Change about to sweep through bowling greens

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:00 09/05/2012

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Bowls has become an increasingly popular sport set up for an ever-decreasing minority, according to the sport's chief executive, Kerry Clark.

The good news for bowls traditionalists is that their sport remains popular among the masses, with about 90,000 Kiwis having a roll up annually.

The bad news is that the vast majority of them are not members and, of those who are, only a small percentage take part in the club and centre tournaments that dominate the greens for most of the year.

Clark said that had to change and for the past six weeks he has travelled the country pushing that message.

"We're talking to our clubs to say the big issue you have is re-programming," he said this week.

"Don't tie up the club and everything else for competitions and commitments that only 10 per cent of your people are going to play in. That's the issue.

"All those competitions for [singles, pairs, triples, fours] and repeated for men and women, champion of champions and god knows what else, they are programmed from the start of October to well into May every weekend. But of the number of traditional members we have, only about 10 per cent of them will take part."

Clark cited the concept of players being graded in years as one of the "sacred cows" that needed to go.

"You will find some people who join the serious stuff have actually played for 15 years in business house and all of a sudden they are in the bowls scene as a first year player.

A lot of the competitions that might have been OK 20 years ago are not now. It's a matter of re-engaging.

"Clubs have to move from a traditional programming model to one with more flexibility."

Ideas include club greens being handed over to casuals at least two nights a week for short format play of two to three hours and on Saturday mornings for short format interclub competitions.

"Play from 9am to 11am then you have the rest of the weekend free. We have to start thinking of the players as customers rather than, `they have to be like us ... this is the bowling club and if you join this is how it is'. We have a hell of a lot of under-utilised real estate."

Short-format play has been around for a while without really breaking up the longer forms of the game.

However, with the emergence of Twenty20 cricket often referenced and some high-profile televised events coming up in Australia to be aired in New Zealand, Clark believes the mood for change is gathering pace.

In truth, the former international player has been peddling the need to adapt or die since the launch of the One Bowls initiative in 2004, a major project aimed at reversing declining membership by attracting a new young generation of players.

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"This is a follow-up on it," he said. "It's really talking about the need for every level of the sport to work more closely together; Bowls New Zealand, centres and clubs.

"This is about the need for us to address the sport through participation rather than membership. Traditional membership has been on a decline really since 1992."

While society has changed drastically, the sport of bowls has in many ways stood still.

"What we found when we started collecting statistics in 2003 and continue to, is that through the same time the number of people who have engaged in the sport through mates in bowls, or business house, has continued to increase. Participation over the last three years has been about 92-93,000 people. People are still playing bowls, but doing it in a different way.

"But the model that has been promoted right up to now in terms of how you run the clubs and centres has always been around traditional membership.

"You have a decreasing number playing in centre competitions and the like because of other commitments."

Across the Tasman the trend has been the same and Clark has drawn on research that shows Australia's ever-increasing casual players want to play, but not in the traditional format.

"They are telling them `we'll play at the club more than once, but we don't want to engage in the way you play it because it takes up too much time, it's too regimented'. "It also turns off the guy who may not be a champion but wants to play. There's not enough provided for him."

Clark has found interclub competitions are thriving in rural areas where the season is not interrupted by endless centre events for the elite 10 per cent. They are playing against people of the same level, they're not cannon fodder for the good players all the time.

"Over 80 per cent of the players in Central Otago play interclub.

"In Manawatu they have 29 Saturdays and Sundays allocated for centre competitions during the year with less than 10 per cent of their people playing. The average player, who may want to play on those weekends, there is nothing provided for them.

"These are the issues we are trying to solve."

While he still thinks there are too many clubs Clark is not pushing the merger barrow, and said most clubs and centres had acknowledged they needed to change.

"The reaction we are getting is, `hey, we are seeing that, and agree. Help us to redo the programme.' Others are saying, `come up with some templates and suggestions on how to go about it'."

Which is the challenge now for Bowls New Zealand.

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- The Dominion Post

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