Stepladder Competition Format

How a Stepladder Format Determines a Champion

Ryan Ciminelli
Ryan Ciminelli led the U.S. Open into the stepladder, then won the championship match. Photo courtesy PBA LLC

One of the most frequently used competition formats in the PBA, and in some amateur scratch leagues, is the stepladder format. Theoretically, it could be used with any number of participants, but the PBA usually narrows its field through other qualifying rounds to five before instituting the stepladder format.


The stepladder format was born because televised events were not guaranteed to have any excitement. In the first days of Professional Bowlers Association competition, the television shows simply showed the ends of tournaments, which consisted of qualifying and match-play rounds. While those rounds often bring excitement, there were too many instances of one bowler leading by so many pins that there was absolutely no drama left by the time the TV show started. It was simply a case of staring at a bowler who has already won throw more shots for some reason.

With the stepladder format, drama (or, at least, competition) is guaranteed throughout a television show. While qualifying and match play still take place to determine the top bowlers from a tournament, the stepladder finals feature one-on-one matches in which the winner advances and the loser goes home.

How It Works

In the stepladder format, the lowest ranked bowler goes against the second-lowest ranked bowler. The winner of that match takes on the third-lowest ranked bowler, and so on. So, if you're the #1 seed in a tournament decided by the stepladder format, you only need to win one match, while the #5 seed would have to win four matches.

Practical Example

For this example, let's use five random bowlers and consider a hypothetical tournament. The bowlers, listed in order of their respective rankings through qualifying:

  1. Bill O'Neill
  2. Sean Rash
  3. Wes Malott
  4. Chris Barnes
  5. Jason Belmonte

In this scenario, the first match will consist of Jason Belmonte (the #5 seed) and Chris Barnes (the #4 seed). Let's say Belmonte wins. Barnes is eliminated, and Belmonte moves on to face Wes Malott (the #3 seed). Malott wins and moves on to take on Rash (the #2 seed). Malott wins again and makes it to the championship match against O'Neill. The winner of that match wins the championship.

And there it is. The stepladder format. It has its proponents and opponents, as do most scoring systems and competition formats, but it's been a major part of the PBA Tour for a long time.

The Main Criticism of the Stepladder Format

While using the stepladder format does make the TV show more exciting, opponents of the format say it detracts from the integrity of the tournament. That is, using the above example, Bill O'Neill could lead the tournament by a million pins (using hyperbole for effect), but if he loses, even by one pin, to Wes Malott on television, Malott is the champion.

In fact, many top professional bowlers have in their heads three important numbers: (1) the number of tournaments they've led, (2) the number of those they've won, (3) the total number of tournaments they've won. Basically, they're keeping track of how many times they "should've" won the tournament by virtue of leading it going into the stepladder finals, the number of times they actually won those tournaments, and then the overall number of titles, which may or may not help balance the difference between tournaments led and tournaments won.