that over 56,000 high school students recently participated in bowling – and the sport has been listed with lacrosse as being among the fastest growing sport among youth in the United States (12).
Historically, women were generally discouraged from participating due to the sport’s association with gambling and drinking establishments. It was not until 1916 that the Women’s International Bowling Congress was formed in St. Louis, MO to serve the growing desire of women to bowl, with the first open women’s tournament being held in Cincinnati, OH in 1918 (9). As more women began to bowl on a regular basis, collegiate teams gained popularity in the 1940s and 1950s. This development occurred primarily in club sport settings thought numerous universities across the United States organized informal competitions. The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) conducted the first women’s intercollegiate bowling championship in 1972 and, ten years later, the NCAA officially recognized women’s bowling as an emerging sport. The NCAA held its inaugural Women’s Bowling National Championship in 2004 with eight teams competing for the national title. This championship, with the exception of 2020 due to COVID-19, has been an annual event since, hosted in multiple cities throughout the United States, and, during the 2022-2023 season, 101 teams competed with an average roster size of 9.63 bowlers listed on individual university websites. Notably, since its inception, the championship format for Women’s Bowling has been relatively unique among college sports in that the competitions are comprised of teams representing all three NCAA divisions competing for one national championship (9).
Using an online membership directory of sport offerings available at www.ncaa.org, all NCAA Division I, II, and III institutions that sponsor Women’s Bowling as a varsity sport (n =101) were identified. Subsequently, each institution’s athletic website was reviewed for team rosters from the 2022-2023 season and distances from the campus to the stated hometown of each individual bowler were calculated via Google Maps. If multiple distances were provided during the search query, the shortest distance between the campus and athlete hometown was used to maintain uniformity. While this measure could not provide precise details as to exactly how far a bowler’s home was from campus, a rough and functional estimate was determined in this manner.
A review of the websites for the institutions sponsoring Women’s Bowling revealed that five athletic websites did not post rosters for the 2022-2023 season. Any team roster or individual bowler whose information did not include hometown information were excluded from this study’s data. Finally, to provide consistency in terms of calculating estimated distances to hometowns, 42 bowlers (5.4%) were excluded from mileage computations as these individuals listed hometowns located in Alaska (one), Hawaii (five), or an international country (thirty-six). Following these exclusions, a study size of individual women’s bowlers (n=785) across 96 NCAA teams were available for analysis.
A review of the data collected in this study suggests that the sport of Women’s Bowling is strongly geographical in nature, both in terms of the institutions that sponsor the sport and the locations where the student-athletes hailed from for the 2022-2023 season. Colleges and universities that sponsored Women’s Bowling this season were primarily centered in the Great Lakes Region and within a relatively small number of states. Only 29 states had an NCAA institution that sponsored the sport, and of the 101 programs competing, 45 (44.6%) were located in a state that touches at least one of the Great Lakes. Additionally, only four states, led by Pennsylvania (13), New York (11), Illinois (nine), and a geographic outlier in North Carolina (seven), were home to 40 of the teams (39.6%) participating.
These institutions can be further analyzed by the level of competition in which they traditionally participate. Thirty-seven of the 101 colleges and universities sponsoring the sport were classified as Division I, 39 as Division II, and 25 as Division III. Division I programs demonstrated the greatest level of geographic diversity as teams could be found in 20 states and the District of Columbia, stretching from Massachusetts to Texas. The largest number of teams were four in each of Louisiana, Maryland, and Texas. Meanwhile, Division II programs were in just 16 states, led by six schools in each of New York and North Carolina. When considering Division III institutions, geographic proximity played an even greater role as only eight states have a program and just four programs operated outside of relatively small distances from Chicago, IL, Pittsburgh, PA, or Buffalo, NY. Every state that had a Division III team bordered at least one other state that also hosted a program and 18 of the 25 teams (72%) were found within three states: Pennsylvania (seven), Illinois (six), and Wisconsin (five), all representing states bordering the Great Lakes.
Adding credence to the spatial geographic nature of this sport is the fact that only 16 (15.8%) of all NCAA Women’s Bowling programs sponsored in 2022-2023 were located west of the Mississippi River. Unlike the majority of sports sponsored by the NCAA, the westernmost teams in the nation resided in Prairie View, TX, Wichita, KS, and Lincoln, NE with no institution having the sport in the Rocky Mountain, Southwest, or Pacific Coast regions. Further, only ten of the 101 teams were in states that do not touch one of the Great Lakes, the Atlantic Ocean, or the Gulf of Mexico.
In terms of the home states student-athletes listed for the 2022-2023 season, 43 states and the District of Columbia were represented by at least one bowler on an NCAA roster. However, of those 43 states and Washington, DC, 22 states (43.1%) were represented by five or fewer bowlers across all NCAA teams. Conversely, rosters indicated that 118 bowlers (15.0%) listed a hometown in the state of New York. As noted in Table 1, five of the six states that were most represented on rosters were located along the Great Lakes and included areas in proximity to where the majority of NCAA Women’s Bowling programs are located.
