In a new feature series, Editor Emma Ballard speaks to women from other sports to see what golf can learn. Our first interview is with Sian Honnor an England International Lawn Bowler

A game for life, where grandparents can play with grandchildren, at a club that can be at the centre of a local community. A sport that has made great strides in recent years to change the stigma and stereotypes around it. In particular in the women and girls space where women would not be able to be full members, when competitions could only take place during the day on Tuesdays and women definitely couldn’t step foot in the men’s bar.

As a golfer this all sounds so familiar but the above isn’t referencing golf. I’m actually talking about bowls. Mainly the lawn variety but a lot of the above could be applied to indoor bowls too.

I thought it would be interesting to hear first hand how a sport, which I believe has many parallels with golf, has worked to make the sport more inclusive and also show the importance of communicating all its benefits to the wider community, beyond the fairways in golf and green in bowls.

I spoke to Sian Honnor, England International Lawn Bowler who has been to four Commonwealth Games, most recently at 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 participation of women and girls in bowls.

Sian Honnor commentating
Sian pictured as part of the commentating team from the BBC at the World Indoor Bowls Championships

Family connections

Like many people’s route into sport, it started with her grandparents. Both were bowlers who encouraged competition with carpet bowls between Sian and her sister. She would also help her grandparents set up matches at the club where she was desperate to get involved but nearly 30 years ago, the junior set up wasn’t that great:

“Clubs weren't very forthcoming about having younger players. It's not like that now, thankfully. But when they set up a junior section at a club called The Oyster in Whitstable, you had to be 10 to go and I was only seven. I was really desperate to try it. As I was quite tall for my age, my Mum said to just go along and say I was 10. So I did!”

The rest you can say is history, with England trials at the age of 12, Sian would go on to represent her country in the Youth Commonwealth Games in Bendigo in 2004, before working her way up to the main England team and medal at the last four Commonwealth Games.

Alongside being an elite bowler, Sian is passionately vocal about the barriers that have kept a whole generation from entering the sport:

“Bowls has passed a lot of women by because, believe it or not, women couldn't play in the evenings, and at some clubs they couldn't share the green with men. Competitions had to be played during the day, at two o'clock on Tuesdays. So if anyone wanted to enter them or play competitively, they had to take annual leave. Which is absolutely ridiculous, basically wiping out anybody in education, anybody in employment. Things like that and the archaic 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 drove to make change within bowls, even taking on the National Governing Body:

“I'm so grateful to have had that platform. I’m not sitting on the fence type person. I felt that it was important with the magazine to tackle the more difficult issues as well. Even before the magazine, I got on my soapbox a bit about the competitions. I put together a petition to prevent women being forced to play during the day on Tuesdays because it was discrimination. They just weren’t getting the opportunities to compete like male members. This resulted in Bowls England actually passing that as a law that nobody can be forced to play before six o'clock in the evening, unless by mutual agreement.”

Like with golf, bowls has come a long way in the last few decades with male-only clubs admitting women, full memberships open to everyone and relaxation in the strict dress codes.

It’s also not all about the negatives, which is something both sports can often dwell on.

Sian Honnor

A sport for all generations

Currently, Sian regularly contributes articles to the EIBA (English Indoor Bowls Association) where her remit is to promote the sport and share good stories to raise awareness about what the game can bring to people a showcase how inclusive it is.

“Bowls can be played at any level, any standard. It was a safe space for me growing up and that goes right through to say somebody older who may have lost their partner and found themselves all alone in their 70s. My grandmother was able to go and have company and have a bit of exercise and have a meal. As a family, we didn’t have to worry about her. I honestly think, especially for women, what would she have done otherwise if she didn't have that Bowls Club and those friends and that sort of hobby to fall back on?

“It's like golf, the whole family can come down and have a go. And there are so few sports where that's a possibility. And I just don't think that's something that we sell enough. My Dad has recently joined my bowls club and my husband and I have said we'd help him out in a league. It was so lovely the first time I played with him. I hadn't done that since I was about 10. Both playing the same sport in the same competition. How lucky are we to be able to do that? I believe that's really important.

“I’m a Mum of three, so I hope to do the same with my children. The boys are keen footballers but love it when they're able to bowl and I think having both their parents playing it's inevitable they'll take it up properly at some stage. As for my daughter, I'd love 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 belief.”

Gender split in bowls

One area that differs between the sports is the gender split. If we take England as an example, women make up 39% of bowlers compared to around 20% in golf. The aim is to reach 50%, with women’s specific initiatives such as Women Can and Bowls' Big Weekend both helping to give greater awareness and opportunity for women and girls to take part.

Bowls Big Weekend

Sian explains why, like golf, getting people to try the sport is key to driving growth:

“If you can get somebody on the green, with a bowl in their hand, then most people will become hooked, because it's harder than it looks. More often than not, someone will pick a bowl, have a go and say, oh, okay, give me another one, I want to try and get closer. If I hear someone saying that, I think yes, you're invested.

“Bowls have a bias. So people always assume that you just throw it and it goes down the middle. There's a lot of touch elements, particularly indoors and but also outdoors. You have lots of variables that will just make it difficult and challenging in a great way. So I think that's the key to actually get people involved.”

Also having the opportunity to watch elite level play can impact participation:

“In terms of breaking down the stereotypes, the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham was brilliant for that. It warmed my heart to be sitting in the crowds watching our friends and teammates and being out on the green, knowing full well that people had come that had never seen bowls before didn't really have any interest in bowls, but had got Commonwealth Games tickets and just wanted to go and experience something and they were hooked.

“Those moments are really lovely for me, because I know, the benefits of bowls and how amazing it can be. But the key is sort of getting it out there. And that's why we try and push it into schools and taster days to recruit new players.”

What can golf learn from bowls?

Talking 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 from other women and girls within bowls and golf.

So, what can golf learn from Sian and bowls? Firstly, that we’re not alone when it comes to a sport that is still trying to shake off outdated preconceived ideas of what the sport and the people who play it are like.

Secondly, that we should use our passion for our sport in a proactive and productive way, by raising concerns, championing change and sharing positive stories.

Finally, never forget that for 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 have that one shot that keeps them coming back.

As well as being an international bowler and Mum of three, Sian Honnor works in Corporate Communications for the Nursing and Midwifery Council. Next month she'll be competing for England in the Home International Series at Falcon IBC in Essex, this will be the first time since 2018 that Sian has competed indoors, something that she is really looking forward to.