January 25, 2014 at 1:00 am

Terry Foster

PBA tapping its hotbed at Thunderbird Lanes

Pete Weber returns as Tournament of Championships title holder. (Skip Bolen / Getty Images)

Allen Park — Tom Strobl remembers when smoke billowed from Great Lakes Steel and Ford Motor Co.

It was a happier time, when anywhere from 30,000-40,000 people marched into work in the plants near Thunderbird Lanes, which he now owns.

And many of those workers piled bowling balls and bags in the back of their cars and trucks for an evening of fun after a hard day’s work.

Bowling was king in Detroit, and made Downriver hum as workers knocked down pins along with Stroh’s and Budweiser.

Bowling still wears a crown, but not like it used to because of the dwindling number of auto workers in the area. Still, Detroit boasts 30,000 registered bowlers, and Michigan has 100,000.

And it’s because of those numbers that PBA officials made Detroit the bowling mecca this weekend with the Tournament of Champions.

“It is a hotbed for bowlers and for people with bowling knowledge that appreciates professionals,” said PBA commissioner Tom Clark, whose event culminates with Sunday’s stepladder finals. “They know these guys by name because they watch the shows. The highest ratings on ESPN come from Michigan.

“This is important for us and for the people that know what is going on. So you want to come back to a place like that.”

Expect color

The PBA is all about emotion.

Sure, the top bowlers in the world grind it out during the week by rolling 49 games apiece. But once the stepladder finals — broadcast on ESPN — come around, there’s plenty of action. The shirts are bright, the fans are loud, and the fist pumps become more animated.

PBA officials know antics sell. Yes, bowlers trash talk.

And the latest rivalry has Jason Belmonte and Sean Rash, who are excellent bowlers — and don’t like each other.

And it just so happens both are in Sunday’s finals. Just what the PBA ordered.

Building interest

While the PBA is beginning to thrive, and bowling is alive and well in Michigan, it still needs a push.

Strobl said bowling alley owners must do more to encourage the youth to pick up the sport.

“We have not promoted it historically like we should,” he said. “We’ve gone years without promoting it and we are feeling it because they (youth) should be getting into our leagues.”

That’s where events like the Tournament of Champions come in. These events are not only good entertainment, but get casual fans interested.

“It is all about sports entertainment rather than just the game,” Clark said. “That is our challenge. We have to get people that love bowling to take an interest in bowling. We need them to get into the game at a higher level than just a birthday party.”

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