The wind of change

I follow the Moskva, down to Gorky Park, listening to the wind of change…..

These are opening lines to a song about the end of the cold war. A time of hope and change, barriers were torn down and liberation came to millions across the continent of Europe.

The words Glasnost and Perestroika used to, not just to confuse Politicians and Presidents, communicate that the world we lived in needed to change.  If the world, or the system that governs it, doesn’t undergo continuous evolution then revolution will be needed. The fall of the Berlin wall still as important now as it was in 1991.

Although the game of crown green bowls pales into insignificance compared to the horrors experienced by those fighting to live in a peaceful free world, and I apologise to anyone offended by referencing the cold war to the plight of the crown green bowler or its national governing body. To those involved in this (or indeed anything else be it sport, the environment, the NHS) they care passionately about then examples or indeed lyrics to describe a mood or a feeling come to mind and not just on August summer nights.

The German heavy metal band called the Scorpions captured the mood of a generation. They became heroes of heavy metal and created an anthem for the changes sweeping through Europe. To steer away from the socio-political changes that liberated generations of people at the end of the cold war and back to crown green bowls I ask this. Will this year see the start of changes needed to the game of crown green bowls? Are we in a period where we need our own versions of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (reform)?

Retired CEO John Crowther with BCGBA President Keith Andrews and Interim CEO Mark Bircumshaw

This year will definitely go down as year of change. An announcement at the start of the year that the popular and long-serving Chief Executive Officer, John Crowther, was to retire has led to a wide-scale analysis of the governance of the sport.

The Staffordshire County Secretary, Mark Bircumshaw, was formally elected to the interim role at the June meeting and has had a busy year as he works with the association officers to undertake and analysis of the management and organisation of the sport.

I know Mark would be the first to point out that John has a wealth of experience and has been helping out where needed and has been very supportive in enabling a smooth handover and it would be very wrong if he was not thanked for all the years of service to the sport. 

This year has already seen a huge task completed to make sure the association was GDPR compliant. The basic premise of the GDPR regulations is to understand how we collect, control and use data, along with gaining consent to have the data. Applying to be a member of a club, league or association requires us to hold data to effectively run the organisations, so we have a legitimate legal right to hold the information. 

For example as part of the annual membership you collect telephone numbers to assist club captains to manage their teams (Leagues or Association). This list may only contain the name and number, which you photocopy for the captains, or put on a notice board. At this stage you have published data, so should have gained consent to do so.

Also achieved so far is a new Coaching structure. The BCGBA has joined ‘Coach Bowls’ which can provide nationally recognised qualifications and on-going support. These courses have been developed with the help of the Bowls Development Alliance for the benefit of all coaches in all the different codes and like educational courses provided in schools and colleges these courses are regulated by Ofqual. It is likely that sometime in the future only coaches with these qualifications will be allowed to teach school age children.

Mark has also, along with Paul Ashmore the National Safeguarding Officer, been presenting Safeguarding courses so clubs can meet the required legislation. At the 2018 Annual Meeting the members of the BCGBA agreed that by the end of February 2019 each club should have a named Safeguarding Officer.

This is a national requirement that has been some years in the development following the inquiries created to look at a number of tragic events which do not need to be revisited here.  They meet the recommendations of Sport England and the NSPCC and have also been developed with the help of the BDA. They affect all sports and have been a challenge for many organisations. However the recent legal cases and convictions of over eighty people with child sexual abuse, just in the last two years, in football has led to similar regulations brought in by the FA and highlights the importance of providing a safe sport.

What was unsure was the penalty for not having the required officer. A recent BCGBA meeting stated that the penalty will be a fine of £25 on 1st March to be increased to £50 after a further three months, it will then be increased to £75 after a further three months rising to £100 after one year plus your club would be suspended from playing.  To comply is to have a member with a valid DBS certificate. It would be advisable if they could also attend a Safeguarding course run by the BCGBA or County Sports Partnership. 

Also the merger of the Men’s and Ladies associations is close to being agreed and proposals at the annual meeting will confirm this. This has been long planned and will enable any changes in structure and governance to the sport to cascade through the men’s and ladies game.