New York not only produced the most bowlers overall on collegiate rosters, but also was the home state for the largest number of bowlers on rosters for both NCAA Division I (42 or 13.95%) and Division II (48 or 16.49%). On the other hand, NCAA Division III teams were strongly represented by bowlers from Illinois (59 or 30.57%), Pennsylvania (31 or 16.06%), and Wisconsin (29 or 15.03%) – these numbers directly correlate to the states in which the majority of Division III bowling programs are located.
Distance from campus to hometowns for individual bowlers and intercollegiate teams is also an important component to understanding the geography of the sport – and a wide disparity among NCAA divisions exists. Excluding student-athletes not from the continental United States, the average NCAA Division I bowler (n=301) attended an institution that was 484.41 miles from their hometown. This distance drops significantly by level of competition in NCAA Division II (n=291) as the average individual distance to campus was 240.95 miles and NCAA Division III student-athletes (n=193) averaged only 146.15 miles.
Team averages reflected this trend as well. NCAA Division I teams (n=35) demonstrated an average team distance of 520.14 miles away from hometowns per bowler. Again, these proximities lowered by level of NCAA competition, reflected by NCAA Division II teams (n=36) averaging 219.39 miles and NCAA Division III teams (n=25) averaging 133.44 miles from campus to hometown per bowler.
Though they were not included in mileage computations, approximately 5.4% of the competitors listed hometowns outside of the continental forty-eight states. This included five bowlers from Hawaii (three of whom competed in NCAA I competition and two of whom participated at the NCAA II level), one from Alaska (who competed at the NCAA III level), and 36 from foreign countries (34 of which competed at the NCAA I or II level). Of those international student-athletes, 12 (33.3%) hailed from Mexico, four were from Canada and Colombia respectively, and three listed hometowns in Puerto Rico. Other nations represented included England (two) and Spain (two) with Australia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Guyana, Netherlands, Philippines, Ukraine, Venezuela, and the Virgin Islands all being represented by one student-athlete each.
Despite the geographic proximity of participants to their hometowns, the four teams that placed first through fourth at the National Championship in 2023 had a team mileage average that was significantly higher than the national average for their respective division. Vanderbilt University, winner of the 2023 National Championship, held a team average of 655.5 miles from hometown per bowler while Arkansas State University (768 miles) and the University of Nebraska (985.9 miles) were also well above the Division I average of 520.14. Fourth-place finisher and Division II member McKendree University (IL) had an average of 482.8 miles, a much higher average than the rest of NCAA Division II (219.39) despite the university’s relative proximity to the urban areas of Chicago and St. Louis. Moreover, each of these teams relied heavily on out-of-state talent to fill their rosters – neither Arkansas State nor Nebraska had a single bowler from their respective state on the team, Vanderbilt carried only two bowlers from Tennessee, and McKendree had 12 of their 16 bowlers from states outside of Illinois, including three student-athletes from foreign countries.
As previously stated, the concept of spatial geography asserts that proximity to an activity is an important determinant as to who and how many people participate in an activity. Thus, reviewing the number of bowling centers available in the United States can also be a valuable component to understanding the sport’s geography. According to the United States Bowling Congress website (BOWL.com), there were 3,768 bowling centers in the United States in 2023. The largest numbers of those are located in the Great Lakes Region, led by Wisconsin (253), New York (244), Pennsylvania (239), Michigan (223), Ohio (223), and Illinois (220) with these six states accounting for 37.2% of all bowling alleys currently operating in the United States. Predictably, these states are where the greatest number of both intercollegiate teams and student-athletes are clustered, suggesting the importance of access to the sport.
Since a large percentage of student-athletes tend to choose institutions within a limited mileage range from their hometown, spatial geography plays a role in the creation of competitive rosters, However, demonstrating that geography is not the sole determining factor in either attendance or a school’s decision to sponsor Women’s Bowling, outliers appear to exist in this study. Only one collegiate program (Florida A&M) exists in Florida, but the state was represented by 28 bowlers on college rosters, which was the eighth highest in the country, and 20 of those participated at the NCAA Division I level. Similarly, Texas, with only four collegiate teams in the state, also produced 28 bowlers on rosters, 24 of whom competed at NCAA Division I institutions. Conversely, North Carolina had seven collegiate programs in the state, yet produced only 18 bowlers (2.29%) on rosters nationwide.
Further, Historically Black Colleges and Universities make up a significant number of the programs being sponsored. The NCAA Division I Southwestern Athletic Conference (NCAA Division I), the Mideastern Conference (Division I), and the Central Intercollegiate Conference (Division II) all consist of HBCUs and each have seven institutions that sponsor Women’s Bowling. With the NCAA Women’s Bowling championships choosing a total of 16 teams with eight of those coming via automatic bids through the conference, this sport provides three HBCU conferences with automatic bids to the National Championships (5).
