A game for life, where grandparents can play with grandchildren, at a club that can be at the heart of a local community. A sport that has made great strides in recent years to change the stigma and stereotypes surrounding it. Particularly in the women’s and girls’ world, where women could not be full members, while matches could only take place during the day on Tuesdays and women absolutely could not set foot in the men’s bar.
As a golfer, this all sounds so familiar, but the above does not refer to golf. I’m actually talking about bowls. Mainly the lawn variety, but much of the above can also be applied to indoor bowls.
I thought it would be interesting to hear first-hand how a sport, which in my opinion has many parallels to golf, has worked to make the sport more inclusive and also show how important it is to share all its benefits to communicate to the wider community, beyond the fairways in golf and green in bowls.
I spoke to Sian Honnor, England’s International Lawn Bowler, who has attended four Commonwealth Games, most recently Birmingham 2022, where she won gold in the Women’s Triples. A commentator, former editor of Bowls International magazine and a passionate advocate for increasing women’s and girls’ participation in bowls.
Like many people’s route to the sport, it started with her grandparents. Both were bowlers who encouraged carpet bowl competition between Sian and her sister. She would also help her grandparents set up matches at the club she wanted to get involved with, but almost 30 years ago the junior set-up wasn’t that great:
“Clubs were not very willing to attract younger players. That is not the case now, fortunately. But when they set up a junior section at a club called The Oyster in Whitstable, you had to be ten to get in and I was only seven. I was really desperate to try it. Since I was quite tall for my age, my mother told me to just come along and said I was ten. So I did that!”
The rest you can tell is history: with English trials at the age of 12, Sian would go on to represent her country at the Youth Commonwealth Games in Bendigo in 2004, before working her way up to the main England team and medaling in last place. four Commonwealth Games.
As well as being an elite bowler, Sian speaks passionately about the barriers that have stopped an entire generation from taking up the sport:
“Bowling has passed many women by because, believe it or not, women couldn’t play at night, and at some clubs they couldn’t share the green with men. Competitions had to be played during the day, on Tuesdays at two o’clock. So if anyone wanted to participate in it or play competitively, they had to take annual leave. That’s absolutely ridiculous, basically wiping out everyone in education, everyone with a job. Things like that and the outdated dress code all contributed to a generation of women missing out on the sport.”
Driving change for women in bowls
Before her time as editor of Bowls International, Sian actively campaigned for change within bowls, even taking on the National Governing Body:
“I’m so grateful to have had that platform. I’m not on the fence type. I thought it was important to also tackle the more difficult issues with the magazine. Even before the magazine, I was on my soapbox writing a piece about the competitions. I have created a petition to prevent women from having to play during the day on Tuesdays because it is discrimination. They just weren’t given the opportunities to compete as male members. This resulted in Bowls England effectively passing it into law that no one can be forced to play before 6pm unless by mutual consent.”
Like golf, bowls has come a long way in recent decades, with men-only clubs admitting women, full memberships open to all and relaxation of strict dress codes.
It’s not just about the negative sides either, something that both sports can often think about.
A sport for all generations
Currently, Sian regularly contributes articles to the EIBA (English Indoor Bowls Association), where her job is to promote the sport and share good stories to raise awareness of what the game can offer people, and to let see how inclusive it is.
“Boules can be played at any level and any standard. It was a safe space for me growing up and it is also a safe space for someone who is older and may have lost their partner and found themselves completely alone in their 70s. My grandmother was able to have company, some exercise and food. As a family we didn’t have to worry about her. I think honestly, especially for women, what else would she have done if she didn’t have that Bowls Club and those friends and that kind of hobby to fall back on?
“It’s like golf, the whole family can come along and try it. And there are so few sports where that is possible. And I just don’t think we sell that enough. My father recently joined my bowls club and my husband and I said we would help him in a competition. It was so beautiful the first time I played with him. I hadn’t done that since I was about ten years old. Both played the same sport in the same competition. How lucky are we to be able to do that? I believe that is very important.
“I’m a mother of three, so I hope to do the same with my children. The boys are keen footballers but love it when they can play bowling and I think it is inevitable that both parents will play it and at some point they will take to it properly. As for my daughter, I would like to get her on the green and make waves by proving that women can be just as successful as men, they just need the opportunity and the belief.”
Gender distribution in bowls
One area that differs between the sports is the gender distribution. Taking England as an example, women make up 39% of bowlers, compared to around 20% in golf. The aim is to reach 50%, with specific women’s initiatives such as Women Can and Bowls Big Weekend both helping to raise awareness and opportunities for women and girls to participate.
Sian explains why, like golf, it’s important to get people to try the sport to drive growth:
“If you can get someone on the green, with a bowl in hand, most people will get hooked because it’s harder than it looks. More often than not, someone will pick a bowl, try it and say, oh, okay, give me another one, I want to try to get closer. When I hear someone say that, I think: yes, you have invested.
“Bowls have a bias. So people always assume you just throw it and it goes through the middle. There are many touch elements, especially indoors and outdoors. You have a lot of variables that make it difficult and challenging in a great way. So I think that’s the key to actually getting people involved.”
Also having the opportunity to watch elite level matches can influence participation:
“In terms of breaking the stereotypes, the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham were brilliant at that. It warmed my heart to be in the crowd watching our friends and teammates and to be on the green, knowing full well that people had come who had never seen bowls before, weren’t really interested in bowls, but had seen Commonwealth Games . tickets and just wanted to experience something and they were hooked.
“Those moments are very beautiful for me because I know the benefits of bowls and how great it can be. But the key is to get it out there. And that’s why we try to promote it through schools and trial days to recruit new players.”
What can golf learn from bowling?
When you talk to Sian you can’t help but be inspired by the love she has for her sport and we both agree that we are in a privileged position to share the stories of other women and girls within bowling and golf to share.
What can golf learn from Sian and bowling? Firstly, that we are not alone when it comes to a sport that is still trying to shake off outdated preconceptions about how the sport and the people who practice it.
Secondly, that we must use our passion for our sport in a proactive and productive way, by raising concerns, advocating for change and sharing positive stories.
Finally, never forget that despite all the talk, initiatives and social media campaigns, the best way to get someone hooked is to get a club in their hand so they can get that one shot that will make them keeps coming back.
As well as being an international bowler and mother of three, Sian Honnor also works in corporate communications for the Nursing and Midwifery Council. Next month she will compete for England in the Home International Series at Falcon IBC in Essex, this will be the first time Sian has competed indoors since 2018, something she is really looking forward to.