2002 Commonwealth Games  greens at Heaton Park in Manchester

The BCGBA is also in discussions with Manchester Council to develop the old Commonwealth Games greens at Heaton Park in North Manchester. This will use ‘legacy’ funding to develop two of the greens into crown greens. When, and I suppose if, this development takes place the BCGBA may have a permanent base in the park and there is a body of opinion that the majority of the BCGBA competitions should be held there.

At a recent meeting Mark gave a vision for the future of the sport. Here he stated that that he would like to see a forward-looking Governing Body leading the sport of Crown Green Bowls, and to provide a national strategy for, Safeguarding, Coaching culture and structured governance from executive level through to county and leagues.

However the sport, specifically its members, will have to decide though what type of association it wants. In many ways the BCGBA is an association of associations. It looks after the interests of those associations and looks after the national competitions. The Chief Executive, having to act as much as a Committee Secretary and being bogged down under layers of administration.

This is what the BCGBA has evolved over time to become with little sense of direction or long-term planning. The number of players and clubs is thought to be declining, though data showing this is not available, and the decision to self-exclude from the pathway to Sports Council funding looking more than regrettable.

The BCGBA Management Committee is widely thought to have too many members to run efficiently and has members turning up just to receive information. A recent advertisement of a Club Development Officer for the Bowls Development Alliance offered a salary of £22,000. This role is similar to what our own National Development Officer does. This post will soon become vacant and I can assure you the honorarium will be in the hundreds and not the thousands.

A similar wage structure for the BCGBA is not advisable as the officers are not reimbursed for the time they put in. If the association paid the minimum wage, which itself would be a fraction of the salaries of our flat-game compatriots, then it would most likely be insolvent in a relatively short period of time. A huge golden pot the BCGBA does not have. The funds received from in the introduction of the life membership managed by trustees. They are protected from use in the day to day administration of the association which includes officer salaries.

The BCGBA is often criticised as not doing enough to protect the current venues and attract new people. This in many ways can’t be argued with as both venues and player number declining. The question of course is whether you’re happy with that and want something done about it. If you want a governing body that will protect venues, and develop new ones, sell the game to people so they want to take up the sport and develop the skills of the players, as well as meeting the legal requirements set down in the laws of the land and the offer insurance and accident protection then make your voice, and opinion, heard.

The game, at all levels, is struggling for funding and as such the sport is run by those who are prepared to volunteer.  Bowling greens around the country, bowling clubs, leagues and associations including counties, and the national governing body are all the same. I would it is fair to say the majority are struggling to attract the people it needs to.

Much is made of the difference between crown green and the other bowling codes. Generally ours is much cheaper sport to play and we have a different uniform to play in and woes betide if the black trousers start to fade to grey!

However when it comes to the condition of the playing surface, the need to comply with legislation, the need to publicise and attract new players to the game, coach the new players, to retain the players, clubs and venues it has and to be able to attract funding from outside the game then there is no difference.

A crown green bowler cannot reasonably say that the requirements of government legislation, the requirements of Sports England and the financial realities of life in this century should apply to the flat game but not crown. You may be able to escape during a game but there is no immunity from law, regulation and life.

The structure and governance of the sport, to be honest at all levels, is in need of change. The list is too long for this article but there are short-term changes, like those to facilitate the merger of the men’s and ladies associations, and then longer term changes that need to be introduced. In many ways bowlers need to decide if it is a hobby or a sport. Indeed if it is an amateur or professional game.

If they have to be then i suppose the players can be split into three groups and each have an equal a voice as each other.

  • The social bowlers, they may be members of clubs or just use park greens to play. They may play in some leagues but this is not the primary reason for playing the game. Councils have been scaling down their investment and support of the greens. A number of councils have passed on the upkeep of the venue to the players and clubs who use it. Clubs have leased the greens from the councils and have successfully applied for grants to pay for the equipment needed to look after the venue.
  • The next group would contain the bowlers who play regularly in leagues. They would probably form the majority of bowlers who play the game and there are hundreds of leagues across the country who owes their existence to them. As well as sharing the concern over council owned venues being lost to the game. They can see the declining player numbers causing clubs to withdraw from leagues and leagues themselves to go out of existence.
  • Finally there is the ‘elite’ group, the competition bowlers. They cross the country entering competitions and their bowls diary is based around open competitions and, it must be remembered, they will also play regularly in leagues and have the same concerns as the above. This group will play the game more than the others.

