Never a runner or a sprinter, Carl Healey was always into sports, so when he took up his uncle’s suggestion to play lawn bowls in 2000 he found his calling and never looked back.
- Multiple Australian team representatives call the Cabramatta Bowling Club home
- The clubs says it owes its success to its facilities, a professional culture, and the retention of senior players and staff
- Bowling clubs face an uncertain future with an ageing member base
More than 20 years later, Healey is representing Australia at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
“If you take something up, and you’re reasonably good at it and you have the support, you tend to continue,” Healey said.
Seeking to take his game to another level, Healey joined the competitive Cabramatta Bowling Club in 2014, the home of a number of state and national representatives.
“When you compete against top-class quality at all times it betters your game,” Healey said.
He is one of four members of the Cabramatta Bowling Club, or Cabra Bowls, who will be competing at the Games.
Ellen Ryan and Aaron Wilson are club bowlers also playing for Australia, while Carmen Anderson will be representing Norfolk Island.
Three coaches on the Australian team are also from the club including head coach Gary Willis, assistant coach Karen Murphy, and para bowls coach Ellen Falkner.
The club’s executive manager of bowls Michael Ibbotson said competitive players look to join Cabramatta because it invests in a professional culture.
It also makes the effort to keep its elite players and coaching staff at the club.
“Our really high level players have been here for quite some time so we do have the opportunity to develop,” Mr Ibbotson said.
“We have an expectation of high performance in the sport. A level of professionalism is really key.”
National body Bowls Australia has also noted the clubs success.
General manager of participation and programs Chris Wallace said having national-level coaches was a major draw for good quality players.
“If you go back through state competitions you’ll see Cabramatta players littered throughout the the honour rolls,” Mr Wallace said.
“Attracting good quality players and good coaches will always help attract others.”
One advantage the club can boast is a covered bowling green which means they can say bowls is always on.
“Weather is a factor with outdoor sports, we want to take care of the surfaces,” Mr Ibbotson said.
“It definitely does help with us being able to always put something on for our bowlers. They can turn up and they can practice or play basically whenever they want.”
A challenging future
Sydney’s oldest club, Balmain Bowling Club, amalgamated with St Johns Bowling Club in 2020 after maintenance costs and high rates pushed the club towards closure.
Balmain is emblematic of the issues clubs face, despite the professional success of the Australian athletes and the popularity of social barefoot bowls.
Cabramatta’s Michael Ibbotson said the key was to lean into community connections and get people involved at a younger age.
“If you speak to just about any bowler they all wish they started earlier,” Mr Ibbotson said.
The club, based in Sydney’s multicultural west, is also looking to the future with initiatives to recruit people from more diverse backgrounds.
Bowls Australia’s Chris Wallace said a generational shift was seeing club facilities move to retirement villages, where the older base can reside and be in close proximity to the greens at the expense of community clubs.
Mr Wallace said community clubs needed to move with the times and adjust to the changes in participation.
“The commercial reality of the recreational landscape these days is you need strong boards and good governance within clubs,” Mr Wallace said.
Carl Healey said the sport’s marketing needs to focus on the fact that lawn bowls is a sport you do not need to be super fit to play.
“All it is is trying to get your bowl closer to the jack down the other end,” Healey said.
“It doesn’t matter what what level you’re at in life, you can always play lawn bowls.”