Helen Blaby reflects on the future of bowls…
As I write this, I’m keeping an eye on the live scoring from the Bowls England National Championships which are taking place in Leamington Spa. As a keen bowler it’s somewhere I aspire to play, and have nearly made it a couple of times with my bowls partner Chris. In fact on one occasion we were a single end away from qualifying for the national championships.
Bowls has always been my sport, this year marks the 30th anniversary of me taking up the game after we moved to Cornwall. It started as a way of spending some time with my sporting Dad. He’d played rugby, football and cricket for many years, and when his knees started giving out he switched to bowls, playing for Abington and the County Ground in Northampton.
30 years ago, bowls was a different game. Ladies weren’t as welcome as they are now, with some clubs not allowing them on the green at all. The clothes we had to wear to play in were terribly old fashioned too, American Tan tights, white skirts, blazers and hats. As an almost 13 year old it wasn’t that attractive, but spending time with Dad and him being proud to play next to me were enough to get me going.
Now though, I’m worried. The sport I love is going through the doldrums a bit. Despite some fantastic young players locally, such as Jamie Walker, Connor Cinato, Billie Swift and Louise Haladij (sorry to anybody I’ve missed!!!) we are struggling to find new people to play. Clubs that had a proud tradition of being able to put out 6 rinks on a Saturday now can’t. A lot of games are going mixed (not that I have a problem with this, mixed games are, in my opinion, to be encouraged) but sometimes it’s difficult to even find the 24 players you need to fulfil a mixed fixture.
So why has this happened? What can we do to make sure that the game doesn’t die? Well, I’m open to ideas, but even though we’ve come a long way from the days when I started in terms of dress, I can’t say that we’re particularly on trend when we’re stepping on a green. In Australia, Comfit-Pro have launched some hot pink ladies bowls shoes. Can you imagine the furore if I stepped on to a green wearing those? I’m not even sure I’m allowed to, even though I’d love to!
How can we get away from the image of our sport being just for the old? Yes, you see a lot of white hair if you walk into a bowls club, but that’s part of the charm. Grandparents can play alongside their grandchildren. Three, in some cases four generations can all play on the same rink.
I think the media could play a part, actually. When the World Bowls at Potters is televised in January, it gets a good audience. There are surely more opportunities to televise our sport? We could help ourselves, too, by getting sponsorship from companies other than funeral directors and over 50s holiday companies.
We need to embrace the fact that our sport is one of the very few where men and women can play on an equal footing. We need to be encouraging to young people, and that includes not being sniffy at the high-fives (come on, exuberance is a good thing, surely??!) Let’s stop looking backwards and reminding ourselves of the good old days and starting looking forward to the good times to come. Let’s allow hot pink bowling shoes, and allow people to play in shorts if they want to. Let’s start treating ourselves like sportsmen and women, in sports kit, not dressing like someone who’s going to their Great Aunt’s funeral or has just stepped off a punt.
There will be people reading this getting incredibly upset that I am being so critical of how things are done, but it’s criticism that brings about change, and if we don’t start thinking of change then we can give up playing our sport. I think, sadly, it’s a simple as that.