No one has heard the expression ‘We need to change if we’re to survive in the future’ more than Mark Cameron.
Cameron has been Chief Executive of Bowls New Zealand for just over 15 months now, and in that time he’s personally visited over 200 of the nearly 500 clubs throughout New Zealand. “No one’s ever said to me ‘keep things the same’”, says Cameron, “but almost everyone has told me that bowls needs to change. And we are.”
It’s a plight that’s being recognised across sports. All sports. Even rugby. Because the slower-paced environment that allowed traditional weekend-hungry sports to flourish in former years, has been overtaken by a crowd of entertainment choices that need to deliver quick fun hits to time poor Kiwis of all generations, genders and ethnicities.
“We’re like many other sports,” says Cameron, “We have a loyal base of fans who love the traditional formats of the game – and we need to continue to cater for them. But even these fans realise that the bowls that they know and love isn’t going to be the bowls that attracts new participants. And we need to create new appeal.”
There’s already been a lot of change taking place over Cameron’s 15 month tenure.
First and foremost has been the introduction of a nationally-recognised short format of the game … bowls’ version of cricket’s T20, rugby’s Sevens or netball’s Fast5.
“Bowls3Five has been introduced at three levels,” explains Cameron. “New bowlers can front up to their local bowling club with a mixed team of 3, and compete in a weekly club (business house/Bowls3Five) competition. On top of that, we’ll also be running an annual national competition to uncover the best Bowls3Five club in New Zealand. And the invitational Bowls3Five league which has been attracting great ratings on SkySports TV, will be the ‘big dance’ that showcases our sport to new aspirants.”
That’s a big change in itself. It’s been 23 years since bowls was last on TV regularly in New Zealand.
But change is also happening at club level. “While we hear a lot about clubs closing,” says Cameron, “We don’t hear so much about the financial boost the release of under-utilised assets is giving back to bowls. There’s wonderful good news stories all around the country, where we’re starting to see facilities like we used to enviously visit on the Gold Coast.”
“11 clubs in New Zealand now have covered greens. Even the visiting Aussies here for BPL07 at Naenae in April this year remarked what a great facility it was. And that’s just the start. I’m aware of another 12 clubs that have plans to cover greens in the next two to five years.”
Better club facilities are also translating to better club membership.
“Most of our clubs now realise that restricting membership to mad, keen bowlers is sending the club backwards. Instead, we’re seeing casual bowlers welcomed with open arms, attracted by competitions like business house bowls. We’re seeing clubs embracing other sports like darts, snooker, and petanque. And we’re seeing clubs recognising that they can be the busy gathering place at the heart of the local community.”
One such ‘bowls’ club already has 900 members in New Zealand. “Rather than overwhelming the traditional bowls membership, these ‘new’ members allow our sport to continue to flourish by providing finance, facilities and most importantly, prospective new bowlers. What’s more, full-time managers are being appointed, acknowledging that these ‘clubs’ are far bigger than the voluntary enterprises of the past.”
The results are already coming in. Club membership grew by nearly 4% in the 2017/2018 year. And unrecorded casual visitations are anecdotally growing even more. “Taking the staff to a local bowling club has now become a ’go to’ Christmas party option.”
But change isn’t just happening at the grassroots level.
Like other sports, Bowls New Zealand is also recognising that the game at the highest level is no longer just a volunteer pastime. And the Commonwealth Games isn’t just a matter of selecting the best amateurs to represent their country every four years.
“New Zealand now has bowlers playing semi-professionally, and there is now a demand for an elite development programme. A ranking system is currently being established for our bowlers. And for the first time this year, we held a gala awards evening celebrating the best of the bowls community.”
The Bowls NZ team has also brought new technology to bowls, embracing the many and varied new digital technologies on offer.
At the Nationals at Taieri last season, Bowls New Zealand experimented with live-streaming the finals with commentator Kevin Hickland. Live-streaming has now become a norm on the bowling green as well as a norm in the interview studio.
The bowls community is now thriving on a diet of a revamped website, Facebook and Instagram. Tablets have been installed at many clubs to allow on-going engagement with casual visitors.
“We have deliberately upped our communication game,” observes Cameron, “Bowls New Zealand can now engage far more easily with the bowls community, and (perhaps scarily!) the bowls community can now engage far more easily with us.”
When Bowls New Zealand established a new ‘Summer of Bowls’ for this coming season, the new communication channels certainly allowed bowlers to express their pleasure or displeasure with the changes.
“That’s the thing about change,” smiles Cameron. “Everyone wants change. But there’s as many opinions about how we should change as there are bowlers in New Zealand.”
At least most bowlers are agreed with Cameron about one thing. Standing still wont cut it. And even some of the changes already made or being contemplated won’t cut it, and Cameron may find himself eating humble pie.
But the bowling gods may smile on other changes, and they may secure the future of the beautiful game we all love and enjoy.