Tire industry, bowling had more in common than just spares: Firestone struck gold with the Tournament of Champions

Sept. 1, 2002

When most people hear the word "Akron," they think "Tire Capital of the World." But how about "Bowling Capital of the World?"

At one time, Akron laid claim to both titles. Although players in each field have since split from the city, bowling, like tires, will always be right up Akron's alley.

You can see it in the trophies that line the walls of many Akron-area restaurants, taverns and social halls. And you can hear it at the many bowling alleys around town, that thunder-like rumbling followed by the unmistakable sound of hard rubber (or reactive resin, plastic or urethane) balls crashing into wooden pins frame after frame.

For decades, employees at Akron-based tire manufacturers like Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., General Tire & Rubber Co. and others bowled in industrial leagues, often against each other. In 1965, Firestone became one of the first corporations to sponsor a major sporting event by lending its name and marketing muscle to the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) Tournament of Champions.

The idea was the brainchild of local media dynamo Eddie Elias, who founded the PBA in Akron seven years earlier. "He felt it was an opportunity for Firestone to attach its name to a sports attraction that could grow to be something," says Mike Connor, who at the time worked in Firestone's public relations and marketing departments. (Connor became commissioner of the PBA after retiring from the tiremaker in late 1991.)

Originally, the event was going to be held at New York City's Madison Square Garden. But then-Firestone President Earl Hathaway reasoned if Firestone was going to sponsor the tournament, why not hold it in Akron?

The televised Tournament of Champions -- which in a few short years simply became known as "The Firestone" -- was one-third of pro bowling's Triple Crown, which also included the PBA National Championship and the U.S. Open. But the T of C was, by far, the sport's most exclusive event. Bowlers had to win at least one PBA-sponsored tournament during the year to compete in it (at one point the group sanctioned some 40 events annually).

Firestone put up prize money each year. In 1965, the tournament purse totaled $100,000. Nearly 30 years later, winners were pocketing close to $300,000 (and taking home the beautiful trophy shown here).

In 1993, the tiremaker -- now owned by Japan's Bridgestone Corp. -- withdrew its sponsorship. Bridgestone had moved Firestone headquarters to Nashville, Tenn., the year before and the company "no longer had a strong presence in Akron," says Connor. "They also were getting back into the sponsorship of auto racing. It became a budgeting decision. They only had so many dollars to invest in (sports) marketing."

General Tire -- which had been acquired by another foreign firm, Germany's Continental AG -- assumed sponsorship of the event the following year. "The tournament had become so strongly affiliated with Akron that the obvious thing was to find another tire company," Connor says. General "recognized the value of the tournament for the community." The partnership only lasted for one tournament when Continental moved what was left of General to Charlotte, N.C., in 1995.

The PBA itself moved from Akron to Seattle, Wash., in 2000. But that's the way the ball rolls sometimes, muses Connor, who says tires and bowling fit hand in glove. "You never see a person walking down the street carrying his or her bowling bag. They're always in the trunk, riding on four tires" -- and laying next to the (ahem) spare. "Bowling tied right into the product!"