Bowling, like all other sports, must move with the times

In early January I received a hand-drawn map of the Drinagh bowling road in West Cork.

Just as sport defines a place, places also define a sport. Drinagh is defined by bowling and also defines it. What is quintessential of Drinagh is how it sees itself as a custodian of the history and values of road bowling.

The Drinagh bowling map is the creation of Tadhg McCarthy, a man acutely aware of the fragile flame his village keeps burning. The map details not only the points on the road but some key historical background. ‘Points’ are locations on a bowling road — important both while playing and later in recounting what happened.

Drinagh has points like the Barking Dog, the Rectory Gate, Coakley’s Corner, the Black Stick, and the Tournament Ditch. These points are not dissimilar to the concept of par in golf. On average a player should reach each of these points in a given number of throws.

The Rectory is gone, the Barking Dog has long ceased, the Black Stick, and even the Coakley’s have moved on. However, the bowlers keep their memory alive and have a method for making comparisons with previous and future generations of bowlers, taking account of changes to the road surface.

Most sports venues are fashioned for purpose, with a few exceptions like the Formula One course for the Monaco Grand Prix or the Poc Fada in Cooley. Bowling habitually shares its space with regular road users. What happens on roads reflects wider societal trends. Bowling needs to both stay relevant as society changes and simultaneously sustain the qualities of being one of Ireland’s heritage sports.

All sports have a unique cultural and historical heritage. Unlike bowling, not many are still played at the highest level in broad symmetry with that heritage. On top of that increasing focus is being drawn to fewer big sports. We are in an era of hyper commercialisation and traditional sports, like bowling, are bound to struggle.

Last week Watford FC asked their fans to help clear snow from the playing surface at Vicarage Road in exchange for tickets, tea, and a bacon roll. It was like a time warp back to when fans were members. These days fans are often asked to swallow unpalatable medicine like when the new owner of Cardiff City FC aka the Bluebirds decided to change the club colour from blue to red a few seasons ago.

In Major League Baseball and American Football, franchises can move from one coast to the other. The Brooklyn Dodgers were morphed into the Los Angeles Dodgers. On this side of the Atlantic, we’ve largely resisted that. Even in the Premier League there is still space for a minnow like Burnley, one of the original 12, still playing at Turf Moor, their home since 1883.

In the professional era Irish rugby had the brilliant idea of melding the old and new through the provinces. They managed to wean the fans from the old club structure, encourage their affiliation to a previously tenuous link to the province. It is a sensational success: New fans, full stadiums, more kids playing, but where are the once great clubs now? The GAA is trying a similar balancing act between club and county.

Bowling needs a lightbulb moment like rugby. But it has to do so without the resources and as a heritage sport it has to do it in a way that preserves its essence.

Tadhg McCarthy’s map is a reminder of how fragile that ecosystem is. The road, the lore, the points need to be relevant to a new generation, while encouraging them to continue to value something unique and special. The sport has to speak the language of that new generation whose sporting reference points are becoming more global than local.

Wrapped in the map were several old bowling photos. Out of context, they mean little. It’s only when someone can give a contemporary account of the events that their significance comes to life. Tadhg McCarthy is handing on the torch and a road map of the journey so far, but who will grab it?

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