When it comes to women's professional bowling, Washington's reaction is something between total apathy and utter boredom.

"Washington is one of the toughest places to penetrate," says Roger Balemire, commissioner of the Women's Professional Bowlers Association. "There's a football team the town's really in love with. And there's so much going on with politics."

The area does not respond to bowling the way Milwaukee or Cedar Rapids could. But for the second straight year, the WPBA will try to crack this town with its national championship tournament starting Tuesday at the Bowl America Shirley in Alexandria.

Balemire's job is to promote women's bowling. So far, it has been a struggle. But things are getting better. The WPBA just hooked up with two firms managed by the Mark McCormack sports management firm and signed a contract with the ESPN cable sports network. The idea is to obtain sponsors for tournaments while creating exposure through television. "Look at any other sport," Balemire said. The key has been TV."

Though Balemire said he's happy that ESPN tapes and televises every tournament on the WPBA tour, his ultimate goal is network exposure. He is well aware that the men's tour has enjoyed a long and successful life on ABC "It's one of the cheapest sports to produce and one of the biggest

"It's one of the cheapest sports to produce and one of the biggest moneymakers ABC has," Balemire said. "It makes sense to me that there's a place for women's bowling on TV, too."

"There's no difference in talent," said Patty Costello, who has won 20 tournaments, a WPBA record, and will compete in Alexandria. "Bowling is about the only sport where men and women can compete equally. It's not a matter of strength. It's a matter of timing, coordination and knowledge."

"We have to unsell our image," Balemire said. "We've got some nifty players--nice-looking, intelligent ladies who happen to be superior athletes.

It has been a tough year for the women's tour. There are only 12 tournaments, five fewer than last year.

"Montgomery Ward was supposed to sponsor two tournaments, but they've had a bad year," Balemire said. "We lost another tournament because a bowling center couldn't get completed. We've suffered directly because of the economy."

But with additional sponsors and a better television contract, he said, purses will go up.

"People will start to be aware of bowling if it's a $100,000 sport. Girls bowling for a $25,000 first-place prize is a heck of a difference than bowling for $4,000.

"Look at tennis. My gosh, Tracy Austin made $340,000. That's ridiculous. Our whole tour isn't worth half a million. Yet there are 65 million bowlers."

First place in the Alexandria tournament is worth $4,000. Sixty women are entered in the event with afternoon and evening sessions. Finals are Friday at 8 p.m.