Over the last 12 months, following agreement with County Associations, Bowls England has undertaken an extensive review of its national competitions programme. Led by the Competitions Working Party, and in consultation with players and administrators across our sport, the proposals for a revised programme were agreed by the Bowls England Board and will be put to the 2024 AGM. Please read on to learn about the work, the rationale behind the changes and what they might mean for you.
Why are we doing a review?
Our major competitions have been in systemic decline. Since 2014, we have seen a 26% reduction in entries across Championship events. Some Counties are struggling to field teams in inter-county competition, particular at junior level, and club competition entries are dwindling, increasingly dominated by a smaller number of clubs. As the National Finals have incorporated more events, they are increasingly dominated by a smaller pool of players.
Whilst some of these trends are because of a smaller and older player base, and sports participation is now less centred around structured, formal competition, we believe an evolution of our programme will reinvigorate our national competitions programme for existing players and encourage new people to enter for the first time.
Furthermore, our research tells us there is interest in entering amongst the wider bowls community, but that our programme is hard to understand and not easy to access, particularly for newer players. Clearer differentiating between competitions, improved marketing and reducing barriers to entry will stimulate entries at all levels of our sport.
But, the national competitions are fine as they are?
We fully recognise that, for many existing entrants, the current competitions programme works well. We agree that there is a lot to be proud of and the changes proposed build on all that is positive.
If you are a player who doesn’t feel the need for change, we would ask you to reflect that your experience may not be the same as others. With thousands of people entering national competitions, we have a relatively large spectrum of ages and abilities who take part, and our player research tells us that opinions vary significantly.
This new programme intends to continue to deliver for those already enjoying national competitions, enhance the experience for those who are less enamoured and attract new entrants.
What is the revised competitions programme aiming to achieve?
There were five objectives as we embarked upon this work.
- To ensure the competition structure is valued by existing players and retains them in our sport.
- To stimulate opportunities for participation among those who do not currently play in national competitions.
- To support our international performance programme by providing an optimal environment to prepare players.
- To support our junior performance pathway by stretching and inspiring our most talented young players.
- To elevate the Aviva National Finals in the minds of all bowlers and increase the desire to attend.
These five objectives do not always align and so when we were considering the choices available to us, we were motivated by –
- Player-centricity – putting the enjoyment and satisfaction of players first.
- Fairness – striving to create a level playing field within each competition and the programme in its entirety.
- Inclusivity – ensuring the programme is for everyone.
- Accessibility – breaking down any barriers to taking part.
Who has developed these recommendations?
Following a recruitment process, a Competitions Working Party was formed representing a cross section of our community. The group, chaired by Margaret Docherty, Director of Competitive Events, with officer support from Alistair Hollis (Head of Sport Development) and Lee Rowland (Sport Operations Officer), was tasked to develop a set of recommendations. The Working Party consisted of:
- Rachel Cartwright (Northumberland)
- Rodney Clark (Kent)
- Ian Gauld (Gloucestershire)
- Bernie Hill (Yorkshire)
- Matt Hyde (Buckinghamshire)
- Mick Leafe (Nottinghamshire)
- Simon Lilley (Lincolnshire)
- Andrew Richardson (Surrey)
- Chris Rodgers (Leicestershire)
The group met on many occasions over a 12 month period. The proposals that the Working Party developed were insight-led and have been refined following three consultation sessions with County representatives and discussions at two Bowls England Board meetings.
Why are we categorizing competitions?
Over the years, new competitions have been added to the programme. Whilst some of these have been a success, particularly mixed competitions, in totality our competition programme has lost some if its clarity of purpose. To be more strategically clear on why we are running competitions, the Competition Working Party has segmented them into four areas – Blue Riband, Performance, Participation and Team Spirit.
What does that mean?
