Professional team bowling comes to Omaha

My step-grandpa was the real life Ralph Kramden. The exception was that he didn’t drive a bus, he was a mailman. Don liked to play cards, bet the dogs, go to the lodge, take grandma out “dancin’” and watch sports religiously.

The latter included golf and bowling, the sports equivalents of PBS. My views on golf spectatorship have changed over the years but bowling has never had a Tiger Woods. Usually when Don had bowling on, I’d excuse myself to the “den” and turn on MTV. I couldn’t escape bowling entirely. The television set was propped on a stand that was surrounded by Don’s old bowling trophies.

I had nothing against the game. In fact, I bowled in a league as a kid and enjoyed it. Even in college we often went to the local fun center and rolled a few games for cheap entertainment. But as a teenager, fat dudes in plaid pants couldn’t compete with scantily clad spring breakers.

Don was from a different era though, an era where every town across America had a bowling alley. In fact, Don owned one of those bowling allies back in the fifties. So did the likes of Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. Back then, bowling competed with baseball as the national pastime. It was televised by major networks, there were game shows with bowling themes and major newspapers employed bowling beat writers.

In 1960 the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) was thriving and Los Angeles proprietor Leonard Homel sought to capitalize on the emerging sport. He formed the National Bowling League with ten teams spread across the United States. It was a concept that made sense. Men and women across America bowled in rec leagues using a team format. Why couldn’t professional team bowling catch on with the masses? Well, as with many defunct leagues across the sports world, the answer is television.

From my perspective, the NBL did a lot of things right. They drafted a few big names in bowling, such as Buzz Fazio but, they also drafted some Major League Baseball stars such as Mantle and Berra (though I found no evidence that either participated) to draw in the casual fans. The NBL also established teams in markets where there wasn’t other competition from major professional sports. Among the ten teams were the Omaha Packers, Fort Worth Panthers, Fresno Bombers and San Antonio Cavaliers. However, those positives weren’t enough to overcome mistakes and missed opportunities by the NBL.

The most glaring downfall was the lack of a television deal. The NBL tried to strike a deal with ABC, but the network chose the established PBA instead. That meant that the NBL had to survive on gate alone and rather that hold matches at regular bowling allies, teams built arenas that could hold bleachers. In Omaha’s case, the Packers converted the Paramount Theatre into a bowling arena. This created additional overhead that couldn’t be justified by a handful of spectators. The situation did create a legacy of sort for the NBL. Dallas Broncos owner J. Curtis Sanford, poured millions into his team and built the 72-lane Bronco Bowl as the team’s home facility. Long after the league folded, the Bronco Bowl played host to such music legends as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and U2.

A couple of months into the season, Omaha and the San Antonio franchises folded. Kansas City and LA soon followed and the league limped into the spring with the Detroit Thunderbirds claiming the first and only NBL World Series. The following summer, the NBL officially boarded up.

As a lifelong Nebraskan, I have seen this happen many times to Omaha. Teams come and go as do the leagues in which they participate. The city has always been a great host for amateur athletics, annually hosting the College World Series and several times the NCAA basketball and volleyball tournaments. But, when it comes to professional sports, teams are gone before a fan base can even develop. Granted, most of these teams have been of the minor league variety. The NBA was the only major league to test Omaha’s waters and they made the town share custody of the Kings with Kansas City. Honestly, I believe that today Omaha could and would support an NBA team or an NHL team.

As for the Omaha Packers of the NBL, I don’t know if they ever had a logo. The only photo that I can find shows the team in front of Paramount Theatre, all wearing shirts and ties. As for the nickname, the bowling team wasn’t the first Omaha franchise to go by Packers. In 1930, Omaha’s Western League baseball team changed its name from the Crickets to the Packers and Omaha South High School is known as the Packers as well.

It’s a fitting nickname. Unlike Green Bay you won’t find any Cheeseheads. This is Nebraska, where beef is what’s for dinner. 

I’ve always liked logos where the lettering morphs into the image. There’s the Jesus Fish, the Go Big Red Helmet and the Montreal Expos. With this style, it’s never obvious, then one day it hits you in the face. It took me 38 years to realize that the old Montreal Expos logo was an ‘M.’ I always thought it was a ‘jb’ with some French meaning behind it. Turns out, it is actually an ‘eb’ which stands for Expos Baseball and the letters actually form to make an ‘M’ for Montreal.

So here is my attempt. The head of a steer spells out Packers if you look closely. I also had to have a bowling reference, so the ‘O’ in Omaha is a ball.