Lawn bowling’s reputation as a genteel sport played at a sedate pace well-suited to its elderly, white-clad participants could be about to change with the introduction of a new high-stakes international competition its organisers hope will revitalise the sport the same way Twenty20 did for cricket.
In what is being billed as a lawn bowls revolution, the Ultimate Bowls Championship will become the most lucrative bowls event in the world when it begins on manicured lawns across Australia, New Zealand and Asia next month.
Twenty-four teams, with snazzy names such as the Port Melbourne Borough Boyz and the North Qld Oz E Cool Roos, will compete for a total of $500,000 prize money, with rule tweaks and off-field entertainment making for a more spectator-friendly form of the game.
“We have created a concept that will enhance the opportunity for growth in our sport, through quick, fast and fun matches to watch, both for existing bowlers but, importantly, for a new audience,” UBC chief executive and director Mark Casey said.
Modified rules mean points can be scored from every bowl and both teams will be able to accumulate points in the same end, while matches which traditionally take between two and four hours will last just 30 minutes each.
UBC organisers say the tweaks will make for much faster, higher-scoring games than seen in the traditional version of the sport – and, with music blaring out of loudspeakers and food and beverage of offer at each event, a more entertaining, marketable spectacle.
For those unable to get to events, armchair bowls fans will be able to follow the UBC from the comfort of their homes after a broadcasting deal was struck with the Seven Network which will see games televised on 7TWO, Fox Sports, Sky Sport NZ and Fox Sports Asia.
“UBC will do for bowls what T20 did for cricket,” said Casey, a former bowls world champion and Commonwealth Games gold medallist. “It will take the best elements of our sport and package it in a way that makes it as exciting and as accessible as possible.”
But the bolder and brasher new competition – “fun, fast and fresh”, according to its official website – is at pains not to forget traditional followers of the game. Having secured retirement village and aged care provider Ryman Healthcare as a major sponsor, the UBC is keen to retain the interest of the older generation of bowlers.
“It’s not designed to replace the traditional game, which is still hugely popular; it’s designed to introduce new people to the sport that hundreds of thousands of Australians have loved for generations,” said Casey.
In another parallel with Twenty20 cricket, some of the world’s best bowlers – who were assigned to teams at the inaugural draft in January – will ditch the more orthodox whites and instead be decked out in colourful uniforms at UBC events.
The championship will be decided over three events, beginning at the Warilla Bowls & Recreation Club, home of the Warilla Gorillas, on 4 and 5 April. Melbourne’s Deer Park Club and Moama Bowling Club in NSW will host the other two events in August and December respectively.
“We’re all about helping older people live healthy, active lives so getting behind the Ultimate Bowls Championship was a natural step for us,” Ryman Healthcare regional sales manager Angela Barraclough said. “We’ve seen first-hand how the game of bowls helps grow our village communities, so we want to do whatever we can to help grow the game.”