Once the heartbeat of suburbs and villages across the region, bowls clubs are playing their last ends and leaving their manicured greens to the developers' earthmovers. Sophie Bond searches for a way to keep the game alive.
In Remuera - lawn bowls heartland - a long-standing bowls club is preparing to clear its greens and sell the land. The numbers of casual bowlers are on the rise, but members
committing to pay their subs and volunteer their time to keep the club running are harder to find.
For the 97-year-old Rawhiti Bowling Club on the corner of Rangitoto Ave and Ranui Rd, dwindling numbers and resulting financial difficulties have become too much. With an ageing membership, and another club nearby, club president Eric Rawson says it's time to face the inevitable and apply to rezone the property. It's no sudden decision; it's been discussed for several years.
It all comes down to a lack of members. "They're ageing and dropping off. Twenty years ago there were 200 men and 100 women. At the start of this season there were about 70 all up.
"I think most clubs are well down on what they were 20, even 10 years ago. If your average age is going up every year, you've got less people to do the volunteer work.
"It's partly a change in the social climes, too. It's a time-consuming game and nowadays there are so many other attractions on offer."
For now, play continues. When the doors finally close, Mr Rawson expects most of Rawhiti's faithful will join another club.
It's a similar story from Wellsford to Pukekohe. Once-crowded clubs, meeting places for their neighbourhoods and fundraisers for their communities, are hanging in there, doing all they can to compensate for diminishing numbers.
One of the game's grand old names stands - well, almost - as a metaphor for the decline of bowls in the city.
Thirty years ago people would gather in their hundreds, dressed in their crisp, white bowling attire, on long weekend afternoons at aristocratic Carlton Bowling Club in Newmarket. The club produced champions and had a reputation throughout New Zealand.
In 2001, the club sold its plum site to developers - you can see the decaying, vintage, wooden Carlton clubrooms and overgrown greens as you look down from the Newmarket motorway viaduct. The club moved to Rawhiti greens in Remuera - yes, those greens that are now being readied for the same fate. In 2006, it moved again, merging with the Cornwall club at the edge of Cornwall Park.
To arrest its waning membership the amalgamated club opened a new $3 million home, all-weather greens, conference room, bar, kitchen and living quarters for the greenkeeper, a year ago.
Victoria Park closed at the end of last year; declining membership and an expired lease. Its clubrooms are the site office for the motorway tunnel project. Its neighbour is undertaking a solution that seems highly appropriate for its suburb: Ponsonby has announced plans to sell off part of its greens for 11 luxury townhouses.
At Beach Haven on the North Shore, president Ian Little says there are only 30 members but the subs are enough to cover costs. The club owns its clubhouse, thanks to members who lent money to pay off the mortgage.
"Our financial commitments are low, so we're lucky. But we can always do with new members."
Mr Little joined seven years ago and numbers have barely budged since then. "There's no doubt about it: attracting new players is quite difficult. Here, on the Shore, there are a number of clubs in a small area and we're all trying to attract players."
The club's current strategy is to work with the nearby tennis and squash clubs to promote the area as a sporting hub.
Over at Stanley Bay, the bowls club boasts one of the prettiest settings in Auckland, overlooking Waitemata Harbour. President George Hughes feels it's winning - but only just.
"The club, at one point, was so short of members it was going to fold, so the locals joined up as social members and developed the petanque club."
Continued support from locals - though some never actually play - as well as the added petanque facilities and revenue from hiring out the clubrooms keeps the club afloat.
"We probably don't have sufficient members to keep us going on the subs, therefore we also have the function of a local hall, and that gives another string to our bow."
An open day last month attracted a couple of new members and Mr Hughes says the club will combine an open evening with an art exhibition in the new year to "attract a broader array of people".
Seeking further proof this most social of sports can survive, I drop in on a senior singles tournament at Mission Bay Women's Bowling Club. The demure dresses and shoes are white and the bowls gleam in the sun.
There used to be a waiting list to join this club, now there are about 135 members. A strong volunteer force keeps things ticking: making salads for open evenings, running mah jong and bridge games, making jam and knitting items to sell in the little shop at one end of the clubroom.
"These other activities introduce bowls to people," says president Carol Pollock, "so from them we hope we'll get more players. I'd like to think we've got a hopeful future. We're surviving, but we're always on the lookout for more members."
