First million dollar endorsement deal for an athlete went to a bowler

One can learn some interesting facts from random moments in sports talk radio: the first athlete to earn a $1 million endorsement deal was a bowler in 1964.

In 1964, bowling legend Don Carter managed the unthinkable for a bowler — or any athlete for that matter — when he landed a $1 million endorsement deal with bowling manufacturer Ebonite. He was the first bowler to hit the magic mark, and far outpaced his contemporaries throughout the sports world.

Just four years before Carter’s landmark agreement, the best that professional golfer Arnold Palmer’s manager could muster for his client was a $5,000 per year “global” deal with Wilson sports. In 1968, Super Bowl quarterback Joe Namath famously shaved off his moustache with a Schick razor for a mere $10,000. Race car driver Richard Petty would become the first million-dollar driver, but not until 1971.

Carter’s Ebonite deal launched the widely popular Don Carter Gyro-Balanced ball, but his own lucrative endorsement career was already on track. As early as 1959, Carter was grossing more than $100,000 a year through tournaments, exhibitions, TV matches, investments and endorsements for such products as Miller Lite, Viceroys, Palmolive Rapid Shave and Wonder Bread.

Carter dominated the sport:

He also did something that no one in baseball, football or golf ever did. He became the first athlete in American sports history to sign a $1 million marketing endorsement contract, with bowling ball manufacturer Ebonite in 1964.

“It is impossible to put into words what Don Carter meant to the PBA and the sport of bowling,” PBA Commissioner Tom Clark said. “He was a pioneer, a champion and will never be forgotten.”

The 6-foot, 200-pound Carter bowled five 800 series, 13 perfect games and six 299s in sanctioned play. He practically held a monopoly on bowling honors. He was voted Bowler of the Year six times (1953, 1954, 1957, 1958, 1960, 1962).

While bowling may not be a very high-profile sport these days, hearing this reminded me of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. Not too long ago, many Americans bowled regularly and Putnam argues this is illustrative of a strong civic and social sphere where neighbors and strangers interacted more regularly.

It is interesting to think about why Carter was able to snag such a large deal. Perhaps it is because millions of Americans thought being a good or decent bowler was attainable, perhaps even at their regular leagues. It is a little harder these days when you see such athletes performing in the major sports, in college, and even at the high school level. Anyone can bowl and Carter apparently had an interesting style:

A founding member and the first president of the Professional Bowlers Association, Carter was a powerhouse on the lanes at 6 feet 1 inch tall and 195 pounds…

He bowled with a distinctively ungainly right-handed style, eschewing a traditional backswing, bending his elbow and knee and pulling the ball back around his stomach, then pushing it forward.

“I think there were probably 10 million bowlers who tried to emulate that,” said Bill Vint, a spokesman for the P.B.A. “I don’t think anyone did.”

I bet there is an interesting story in how bowling fell behind the major sports like football in endorsements and attention. Was bowling a gateway sport that was relatively easy to broadcast on television that helped open up things for other sports?