This post comes from OLBA’s Ralph Ellis as a follow up to his post about club finances. Ellis makes important points about why people take up lawn bowling, why people quit, and what keeps people bowling for long periods of time. While money is extremely important, there are other factors that are necessary for a club’s survival.
New players who are attracted to the game are influenced by a desire to a) have adult fitness in an environment that is limited in its physical challenges, b) be part of a broader community with friendship and social interaction and c) seek competition at different levels. Some are former athletes looking for a less strenuous game as they age. Others seek companionship with people in their own and other age ranges. People in modern society often feel alienated and unconnected to the people around them. Bowls offers friendships and a sense of belonging to a group. I count friends in lawn bowling as new friends (less than 25 years) and old friends (26 years and more) so, you can tell that I have been playing for a long time. You can make friends for life very quickly on a lawn bowling green and that is one of our strongest drawing cards.
New recruits come from open houses, word of mouth and local advertising and outreach. We are still working on the best ways to pursue these new members, but all efforts would benefit from more money either from grant sources or a greater commitment from local clubs. Clubs need to start setting aside money consistently to seek out new members each year and some clubs actively reach out to specific groups. Common ones are curling clubs, service clubs and senior centers. How many of our clubs though have reached out to non-white, non-Anglo-Saxon cultural groups? If your community is changing, you need to change with it. Invite community groups from different ethnicities or new Canadians to your green. Show that you can welcome non-traditional groups.
Once new players are through the door, what keeps them or loses them in the first year? The Churn Rate (number of bowlers needed to replace those who leave the game) used to be 10% of the total bowling population per year in the 1970s and 1980s. Now the Churn Rate in Ontario is 15% to 18%. Nearly 50% of first year bowlers leave after the first year. Why does this happen and how do we fix it? We need to do more definitive work in contacting and identifying issues at the local level. My club, James Gardens, calls people who do not rejoin to politely ask them about their experience to identify where we need to improve. The OLBA in the late 1980s, before the Privacy Act, called every bowler who quit lawn bowling in one year to survey them on why they left. Key issues that stood out were a) negative attitudes by senior players such as being hyper critical, b) not understanding how the club worked and not being drawn into the club activities, c) a lack of success in the game which is sometimes due to an absence of coaching. How do we fix these problems?
Speak to your senior players and initiate a culture change. I give a speech every year that getting new bowlers is just like dating. You must be extra nice to people at the start and you will be rewarded in the end. The phrase “We don’t do it that way.” is replaced by “Let me show you how we do that.” No new player is EVER bawled out on the green publicly. If this happens, pull the skip aside and let them know that this is not permitted. If the skip does not change, they will have to go. Someone who berates new players will cost you 20 members in 5 years.
New players do not know how to play or the rules or the etiquette. New players must go through coaching, a brief rules course and just a process of seeing how we play the game on a day-to-day basis. You can do this on the green and you can also expose people to many useful videos on the internet. Coaching is critical to improving the experience of new members on the green.
I find that it is helpful to setup a league of new players 5 years and under. You can use this as a coaching league, and it gets people to play with others at a similar skill level. To be blunt, you are often better off separating your new players and your juniors from the main body of your membership in the first few months of play. It allows new players to improve their skill level and develop confidence. It also prevents hypercritical skips who may be worried about losing a game from costing you any new members.
Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Email all members each week with what is going on at the club. Offer coaching either in groups or one on one. Let people know about outside tournaments and how to become involved. The more people feel involved, the more that they are likely to stay. Email your group at least once per month in the off season. Setup a short mat league at your club, if you can, to draw people into club activities. Have non-bowling activities such as cards and other social events.
For competitive players, find skips who are willing to take interested new players into outside tournaments. You never know where your next Canadian Champion will come from. Starting people early in competition ties them to the game in a powerful manner. Do not ignore it.
In Ontario, 74% of bowlers have been bowling 3 to 25 years. People who make it past the first 2 years tend to stay for an exceptionally long time, sometimes the rest of their lives. Most have made friendships in the club. Others have been drawn into the club activities and competitions. The club becomes part of their life.
For competitive players, bowls becomes an exciting challenge and a way to test themselves against the best players in Canada. The excitement of this experience can keep a player active for decades. People also find their level at different points. For others, the highlight of their career is winning a District Championship. Each player finds their level. The general rule of thumb at most clubs is 90% social to 10% competitive but I have played at clubs where 50% of the bowlers were competitive.
The great divide between social and competitive bowlers is sometimes overblown. People tend to move back and forth between the two worlds. I started young and was a pure social bowler between 12 and 15. I gradually became more competitive but still played both social and competitive bowls between 16 and 28. Only when I was working 50+ hours a week did I drop social bowls entirely so that I could pursue competition and get in the needed practice. Now that I am in my 60s and off the competitive loop, I play mainly social bowls with a few tournaments. Competitive bowlers often isolate themselves for a few years but end up rejoining club activities in time.
Why do long term bowlers quit? Often people leave because they cannot physically play the game anymore. Sometimes this is our fault. There is no reason why any green in Canada cannot play at 12 seconds or faster. By having an artificial surface that runs 15 to 16 seconds, James Gardens keeps players active into their 90s. If your older players quit because they cannot reach the end of the green anymore, you need to start talking to your provincial greens keepers’ committee for aid. Consider getting some bowls delivery aids such as Ubi Launchers and Bowling Arms. You can use these to extend the playing life of your members.
Bad greens drive members away. When I moved to Ottawa in 1980, there was a bowling green, Central Lawn Bowling Club, 2 minutes away from my apartment. I took one look at their greens and never walked in the gate. I took a bus 40 minutes to Elmdale to play a quality surface.
Look at the culture in your club. Are you as friendly as you think you are? I was a board member at one club where a 5th year, creative and progressive bowler was president. All year long, he heard “We don’t’ do it that way” every time he introduced a change in club events. At the end of the year, he quit being president, quit the club and quit the game. They asked me to be president and I told them that if they did not like their last president, they were really going to hate me.
Listen to what your newer members say and if you have a rapid turnover rate, there is a reason. Seek it out and be willing to consider change. Keep the bowlers until their 3rd year and they are likely there for life.