Tales from the Green

Tales from the Green_Header Image People have been playing some type of bowls since the ancient Egyptians.  It is believed that the English created the modern form of lawn bowls in the 13th Century and it has been popular ever since.  So much so, that commoners were banned from playing bowls by King Edward III because it was simply too popular and was subverting archers from their vital practice sessions.  The mind boggles at the thought of subversive bowlers plying their art in secret to escape persecution!  The ban remained in place until 1845.

I wonder what we can all can learn from this ‘sport of the ages’?

Whilst it may have been created by the English, Australia has been spectacularly successful in international competition.  Australia is even the dominant producer of bowls and bowling equipment worldwide.  The Australian form of the game has been characterised by equality, socialising and friendship, forged on the back of fierce competition, lubricated by a drink or two.  Clubs are centrally located and became important social gathering points were Aussies meet up for a drink at the ‘Bowlo’.

Bowls clubs started popping up in Australian suburbs from the 1850’s but the game really exploded post World War II and this boom extended into the 1960’s.  In some states, bowls clubs were perfectly placed to take advantage of legalisation of poker machines and enjoyed steady cash-flow as a result.  At its height of popularity, competitive bowls was televised on national television and major sponsors such as Mazda were supporting the TV series Mazda Jack High.  Membership of bowls clubs peaked in the early 1980’s and has been on steady decline ever since.  This has now halved since its zenith.

So what happened?  How could a 150 year old sport teeter to the verge of ruin in this country?

A simple analysis of demographic data makes this even more curious.  Bowls is a low impact sport and understandably, has been the favourite of the older age groups.  An unprecedented bubble of baby boomers with time on their hands and money to spend should see traditional forms of the sport thriving and older age groups becoming increasingly more dominant in the demographic data.

In their 2010 Census report, Bowls Australia reported that around 85% of participants were aged over 60 years.  Yet the same report in 2014 showed that over 60’s now represent only  79% and the number of participants aged under 40 has doubled.

Of course, anyone who has driven past the local ‘Bowlo’ on a Friday evening will know that the growth has been from Barefoot Bowls.  An unashamed social activity, the name itself creates a notion of relaxation and fun, unfettered by the artificial confines of dress and ritual.  And it really is so much fun, particularly when the sport is perfectly suited to having a cold beer and some lively banter with your friends between ends.   Indeed Bowls Australia reported an average annual growth rate of 22.45% in regular social participation since 2010, whilst traditional playing club membership showed an annual decrease of 4.62% in the period.  Overall participation reportedly grew by a massive 15.4% between 2013 and 2014.

Clearly the Baby Boomers did not present the massive boon to bowls clubs that would have seemed inevitable 20 years ago.  Perhaps it may in part be a case of 60 being the new 50 and a swing to more active pursuits in trying to stave off old age?  Perhaps bowls club membership is simply not suited to the baby boomer psyche?

For me, a study of Barefoot or Social Bowls is a study in what can happen when barriers to participation are removed.  This popular incarnation of the sport encourages equality of the sexes, diverse age and demographic groups, relaxed and comfortable dress standards, accommodates different levels of physical agility and ability and, most importantly, revolves around having fun with your friends.  There are no annual membership subs and in most cases, even equipment is provided.

Tales from the Green_Mid article Image

One of the surprising outcomes has been the osmosis of younger social players into competitive bowls, where most of the elite bowlers are now aged under 35, a number that has dropped steadily.  If you don’t believe this, check out the Bowls Australia Facebook page!  The average age of our 2014 Commonwealth Games Team was 27 for women and 34 for men.  As recently as 2009, Ausport reported that there was ‘scant support’ for U25 age group competitions due to insufficient numbers.

The significance of this ‘greening of the guard’ is that this flies in the face of some other sports who maintain an obsession with manufacturing the next international superstar, which they believe will in turn drive sustained participation growth and invigorate their sport.  This is commonly referred to as the ‘demonstration’ and ‘trickle-down’ effects, and is often used to justify investment in elite sports programs.  However, this is an exceedingly complex issue and there appears to be no clear evidence in the research to support or disprove this notion, and any positive correlation seems to be country specific and within a small number of sports.

The experience of Australian bowls perhaps provides a further challenge to blind acceptance of the sports pyramid and trickle-down hypotheses.  Undoubtedly development programs need to be strong and supporting.  However, growth in the participation base through an obsession with enjoyment and social interaction, and not that of finding our next champion may be a more sustainable tactic for some sports – one that might ultimately achieve both outcomes.  Who knows, the positive experience that my children had at our own Rainbow Beach Family Bowls Classic may make them inclined to get more involved in the sport down the track.