It is probably fair to say that the BCGBA and the Elite group have not always seen eye to eye. The Elite group would include the British Professional Crown Green Bowling Association which was formed in 1908. They have their own rules and have been probably the most instrumental in raising the standards of play and provide an income to reward the skills of the bowler. The Panel, as it is known, attracted the best players in the game and have remained insistent that they are independent of the national governing body.

From the days of the highest paid professional sportsmen in the country they have not needed to rely on anything other than the skills and expertise of their members. They were incredibly successful in attracting both players and crowds. Around the time of the Panels formation it was not unusual for competitions to carry a £100 first prize. That would be worth over £8000 in today’s money.

It must also be stated that they, as with the rest of the game, have been in decline for a number of years but still continue around their Lancashire home of Westhoughton which is between Wigan and Bolton.

There shouldn’t be any fear of making changes as a series of changes at the national governing body brought about a period of unparalleled growth. The glory years of the sport on national television started in the late 1960’s. It was controversial as the BBC started an outside broadcast of the BBC Crown Green Masters Singles, it was on a Sunday, and to quell the uprising from the Lord’s Day Observance Society there was no admission fee or betting. The winner of field of sixteen invited bowlers was the legendary Bill Dawber, who was crowned in near darkness and the event was a roaring success.

The BCGBA at this time was the BCGBAA, it included the word amateur in its name, and it wasn’t until Eddie Elson’s time as Secretary that this was dropped and the BCGBA opened itself up to commercial sponsors. The game and the competitions more than grew, it exploded!

Soon the All Britain, in effect the games National Championships, had a sponsor and a new event the Tom Thumb Champion of Champions was started as commercial sponsors came on board. Banks (Midland Bank, Yorkshire Bank), Brewery’s (Where to start with this….Greenall Whitley, Watney’s, Tetleys to name just three) and Cigarette makers (John Player, Embassey, St Bruno) to name just a few threw money at the game as it went upmarket and the BBC continued to broadcast events from the Waterloo in Blackpool. The term ‘Top Crown’ was known across the country, the players became famous. The spectators could watch the action in the new 900 seat Greenall Whitley cantilever stand at the Waterloo.

The BBC Top Crown events even introduced the use of coloured bowls (take your pick of Red, Blue, Yellow or Black), provided by Clare’s of Liverpool, to make the game easier for the non-bowler viewers to follow what was going on. Widely regarded as the game’s greatest player, Brian Duncan (a panel man much to the annoyance of some) was a multiple winner.

The first prize of £500 in 1975 would be worth nearly £4,000 now and the prize fund of £1150 which is now worth over £9000 (thanks to the Office of National Statistics for working that out).

Over the next couple of decades the game saw increasing prize money, far more than there is now, but it wasn’t to last. The change in advertising laws, loss of exposure on TV due to the changes in broadcasting funding, and other reasons making sure the game could no longer attract sponsors or exposure on television. 

Crown greens stadium – the Waterloo in Blackpool

Like many sports crown green bowls has its own stadium The Waterloo Hotel in Blackpool. I can assure you that even now you cannot find anywhere else where over a thousand spectators can watch the game with a roof over their heads, for when the Blackpool weather turns toward the damp side. Even with the development of Heaton Park and possibly the next UK based Commonwealth games venue in Birmingham there are no plans that I have heard of for a similar stadium set up. With respect I have yet to see anything that would say they would be the place that bowlers could experience the magic of the moment and the children of tomorrow could dream away.

However ownership of the Waterloo has changed since the glorious Greenall Whitley days. I remember some of the comments at the time towards the brewery management even though they invested in a covered stand and employed a full-time bowls manager. When Greenalls sold up the venue lost a ‘bowling owner’ and revenues leave the sport.