The state of California also becomes an interesting case study to consider in terms of geography. While no collegiate teams currently exist in the state, California ranks among the nation’s leaders in terms of number of bowling centers. Yet, only 10 bowlers (1.3%) were on Women’s NCAA rosters in the 2022-2023 season (eight of those at Division I institutions), implying that California is either underrepresented in the sport – or the sport is not as popular among young women in this area. The geographic location of California on the Pacific Coast also reinforces data suggesting that young women are less likely to attend institutions that are a significant distance from their homes as very few of the sponsoring schools are located west of the Mississippi River and none west of the Rocky Mountains.
Finally, the state of Michigan appears to have prime opportunities to expand the sport. Located on the Great Lakes, Michigan sports 223 bowling centers, the fourth-most in the nation, implying relative access to the sport. Further, 43 NCAA bowlers (4.2%) listed a hometown from Michigan despite no NCAA Women’s Bowling program currently existing within the state. Given this data, it would seem reasonable to expect that a team from Michigan would have access to numerous potential student-athletes within a relatively close proximity to their campus.
Spatial geography appears to play an important role in the feasibility of sponsoring a Women’s Bowling program at the NCAA level. Given the preference for most high school student-athletes to stay relatively close to home for college, the proximity to quality recruits also helps to determine a program’s ability to function at the college level. If this season is representative of others, this data suggests that the further an intercollegiate program resides from the Great Lakes area, the fewer potential opponents and women’s bowling recruits are available. The data also indicates that students being recruited to Division II and Division III institutions are likely to commit to programs much closer to their hometown that those who choose to attend a Division I institution.
Conversely, data suggest that success in the sport is not caused by geography as the most historically successful NCAA Women’s Bowling programs do not necessarily fall along the geographic lines explained above. Of the 19 NCAA championships held, Nebraska has won six of those titles and appeared in all 19 tournaments. Vanderbilt (three championships, 11 appearances), Stephen F. Austin (two championships), Sam Houston State (one championship, 11 appearances), and Arkansas State (15 appearances) also go against the trend of being in close proximity to the Great Lakes, large numbers of bowling, centers or NCAA opponents. Thus, while proximity to bowling centers and potential participants is important to the creation of teams, geography cannot be considered the sole factor in determining program success.
Applications in Sport
As the sport of Women’s Bowling continues to grow, the findings of this study may be of benefit to administrators at institutions who are considering the addition of the sport to their athletic department. The sport can be an attractive addition for women given that the equipment is relatively inexpensive, most college towns have at least one bowling alley, and the increasing number of high schools sponsoring women’s bowling (10). However, if, as research suggests, geography plays a role in the ability to effectively recruit student-athletes, it is vital to consider where these athletes may be located in proximity to a given campus. As such, there appears to be geographical areas where institutions could reasonably expect a sustainable level of success in effective recruiting – and other regions of the United States where a program may be at a disadvantage.
Therefore, institutions, particularly members of NCAA Division III, outside of a relatively small geographic area may need to be cautious about adding Women’s Bowling. Conversely, there are schools that do not currently have the sport but are located within prime recruiting and population areas. Based on the information provided in this study, several institutions that do not sponsor the sport reside close to population centers where many women’s bowlers were recruited from for the 2022-2023 season. The data in this study suggests that athletic departments at such institutions as Miami of Ohio, Rutgers, Seton Hall, or Syracuse appear to be in locations where the sport could be considered appropriate and carry a relatively high expectation of success due to their proximity to bowling centers and potential recruits. However, despite the fact that Women’s Bowling offers a relatively inexpensive sport that may also serve to assist with Title IX compliance, an NCAA Division II college in Colorado or an NCAA Division III school in southern Alabama may be outside the average mileage range for the successful recruitment of women’s bowlers.
As noted, however, a snapshot of the four most successful teams in the national championships in 2023 suggests that recruiting from a longer distance does not have to be an impediment to winning at a high level. All four of those teams recruited further away from their campus location than the national norm, demonstrating that a program does not have to be limited by spatial geography or proximity to recruiting hotbeds. However, one must also note that only two Power Five institutions (Vanderbilt from the Southeastern Conference and Nebraska from the Big Ten) currently compete in Women’s Bowling. These two programs not only reached the Final Four in 2022-2023 but they have also combined to win nine (45%) of the 20 national championships contested. This fact may suggest that a higher level of coaching and financial or recruitment support may be available to these programs by their respective athletic departments than other programs. Overall, this data suggests that spatial geography plays a limited but important role in one of the NCAA’s newest competitive sports. State lines and distances do not create a causation in terms of which institutions sponsor Women’s Bowling or what school a young woman chooses to attend in order to participate in the sport. However, geographical location appears to play a factor in both of these considerations, particularly at the NCAA Division II and Division III levels. Thus, while there are locations within certain regions and mileage ranges that lend themselves readily to program creation and/or student-athlete recruitment for Women’s Bowling, the concept of spatial geography is one that should be considered in the process.
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