Every sport needs its ultimate prize – the pinnacle at the top of the pyramid for players at all levels. Golf’s crown jewel is The Open, tennis has the Wimbledon Championships and Badminton players strive to win the All England Open. It is only right that bowls has its equivalent north star for English bowlers and events that in future are recognized beyond the bowls community.
One of the purposes of domestic competitions is to provide a springboard to the next level of competition, international. These events are the highest quality of inter-county team competition, delivering great sport in their own right but also best preparing players to represent their country.
It is critical if we are to continue reversing the decline in bowls participation that our national competitions programme works as hard as possible to inspire new players and also acts as a stepping stone for existing players to deepen their relationship with our sport. To achieve this, events must be accessible, relevant to that person’s age and provide a fair test of their ability. In short, competitions that truly deliver competitiveness.
Competitive sport is about shared experiences, friendships and memories that last a lifetime. These events are intended to enrich the enjoyment of players at County and Club level. They should feel relevant to as many clubs throughout the country so that our competitions programme acts as a gel to bind our sport together.
In the revised programme, here is where each event sits and the above will inform the way we position the events, market them, and deliver a relevant player experience.
How will we elevate the Blue Riband events?
We will do this by ensuring the Championship events – Singles, Pairs, Triples and Fours – are front and centre in terms of branding, promotion, scheduling at Aviva National Finals and media coverage. Retaining the current formats and qualification numbers, they will be the focus for additional investment in terms of streaming, prize money and creating a major event experience for players at the Aviva National Finals.
Why will the changes support our international player pathway?
We will see a clearer player pathway connecting the leading domestic competitions with our international programme. Changes to the Balcomb, Walker, White Rose and Amy Rose will mean that players play formats consistent with international bowls. Changes to age bands, and the introduction of an under 17s Singles event, will enable young players to better move along the pathway. Whilst intensifying top level inter-county competition, this will encourage an environment for talent identification and international selection.
The propositions are aimed at creating much more collaboration between England and County Association management and coaching to ensure every player can fulfil their potential and we retain as many people as possible in our sport.
What’s on offer for new competition entrants?
New events, such as the ‘Novice Pairs’, will encourage new bowlers into our sport through national competition. What’s more, precluding current county and international players from entering the Novice Pairs and Family Pairs will also ensure that those competitions aimed at grassroots players will be more equitable and therefore more inclusive.
What changes are there to age-related competition?
We shall extend the age band in Senior Singles and Senior Pairs to over 60 will help create a more competitive environment and keep people playing national competitions for longer. The Senior Fours will remain at over 55 at present in line with the British Isles event.
All junior events in the Performance category will be amended to under 24 in order to support talent ID and pathway progression. An under 17 Singles will also be introduced as part of our commitment to encourage junior participation. We are planning to remove entry fees to junior competitions to further stimulate participation.
The introduction of an over 60s mixed inter-county event, alongside the Middleton and Johns, will enable that older age group to continue to play representative county bowls.
How will the changes inspire more clubs to take part?
Inter-club competition will be boosted by the Top Club and Club Two Fours being more accessible and enticing to a wider range of clubs. The Top Club will require just six players per team, with multiple entries per club in order that those who wish to enter several teams may do so, whilst the Club Two Fours will be fully open, therefore making it accessible to all members of the club. A further change will see entry in the Champion of Champions available to Club Champions only, as this event is highly valued by clubs.
Why remove the Two-Bowl Singles from the Aviva National Finals programme?
Two-bowl is the least valued event in the current programme for participants (of over 2000 players in the latest survey, 39% rated as least valued of all events) and county feedback showed a high number of no shows in county qualifying rounds. Most participants also participate in other events so removing it is not detrimental to participation levels and it will create space in the county calendar and Aviva National Finals to elevate the Blue Riband events. Counties may choose to continue with this event should there be demand locally.
How will competition management changes improve the player experience?
We will be working with County Associations to create a more streamlined approach to competition management. Our vision is that players will be able to enter all their competitions on the same platform and at the same time, and that the digital experience of being part of a competition will be improved.
