Lawn bowls could be gone at an amatuer level in less than 15 years. Much is needed to save it. Here are my suggestions.
Is lawn bowls a dying sport?
Lawn bowls is a popular game, played by millions around the world. It has a global TV reach and dedicated professional, and amateur players alike. However, lawn bowls as a sport needs to face facts. The game is slowly dying and has been for some time.
Is lawn bowls a dying sport? The sport may have grown through new countries and territories in recent decades, however, in its heartlands the sport is on the decline. I believe that without urgent and drastic action the sport could no longer be viable at an amatuer level in the next 15 years.
As I am based in the UK I will be looking at this from a UK perspective – however much of what I say and believe will be true for other territories around the world.
Issues facing lawn bowls
The sport is facing many major issues. Before we can fix them and grow the sport, we must acknowledge what the issues are.
Members getting older
The obvious issue is the average age of a bowler is getting higher. We will lose many of the generations who joined bowls in its heyday of the 70s and 80s over the next few decades.
The aging demographics also hardens the perception of bowls being an “old man’s game”.
Not attracting young players
Little is done to attract younger players to the sport. This is an issue I see at both national and local levels.
It seems to be left to older players to bring their children and grand-children into clubs – leading to clubs dominated by 2 or 3 families.
The only other players brought into clubs are the newly retired, drawn in by annual open days.
No youth set up/leagues
In many areas, there is no provision for youth players to play in any constructive leagues. Without this structure, games are either infrequent or simply don’t take place at an age-appropriate level.
It is not acceptable to have under 16s play in a senior league. It’s discouraging from a play standpoint, but also this is not an environment that is attractive to younger players, who want to practice, play and compete against their peers.
Not only as a predominantly retirees game but also a predominantly white sport.
This is created by the previous 3 issues.
This is presented as an “image” issue, however it’s more of a “matter of fact” issue. The sport is older and less diverse, then any major sport that I can think of.
Disproportionately affected by COVID
Due to the restrictions put in place due to COVID-19 we are seeing bowls disproportionately affected. No members playing means more clubs going under.
Cramlington Bowls Club was one of many bowls clubs that had to close for the 2020 season
Clubs currently rely on a core of players to make up numbers in 4 rink leagues and friendlies. If even a small minority of these core players leave, then the number of leagues and teams would be untenable.
A drop in membership across the UK
The number of players playing in the UK has dropped by a third since the turn of the millennium.
This is the outcome from poor recruitment and an ever increasing number leaving the sport, either due to clubs going under, or ill health.
According to Bowls England there are 10 per cent fewer club members in the UK than there were just five years ago.
Clubs are becoming financially “at-risk”. This is a combination of losing players, rising costs, and dwindling cash reserves.
The closure of clubs is being pushed on faster due to COVID-19 pandemic despite the best intentions and actions of Bowls England and UK Sport.
It is still unknown how many clubs will close over the off-season. Many clubs will be concerned about making their normal number allocations.
Leagues spanning large areas
Local leagues often span large distances. Mainly due to condensing leagues together. This makes playing league games harder for players with full-time jobs, as they struggle to make games after work – further pushing younger players out.
Selectors like consistency and players with full-time jobs cannot offer the ability to play every week regardless of the start time, or distance required to travel.
A global issue
Bowls isn’t just struggling in the UK, it’s also affected in its other major region, Australia.
I will leave Nev Rodda, former Australian national champion to explain.
The Outlook for Lawn Bowls
With the uncertainty of how COVID will affect clubs in the 2021 summer season, and the 2021/22 indoor season we will not know for sometime the potential short-to-medium term consequences of the pandemic.
This jolt to the sport has been looming for some time, and it could be that COVID-19 has simply sped up the likely long-term outcome:
- Club closures
- Players leaving the game at ametuer level
- No young players joining the sport
- Local leagues not having enough teams to complete a season
It is not too far-fetched to see a future where no competitive bowls are played in the UK if things continue as they are.
How to fix bowls
I believe that there are ways for this to be prevented. HereI outline just a few actions that could be taken.
Exposure in mainstream
Lawn Bowls needs to get in-front of eyeballs. There is a jump in interest every year in January for the Indoor World Bowls championships which is shown on live tv. The same is true when the Commonwealth games comes around.
We need more of these events shown regularly, both on terrestrial, online, or on subscription tv services.
More competitions on Free to Air TV
The indoor championships make an impression – as we saw with the viral clip of Nicky Brett in 2019. Bowls can capture the interest of the population.
As Free To Air channels struggle to compete for major sports (such as football and cricket) bowls as a sport has the opportunity to showcase all tournaments – both indoor and outdoor.
Just as cricket is planning to do with “The Hundred”, bowls should be able to offer something less traditional for TV.
The blueprint for such a tournament can be seen in Australia with the ABL and UBC. These are competitions made for television.
The relaxed, partisan approach is much more approachable for a casual audience. The days of the gentleman bowler are numbered, and people want something different.
Changes at club level
Changes need to happen at club level to attract and retain players.
Short format games
At club level we need to introduce shorter forms of the game. It’s very hard for newcomers to play friendlies when they are only taking 2 shots every 15 minutes. Short, more involved games would help encourage casual bowlers
Drop/reduce 4 rink leagues
The time required to play and maintain a 4 rink league is excessive. At a club level we are already seeing clubs struggling to field full teams due to reduced membership. This will only continue.
A game of Fours takes too long to play for a casual player, especially those who work and have young families. A commitment for multiple midweek leagues will be too much for them.
More emphasis on shorter formats that can be played in 60-90 minutes would hopefully encourage players to play more frequently.
UK Commonwealth Games
The UK has a great opportunity to showcase bowls when the Commonwealth Games are held in 2022. With all coverage shown live on BBC bowls should get substantial interest in the sport.
Bowls England will need to take advantage of this with proper promotion and outreach to hopefully attract this new audience to local bowls clubs.
Creating junior local leagues
It is indicative of the struggles faced by lawn bowls when “young players” counts as anyone under the age of 40.
The problems faced by bowls will not go away in the future unless we can find pathways for juniors to play. Youth teams and leagues should become a priority.
A positive note
Lawn bowls is not a sitting duck. I believe it has the resources and a product that can capture the attention of audiences around the world, from any age bracket.
I’ll leave the last word to Nev Rodda, who had this to say on the future of bowls.
I think with the right story in the right message in the right team this can absolutely be done
I for one certainly hope he is right, for the future of our game.