Almanac Bowls: Rolling along

Long thought to be the elder statesman of Australian sport, Lawn bowls has undergone a radical face lift. Boasting over 234,000 registered participants nationally (60,000 in Victoria alone) Australia’s 5th most participated sport behind aerobics, golf, tennis and netball, asserts itself with an unexpected level of professionalism.

The first Lawn Bowls club was established in Melbourne in 1864 and clubs have survived through an older market and a conservative approach that featured white flannels, panama hats and polite clapping.

With 2000 clubs nationally, the new modern game is decidedly different. Synthetic “greens” awash with youngsters, multi coloured flashy uniforms, bare foot participants and player payments rivalling football codes, give lawn bowls a distinctive avant-garde look.

At a state level, competition is fierce. With a 10 team Victorian “Premier League”, and a relegation system in place, clubs fight for survival in the top flight and in some cases use financial incentives to gain an advantage.

Other than prize money for tournaments, which has existed for many years, like suburban football clubs, players can be paid to play. With anecdotes and whispers aplenty, sources say that lawn bowlers earn anything from frozen chickens and petrol money, right up to $1000 a game.

In addition to the suggestion of player payments, some clubs “fly in” interstate players each week. With Bowls Victoria strictly enforcing a limit of only three “interstate” players per club and a remarkable 3,500 player transfers each year in Victoria alone, it’s obvious that the competition for success is cut throat.

Whilst not wanting to discuss individual player payments, former state champion and current National officiating director Mark Cowan prefers to focus on the sport overall.

“Money has improved the standard of lawn bowls in every state over the past few years and like any sport, there are paid coaches and administrators. We need to do that to continue improving and we are now one of the strongest bowls countries in the world”, he says.

Like all sports and in a simple equation, bowls clubs are businesses. Whilst winning a pennant attracts an increase in membership and revenue, clubs have been forced to look further afield to survive.

Bare foot or social bowling has been one aspect that has exploded in popularity over the past few years.

“The phenomenon of bare foot bowling is unbelievable and the door has just opened up. It wasn’t that long ago that if you turned up and you weren’t a member of the club, you wouldn’t be allowed to play but now it’s all changed”, says CEO of Bowls Australia, Neil Dalrymple.

With high costs and modern commercial pressures squeezing clubs, Dalrymple has seen firsthand the impact of social lawn bowls.

“There is an inner city bowls club that has less than 150 registered members but has survived through 30,000 social bowlers playing annually”, he said.

Painting an amazing picture and underlining the impact of social bowls, a 2010 independent audit of the sport concluded that a staggering 850,000 people participate in lawns bowls nationally each year.

Further emphasising the changing face of the game has been the introduction of synthetic “greens”.

With 37% of clubs across Australia already having introduced artificial playing surfaces, Neil Dalrymple believes it provides a double benefit for clubs.

“The decision to invest in synthetic greens is an overall business consideration. Obviously it helps during times of drought and the high maintenance of grass but it also allows clubs to raise revenue all year, not just during the season”.

Considered the domain of the elderly it may come as a surprise to learn that the average age of the Australian Lawn Bowls team, at 30 years, is a year younger than the average age of the Australian cricket team that played in the first test against England last November.

2006 Commonwealth Games representative, Barrie Lester, laughs at the suggestion it’s a game for the older demographic.

“We have 12 year olds playing social bowls and 20 year olds playing in the Australian team. Like a lot of other national sporting teams we have a good mix of youth and experience at the top level”.

Having just returned from the World indoor Championships in the UK, the 28 year old admits that the composed nature of bowls is appropriate for the elderly at a lower social level, but lawn bowls on a state, national and international level is as competitive as any sport.

“It’s a great sport for everybody but it’s a tough game at the top. Whilst you aren’t running a marathon, it’s psychologically and mentally tiring and when you are watching good players, it’s very exciting”, he says.

Bowls Australia recently held a successful Australian Premier League event last November at Club Pine Rivers on the Gold Coast, broadcast by Fox Sports.

The Australian Open now holds a purse of $250,000, inviting teams from Australia and around the world to compete against the game’s best, with so many major bowling events to be played on the Gold Coast including the 2016 World Championships, it’s fast becoming the hub of bowls.

Not having the profile of mainstream activities like tennis and cycling, lawn bowls has morphed itself into one of Australia’s premier sports, providing an attractive, contemporary sporting option, from the cradle to grave.

About David Griffin

Lover of coffee, sport and human endeavour. A writer and life enthusiast with a shameless admiration for dogged persistent people that get 'stuff' done.


  1. David,
    When I call into the local Bowls Club for a beer, I must say I quite enjoy the fact that the older members see my mates and I as potential new playing recruits.

  2. Thanks for your comment.
    Haha…….it must be great to feel like a recruit!!!
    Thank you

  3. The cheese’n’kisses and i got roped into barefoot bowling this summer. We had a good time, though we lost every game !!!!

    Deb Lee, married to my cousin Chris, has been involved in representative lawn bowls for many moons. Though she’s living in Hobart she qute often comes across to the mainland. She has won many awards ,and is now a senior selector for the Tasmanian squad(s).

    The image of bowls being the sole domain of the ‘White Leghorns”, is certainly changing.


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