How can I find more information about the new, proposed competitions programme?
If supported, what will the new competitions programme look like?
- Balcomb Trophy
- Walker Cup
- White Rose Trophy
- Amy Rose Bowl
- Junior Singles (u17 and u24)
- Junior Pairs (u24)
- Middleton Cup
- Johns Trophy
- Mixed Inter-County (O60)
- Club Two Fours (Open)
- Top Club (new format)
- Tony Allcock Trophy
- Champion of Champions
- Mixed Pairs
- Mixed Fours
- Senior Singles (O60)
- Senior Pairs (O60)
- Senior Fours (O55)
- Family Pairs
- Novice Pairs
Why is the Aviva National Finals set at 18 days?
In the context of other sports, our view is that the event is long enough to deliver a fantastic conclusion of our national competitions programme. With the proposed changes creating more differentiating between competitions, all those players who qualify in Blue Riband and Performance events will be able to play in all for which they qualify. There will also be ample opportunity for a wide spectrum of player to achieve their dream of making it to a Finals.
Whilst balancing the opportunity to qualify, we are endeavouring to transform the event into a spectator product to build awareness of our sport and present the Aviva National Finals as a desirable to media – grandstand seating, sports presentation and streaming. Economically, to make this viable, it is important that the capacity of the venue is maximized and that the demand for the event is concentrated. This will deliver the best possible atmosphere for players and fans, and an improved proposition for key stakeholders such as sponsors and partners. A longer event will simply lead to dilution, hike up the overall cost of delivery, such as infrastructure, and ultimately the overall experience will suffer.
At 18 days it is still one of the longest-running events in the sporting calendar – even longer than Wimbledon, the Commonwealth Games and Olympics! The time invested in delivering this event among both staff and volunteers is significant – before, during and after. Whilst our national finals are an important part of our work and should be aspirational for as many as possible, they impact a small minority of affiliated bowlers and our commitment to the Finals should not be at the expense of the many other requirements of a Governing Body. At 18 days, if we are to deliver our Fit for the Future strategy, we believe we have the balance right.
Will clashes at the Aviva National Finals be resolved?
We understand this has caused frustration for those impacted and we ideally don’t want anyone who reaches a National Finals to relinquish a playing opportunity. With so many competitions and over 2700 qualification places, unless they are all played concurrently which is not an option, there will always be a chance that we will have clashes. The changes that have been introduced elevating the Blue Riband and Performance events, amends to the entry criteria and creating more differentiation between competitions will make a big difference. We have drafted a schedule and, should the propositions be supported, we are confident that much of the issue will be resolved.
Have the bowlers been consulted?
Yes, we have digested a significant amount of feedback received from players and administrators. The following surveys explored different aspects of the existing competition programme and probed non-entrants on what might inspire them to take part. The most recent survey was completed by over 2000 players.
- 2020 Participant Survey
- 2020 Non-participant Survey
- 2020 Club Survey
- 2021 Competitions Player Survey
- 2023 Player Survey
We have also looked at other bowls nations and other sports to draw on their experience and undertaken several consultation sessions with County Associations. A summary of the research data can be found here.
What happens next?
What happens next depends on the outcome of the AGM on 24 February 2024. Following the discussions and voting by County Associations, a group will come together to discuss the implementation of any changes ahead of the 2025 season. We will use the Aviva National Finals in 2024 to share progress.
How will we know if the changes have been successful?
Following the AGM, we hope that this will be a period of stability for our competition programme. As the new programme beds in, we will know if it’s been successful when we see:
- More entrants to all competitions, particularly the Championships which have been in decline.
- Each year, a greater number of people playing in their first national competition.
- An improved player experience as measured by an annual player survey.
- More media attention at, and ticket sales and increased streaming figures for, the Aviva National Finals.
- A more effective performance system with greater clarity amongst players of the international pathway and more collaboration between International and County selection.