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Opening ceremonies are still seven months away, but the American Bowling Congress Tournament coming to Billings could be losing some of its luster.

Nothing is official yet, but it appears the ABC is on the verge of yanking its prestigious ABC Masters competition away from the Magic City.

The Masters event attracts many of the top players on the Professional Bowlers Association tour as well as most of the best non-professional bowlers in the world. The week-long competition — which usually draws around 500 entrants — has been held in conjunction with the regular ABC Tournament for all of its 51 years.

To better accommodate the revamped PBA tour and ensure television coverage, the Masters — in all likelihood — will now take place this January at Reno’s 78-lane National Bowling Stadium. It’s normally held in May at the site of the national tournament.No official wordJack Mordini, assistant executive director of the ABC, said this week that no contract has been signed between the ABC and PBA to relocate the Masters and make it part of the PBA’s winter schedule.

“Things aren’t tied down to the point where I feel comfortable making an announcement,” he said.

But the unofficial word coming out of Nevada is that Billings is out and Reno is in.

Billings has been belittled for years as a poor choice for an ABC tournament. It will be one of the smallest host cities in tournament history, and criticism from bowlers on the ABC Web site earlier this year was unmerciful.

The MetraPark Foundation and others, however, have countered by touting the region’s historical sites and recreational activities. In turn, ABC members, who make the annual pilgrimage to bowl at nationals, have responded with enthusiasm.

Nearly 8,600 five-member teams have already signed up to compete on 48 lanes at the MetraPark’s Expo Center between February and June 2002. Another 1,000 teams are expected to sign up by the January deadline.Nothing personalMordini said any business decision to move the Masters shouldn’t reflect poorly on Billings. Or take anything away from the national tournament.

“You’re still going to have the greatest amateur bowlers in the world,” he said.

By switching the site and date of the Masters, the PBA and ABC are hoping to get more top professionals to participate because the change would better coincide with the 2001-2002 tour schedule.

The PBA recently announced a landmark TV deal with ESPN, and the ABC is in pursuit of a corporate sponsor for the Masters — which would be showcased as one of the major events on the PBA tour.

All of that makes perfect business sense.

What’s troubling about the move is that it sure seemed like the Masters was part of the overall ABC Tournament package when Billings made its successful bid back in 1996.

The Masters was talked about in the basement at Sunset Bowl in January 1995 when a small group of Billings Bowling Association members got together and kicked around the idea of going after the 2002 ABC Tournament.

The topic came up again on that day in March 1996 in Salt Lake City when Billings’ bid of $500,000 (plus another $700,000 or so in pledges and subsidies) was termed the most attractive by the ABC.

And the Masters was even mentioned in April 1998 when then ABC president Jerry Tessman was in Billings to sign the ceremonial contract for the 99th ABC Tournament.

To take the Masters away now is simply unfair. It’s clearly a case of the ABC changing the rules in the middle of the game.

Landing the ABC tournament was quite a feat for Billings. The event, a first for Montana, will pump an estimated $50 million to $60 million into the region’s economy.

That shouldn’t change, but the Masters was going to bring national TV exposure to the city. The Masters was going to bring Mike Aulby, reigning champion Parker Bohn III, Jason Couch and Walter Ray Williams to town.

The Masters format includes a week full of qualifying, match play and stepladder finals. First place this year was worth $40,000.

Three years after Billings received the bid to host the 2002 tournament, an amendment that gave ABC officials the power to remove the Masters from the regular ABC Tournament was approved by delegates to the 1999 convention in Syracuse, N.Y.

Two years later, Mordini doesn’t think Billings needs to be compensated if it indeed loses the Masters. “I would hope they would be appreciative of what we are bringing,” he said.

Besides, he noted, that week in May would be open for additional teams to come to the ABC Tournament.

“They’re going to get a greater economic windfall by the Masters not coming there,” he said.

While that may be true, this isn’t all about money.

Many in the Billings bowling community were looking forward to seeing local favorites like Ted Bertrand, Josh Hale, Ritchie Westberg and Julie Redfern bowling against some of the sport’s biggest stars like Aulby, Bohn, Couch and Williams.

The ABC is about to step in and dash those hopes, however.

And tarnish its own tournament in the process.Bill Bighaus can be reached at 657-1394 or solp@billingsgazette.com.

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