The venue has seen a lack of investment over the recent years. The work done by extremely dedicated volunteers has done little more than paper over the cracks. Comments are heard that events should be moved away from it. Allow clubs around the country to hold or even move the event around the counties. I would imagine this would be look on favourably by the counties that would charge their member club for hosting the event.

Even with all the problems it has got the Waterloo is still the best venue the game has. The champion of champion’s weekend looked at as one the bowling events not to miss as much for where it is. The Waterloo Handicap is still the biggest non-BCGBA event in the calendar. To many it is the sport’s most prestigious trophy and has been broadcast by the BBC, Sky and most recently ITV.

It is one of the games triple crowns, one of its major championships. It’s format the most attractive to broadcasters and to many it is the ultimate, the major of the majors.  To some though, it’s not worth getting out of bed for. It’s not worth the travelling outlay to play in it. To most I think, seeing their name engraved on the honours board, following in the footsteps of the greats of the game is worth more than a couple of extra pounds in the pocket. Another musical reference the springs to mind is that ‘money can’t buy you love’.

These comments may reflect some the historic attitude between the elite group and the other groups and the BCGBA. It must be remembered that amongst the elite group are the stars of the game. They play more than anyone else, they put up with travelling on many motorways, to many venues in sometimes shocking weather.  It all makes the life of a bowler on the competition circuit even more hard work.

In this age of video content being accessible on mobile devices you can carry the performances of these stars around with you. The thousands that have watched BCGBA broadcasts, both live and repeat viewings, indicative that an audience is there, and not just in this country.

In truth the differing groups of players, and the Panel and BCGBA, need each other more than ever before. Although I’ve heard statements of “its nothing to do with me as I won’t be playing in a few years”, I don’t think (or hope) it’s anything other than a minority view. To be honest if the attitude exists that someone will try to postpone any changes until it doesn’t affect them then it is a shameful attitude to have.

It is accepted that clubs and player numbers are declining. Although there are some glorious exceptions the sport cannot go and attract and retain enough new players to arrest the decline. The sport can only rely on volunteers, unlike other codes who employ full-time professionals with the skills needed to develop the game.  

The question must be though, as stated before, what type of sport and what type of governance due you want the sport to have. What venues you want to play at, what future you want the game to have.

Could it be separated into divisions or directorates looking after each of the elements listed above, should the BCGBA be like an umbrella organisation letting the county’s run the game locally so tailored to the requirements of each area, or should it remain as it is. Should it be volunteers or employees working for the governing body and working the for benefit of the sport.

The heart of any of the answers you may have though is how to pay for it. That is the question that simply will not go away. If you want something to change then it will cost. Liberation, Revolution, Evolution, whatever you want to call it doesn’t come cheap. I doubt Klaus Meine thought that would be worth including in the lyrics. How long will we be listening for the winds of change…

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Steve Davies

Throughout his bowling career Steve has always supported the admin side of the game. As a club secretary, association secretary, county delegate on the BCGBA (National Governing Body) Management Committee, Merseyside champion in 2002 and Merseyside County President (2014-15) Steve has always been keen to promote the game especially through the broadcast of the game on TV or Internet. Steve set up the LIVE BOWLS YouTube channel (now called the Bowls Observer channel) and, through the LDBA, runs national competitions. Seeing an avenue to report and promote the game Steve set up the Bowls Observer on-line magazine after consulting with respected figures in the game.

Steve Davies

Throughout his bowling career Steve has always supported the admin side of the game as well as a keen player of the game. As a club secretary, association secretary, county delegate on the BCGBA (National Governing Body) Management Committee, Media Officer for the BCGBA, Merseyside champion in 2002 and Merseyside County President (2014-15) Steve has always been keen to promote the game especially through the broadcast of the game on TV or Internet. Steve set up the LIVE BOWLS YouTube channel which became the Bowls Observer channel and, through the LDBA, runs national competitions. Seeing an avenue to report on and promote the game Steve set up the Bowls Observer on-line magazine.