One man who's watched the changes and believes the sport needs saving is Kevin Hickland, a selector for the Auckland representative team and life member of Auckland Bowls. He took up the game over 30 years ago and is chairman of the 108-year-old Onehunga Bowling Club.
"If you look at Onehunga Bowling Club right now, we've taken a very proactive role as we recognise that membership has reached a critical point."
The key, he says, is relevant engagement with the local community. "At a meeting 18 months ago, our members made a clear decision that this is a community club where bowls is played too. If clubs adapt the philosophy that it's all about bowls, they will die out. You can't survive on that."
A new style of administration is needed at club and national level.
"Otherwise, there's a real danger the sport could disappear."
It all comes down to business sense. Onehunga has a business plan in place and the club recently employed a full-time venue coordinator - a man in his early 20s.
Instead of relying on volunteers, the club employs bar staff and one of its events is a weekly burger and bowls night. "It's about people coming to have a beer on a Friday night," says Mr Hickland.
So, is this going back to the way things were several decades ago, when bowling clubs were more of a social hub?
"In a way," he replies, "but people don't have as much leisure time these days and it's hard to get volunteers."
Mr Hickland's got a few ideas about why numbers have fallen: the enforcement of drink-drive laws and seven-day-a-week shopping.
"That's made a huge difference but the sport has got to take some responsibility for itself. Clubs have not been proactive in making themselves inviting. In the past it's been very traditional and claustrophobic."
He's not that keen to rake over history, convinced it's contributing to the sport's stagnation.
"I think one of the failures of the sport is we continue to talk about the past - but what's the definition of the future? We'll never get back to the halcyon days, [at Onehunga] we'll never get over 110 playing members. You don't need to put pressure on people to become bowlers - just let things take their course. If they're at the club, involved in activity, then maybe they'll become bowlers in future."
Auckland Bowls' general manager, Phillip Vyver, says it's crucial for Auckland's 52 clubs to woo new people through their doors. The figures show increasingly they are. Between 2008 and 2009 casual participation rose by 2000; full membership fell by 254.
"The sport, in theory, is growing slightly," says Mr Vyver, "but, in order for the casuals to come and have a good time, you need to have volunteers. It's a careful balancing act, which is why we need to try and get a conversion rate. You need the members there to run things otherwise, in 10 to 20 years, it'll fall over."
Bowls NZ has a development plan that clubs can adopt if they need help planning for their future.
This is my first encounter with lawn bowls, writing an article about how it is struggling. I've never played the game. That will change this weekend when a friend celebrates her 24th birthday at a local club. It should be fun; sun, lawn, beer and, no doubt, some terrible shots. But will any of us "convert" to members? Hmmm ...
Greens and whites
Joan Catchpole is jangling with jewellery today - something she would never have got away with when she started bowling 45 years ago.
"You couldn't wear jewellery and you had to have a doctor's certificate to wear slacks." The umpire would check ladies' hemlines were long enough before play could start.
"Over the years they've [the rules] had to be looser as we try to get younger people in."
Mrs Catchpole is a life member, past president and past patroness of the Mission Bay Women's Bowling Club.
In her late 80s, recovering from a double hip replacement, she still bowls, umpires and coaches. "I think the camaraderie is just par excellence, the friendships you form here are lifelong. We do everything in our power to get people to come, to make it interesting, to support them. We hope for the best, but all sporting clubs are facing the same thing."
She straightens and looks me in the eye. "You only get out of a club what you put in."
I've heard that exact phrase from several other clubs, this feeling that if we all just try a little harder, we'll pull through. And if it turns to custard, we've only ourselves to blame.
But, if the club's members are too few or frail to keep on putting in, how much is anyone going to get out?
Roll with it
Beach Haven Bowling Club, 33 Kresta Ave. Casual bowls, Tuesdays from 6pm, $10, includes meal.
Mission Bay Women's Bowling Club, 30 Melanesia Rd, Kohimarama. Wednesday evening fun bowls during daylight saving, From 6pm, $5, includes meal.
Onehunga Bowling Club, 146 Selwyn St. Burger and bowls, Fridays from 6pm, $10, includes meal.
More info: wwwaucklandbowls.co.nz
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