On 18 March, Bowls England shared a British Isles Statement providing an update ahead of the 2022 international season. This summer’s programme is an interim position because, despite a series of discussions and meetings over the previous 12 months, a consensus on the future format of British Isles international competition was not reached.
Whilst we understand the passion surrounding this topic, there has been quite a bit of misinformation and conjecture circling since that announcement. The below seeks to clarify Bowls England’s strategic perspective, explain the sequence of events that got us to this position and our thoughts moving forward.
Bowls England’s strategic perspective
- We are committed within our ‘Fit for the Future’ strategy to “supporting and showcasing winning England teams by effectively managing and maximizing our international performance programme” and have sufficient budget set aside to delivering this tactic.
- We wholeheartedly believe in the value of British Isles international competition, the concept of these traditional rivalries and the benefits of having quality international opposition close to home. We want to play in annual home nations international events at senior and junior level.
- We believe British Isles competition must provide the optimal platform to prepare our teams for the major global events – namely the Commonwealth Games and World Championship. It is through success on the world stage that England’s international team will inspire new participants and secure government and private funding to reinvest in a financially sustainable international performance programme.
- We are committed in our ‘Fit for the Future’ strategy to “introducing a Performance Pathway to stretch our talented athletes and retain more young people in the sport”. This is critical to delivering systemic international success. Junior international competition will always be the pinnacle of the junior element of the pathway and should be inspiration for young bowlers. Compared with most sports, the chances of someone playing junior representative county or national bowls is very high. We must think much more holistically about how we attract and retain young bowlers rather than fixate on the likelihood of them representing England.
- Consistent with other elements of our work, our financial investment in international performance should provide excellent value for our membership who are currently subsidising much of this outside our Sport England grant for the Commonwealth Games preparation programme. With limited resources, it is our responsibility to create the appropriate balance between the provision of opportunity for elite bowlers and the dilution of funds across too many bowlers.
- Gender equality must be a pre-requisite of any plans moving forward. We made this point strongly when changes to the women’s format were announced in 2020 thus creating inconsistency with the men’s format. We welcome the amalgamation of British Isles International competition and governance in order to project a contemporary, relevant approach and reduce inefficiencies and inconsistencies in administration.
- We believe the home nations should be playing a significantly bigger role in the hosting of global events. British Isles competition should provide the foundations to improve our major event delivery, develop our venue infrastructure, build broadcast relationships and grow our commercial programmes. England has not hosted a World Bowls event since 2004. We are delighted that UK Sport has included the 2027 World Bowls Championships on its pinnacle events roster and we look forward to preparing to bid for this event.
Recent British Isles Discussions
As some may be aware, discussions have been taking place by the home nations on the modernization of the British Isles governance and competition formats. Following proposals from England and Scotland, this led to changes to the BIWBC announced in September 2020. England’s perspective on these changes were shared in the following statement.
Following the cancellation of the British Isles competition in 2021 due to Covid, it presented an opportunity for us all to review the governance and competitions format. A brief was developed and agreed by the home nations with the following objectives –
- To provide an optimal competitive environment to prepare British nations for success at world level competition.
- To be valued by each country, players and coaches delivering a positive experience.
- To develop a pathway to identify talented bowlers and provide opportunities for them to experience international competition.
- To have the potential be used effectively by coaches as an indication of selection for world level competition
- To support the development of officiating and event organisation in order for our officials/volunteers and staff to be able to perform well at world level and deliver a world class event
- To create a format that can be entertaining for spectators and appealing to potential sponsorship
- To present bowls as a modern sport with parity between both genders
It was agreed that the Performance teams of the four home nations would consider that brief. A proposal would be developed shaping future British Isles International Series for discussion by the nations’ administrators.
This happened and the proposal put forward outlined a new competition format which –
- Maintained the traditional rivalry and team ethos of home nations’ competition.
- Aligned the format with that of the world level events – players competing in singles, pairs, triples and fours.
- Introduced three tiers to provide players with relevant competition and a platform for player development.
- Created gender parity and a better opportunity to grow the broadcast appeal of the event.
This was shared with the nations’ administrators and we were disappointed that, despite the alignment of the Performance leads and some of the nations, a consensus couldn’t be reached. It felt unhelpful to take this proposal to a vote and, with time running out ahead of the new season, the interim solution for 2022 was reached.
The British Isles Championships – we felt it was important that our 2019 and 2021 National Finals winners had the opportunity to compete in this event. We will be sending representatives to compete following the staging of play-offs, necessary as England’s National Finals took place in 2021.
Junior Internationals– we felt it was important to provide this opportunity and are excited about trialling a dual gender event. With schedules very tight this year owing to the Commonwealth Games and the limitations on venue size, the team numbers are reduced but, with a young squad taking part in the European Championships and a Junior Academy day planned for June, we believe there is appropriate opportunity for our young players to test themselves at a higher level this summer.
Senior Internationals– from our perspective, it was not consistent with our performance objectives to continue with a format that plays in a 6-rink Fours event, when all other major international events cover all four disciplines and on the cusp of Birmingham 2022. The change by World Bowls to staging the World Championships every other year has also influenced our thinking on this. This consistent format is one our players rarely play outside international competition, and therefore we must ensure we give ourselves the best level of preparation for success. With the prospect of no home nations’ competition, and despite competing objectives, we felt it was important to provide players outside the Commonwealth Games squad with the opportunity to compete, especially with the view of assembling a training squad for the 2023 World Championships in Australia.
With this in mind, and despite the pressures of a home Commonwealth Games year, we offered to host an Invitation event for teams of 15 per gender per nation, with several sessions per day. This would have given opportunity for additional squad members to participate in the event, meaning the chance to play international bowls would broadly be on a par with the previous six-rink event. This would have provided all nations with an event to give their Commonwealth Games squads appropriate preparation, a platform to support player development for the wider England group, a chance to test a new format and also maintain the rivalries of a home nations’ event.
With the deadline past, Scotland and Jersey have accepted the invitation and Ireland and Wales have declined, which is both disappointing and surprising. However, we still plan to stage this International Invitational Event in June and enter a squad of 18 players in both genders as planned to compete against Scotland and Jersey. We will also involve an extended squad of players in the Four Nations matches between England, Wales, Malaysia and Australia in May to ensure exposure and relevant competition for a wider group of international bowlers in England. The European Championships in Ayr provides another opportunity for a number of players and we will be looking closely at the top level domestic competitions to assess player potential.
Our hopes for 2023 and beyond
Following the considerable work undertaken last year, we believe the home nations are well-placed to agree a new competition format based around the four disciplines and a governance structure fit for the 21st century.
If we stand still, we will go backwards. There has been a 35% decline in bowls participation in England since 2007. We have fallen well behind Australasia in terms of event hosting and broadcast coverage of our top events. We receive a fraction of government funding for performance compared to our main rivals. For the second biggest bowls nation in the world, we aspire to achieve more regular and systemic success on the world stage.
Bowls England will continue to make decisions aligned to its strategy, and in a way which we believe is in the best interests of growing our sport and benefiting the whole bowls community.
After Birmingham 2022, Bowls England will be reviewing its Performance Pathway from the playground to the podium. We will reach out to stakeholders for views and input.