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How to save bowls clubs and grow the game

How to save bowls clubs and grow the game?…a big question with a remarkably simple answer.

I receive a lot of correspondence every year related to bowling green maintenance and bowling club management. When combined with the conversations I have with club officials around the country and comments received through this site, it confirms what we all already know; that the game of bowls is suffering. This seems to be due to a major reduction in participants, club members and a low membership renewal level which of course is causing a tightening of finances generally at many clubs.

Although accurate figures aren’t that easy to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests that a very high percentage of British bowls clubs are finding it hard to meet the costs of upkeep for there buildings and greens and this lack of upkeep can only add to the problem. This inevitably creates a downward spiral that is hard to break out of.

In my book Performance Bowling Greens, I’ve laid out a process for thinking differently about bowling green maintenance; a process that recognises some old fashioned values once inherent in small clubs of all sorts in the UK, not just bowls clubs. In addition to the technical greenkeeping advice in Performance Bowling Greens, I’ve  tried to illustrate the importance of the once commonly held values of prudence, volunteering and community involvement in building up the game of bowls in the first place. Of course in addition to these values, clubs also had the benefit of a greater pool of participants and it is this point that is most interesting.

Invariably the reason put forward for the current state of the game is that there isn’t enough interest in the game. In particular the argument that is repeated most often is that the game isn’t attractive to younger people. In a country with an ageing population, this shouldn’t really be a strong argument;  the trouble is much more universal than that; the evidence points instead to a lack of interest in joining bowling clubs within all age groups.

So why is that?

Let me illustrate with a fishy tale: I am an angler and I can categorically tell you that out of the estimated 3 million people who go fishing in the UK, virtually none of them see this activity as a way of procuring fish! If I was to assign an hourly rate to my fish catching, then Salmon would now be around £10,000 a pound!

It is estimated that 46% percent of the UK population participates in recreational walking; again not for the purpose of getting from A to B, but for the other social and health benefits.

I could go on with examples like this, but I think the point is clear: Lots of people once joined bowling clubs, but it is unlikely that they joined solely to participate in bowling; so what is now missing from the bowling scene that people young and old once found so attractive?

The geographical distribution of bowling clubs might give us some clues. Here in Scotland at least there are many bowling clubs that are easily within a few miles of many others. In the Central Belt of Scotland there are sometimes 2 or more clubs in the same large village/small town. In some larger towns there are upwards of 5 clubs in each. In most cases even small villages will have a bowling club, even though there is one in the next again village.

This indicates 2 things to me:

  1. in the past, people moved around a lot less and probably remained in their local village most of the time; they shopped, worked and socialised in a very small geographical area.
  2. in the past, bowling clubs were not viewed only as places to bowl, they were multi-use facilities that were valued by the whole community, not just bowlers. This is still the case at the clubs in some ex-mining communities here, where you are just as likely to encounter a funeral wake or Christening party as a bowls match. Of course as mining becomes a more and more distant memory, these clubs might well suffer the same fate as many others. At the moment though, there is still a strong sense of community in these villages.

These two points should give us some ideas about what we can do to turn things around at our own clubs.

The first is clear. People not only move further a-field to work, shop and socialise on a day to day basis, but they are also much more likely to move their home more frequently due to work or other issues. This is unlikely to change any time soon, so although we can hope for tighter, more involved communities in the future, it’s not going to happen overnight…but…regardless of this there is a massive desire among the 35+ age group to be more socially interactive in their own communities and less damaging to the planet; people are fighting back against the globalised economy and actually want to be part of smaller, more tight knit communities and this is a massive opportunity for bowling clubs if only we could get over the bowling problem.

Point number 2 above should provide some clues as to how we can start to turn around the fortunes of our bowling clubs and who knows, maybe help to make a start on the improvement of our local communities that will last and be built upon for decades to come.

If we just start to think differently about the role our club plays in the community, the growing of the game (the bowling problem) will take care of itself.

I desperately want clubs to start taking action on this now, in the winter time when there is some free time to think and plan. This sea change in bowls clubs can happen starting next week if we have enthusiasm for it.

Let me know what you think in the comments section below.

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