I understand that the relationship between the traditional club bowlers and social/barefoot players is often strained. Surely these tensions can be successfully managed.  Whether by design, necessity or luck, bowls has seemingly unearthed that most precious of commodities, one that most sports are spending small fortunes trying to find – new young participants!  I hope they recognise its true value and that this goose remains well and truly uncooked!

About Peter Robertson

Born and bred in Eumundi and Nambour, in strong company indeed. After studying Maths and Physics at uni in Brisbane, I pursued a business career that I sometimes worry is best described as 'Jack of all trades - master of none'. Having safely made it to my mid 50's, I am still yet to have a real job - but I expect to grow up someday. My love of sport has never waned and I regularly play tennis, golf and surf. Other pursuits include fly fishing and trekking. I have been serving on a few private and NFP boards in sports and other areas to keep me out of mischief.


  1. Terry Towelling says

    Oh, boy. Another lawn bowls post. Good stuff. That looks like a pretty solid “no ball” being sent down at Rainbow barefoots, just quietly.

    I’m interested that you seem to attribute the “youngening” of our elite bowlers to a trickle-up from barefoot and other looser, more social types of bowls. I am interested in what sort of research has gone into the origin stories of our young brigade of elite bowlers.

    As I mentioned in another thread, my younger brother wound up being a pretty high level bowler, having taken the game up at 11 or 12 years of age. His path into the game was idiosyncratic – he was banned on doctor’s orders from playing rugby league because he repeatedly got knocked out. So he went along to the bowling club with my Dad, who had just taken up the game. And away he went from there.

    Most of the younger higher level bowlers that I have met have a similar story – they made their way into the game via a parent or grandparent. Admittedly, most of these players have a bush background, where barefoot bowls is non-existent or has only just gotten underway in the last few years. Perhaps things are different in the capital cities?

  2. Hi Terry,
    Your comments on the pathway that your brother took is probably reflective of how many of us became involved in our chosen sports. Be it as a caddy for our dads, some back-yard cricket with the family, or simply racing onto the tennis court on Sunday arvo when the adults were having a break sculpted our earliest and positive impressions.

    Bowls Australia publishes some great research and they do an annual census report – so much of my data came from that combined with some research that a couple of unis had done earlier. The drop in ages for rep teams has also been remarkable, so much so that the data was available. There were some some good stories surrounding this that I had noticed over the past couple of years

    What prompted me to write the article was when I heard from a few who are in the thick of it that not everyone was on board with this new found popularity and that some of the established old guard were not happy with this incursion of new ‘players’. Interestingly this seemed to both a city and country situation across a couple of states but by no means represents extensive research.Which is work that the national body should be doing if they aren’t already (as they do seem to be on the ball)

    Personally I think it is a positive example that was worth delving into a bit. I love playing competitive sports and have been OK at it. However, the obsession with sports being all about competitions, fixtures and tournaments puts up a barrier that can dampen participation from a large segment of the potential player base. As I proposed in earlier articles, times are changing and those of us who are playing a role in sports administration need to ensure we keep up and don;t lose the farm.

    Thanks for taking teh time to comment Terry as its adds to the conversation and helps inform with my own (evolving) thoughts.


  3. Peter before you read my comments look at what Terry wrote under the heading of Sooks Slacers and Sandpipers in a post a few days ago. Pennant bowls on Saturdays are struggling because here in SA the length of the season is 18 weeks plus finals(this is nearly as long as the AFL) and what young bloke is in this day and age with a family is going to spend this time (and be involved) from 1pm to sometimes after 6pm plus travel?) .where I live in the country Golf wins as a sport for younger guys (especially with families)because it can be completed much quicker and there is not the emphasis on being part of a team and playing weekly. Night owls brings out the younger brigade because of the way it’s structured and the relaxed attitude. Perhaps I’ve played too long but looking at our club and the players who go missing during the Pennant season for whatever reason things have to change.

  4. Hi Oges,
    I think lots of sports have a similar problem. I know that tennis fixtures are struggling. In response tennis is bringing out a leagues competition that I think will be more flexible and suited to regular participation. As a golfer, I am also well aware of the issues that Golf needs to get on top of.

    Anyway, a few bowls clubs around me have made a real go of it through social and barefoot bowls. In some cases, I suspect this was initially about keeping the club alive. I am also aware that there is lots of tension between the traditional comp bowlers and the social bowlers, so it would be a pity if this stopped any green shoots.

    I am only a social bowler, but became interesting in finding out more when a local Councillor asked if I had any thoughts on a local bowls club that had closed up (one of two). It was too late and developers had their claws into the sites. I thought what I saw is interesting and shows some promise.

    And I definitely don’t think that my thoughts are even close to the definative word on the matter, so I really appreciate the comments.

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