Norfolk men bring bowls to the world

Tomorrow (Friday) sees the start of the 13th World Indoor Bowls Championships on the Norfolk coast – the first held with arguably the sport’s two most powerful people hailing from the county.

The much-loved championships take place at their spiritual home, Potters Leisure Resort in Hopton, for 16 days having been brought to Norfolk by holiday centre founder Brian Potter .

For this year’s tournament he will be joined by the new head of the World Bowls Tour, Richard Maddieson – a man who has already made his mark on the championships despite only taking over from the Tour’s previous chief executive Nigel Oldfield in February.

By coincidence, the 59-year-old shares more than one leisure connection with Potter – his family used to run several Maddieson Holiday Camps from the 1920s until 30 years ago, including one at Hemsby.

Maddieson, who lives in Norwich, has played bowls in Norfolk and Suffolk for more than 20 years and is determined to ensure the Tour’s big event retains its coveted BBC television coverage, as well as embracing more commercial opportunities to ensure the sport flourishes in future.

And some of those plans will be in full evidence at Hopton – for Maddieson, a vital venue.

“To the World Bowl Tour, the championships is tremendously important,” said Maddieson. “It is our flagship event where we have qualifiers from all over the world who play numerous games to achieve the possibility of getting here.

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“And I think Potters is the best venue in the UK to hold such an event. The support Potters gives to the World Bowls Tour is unparalleled.

“Brian took the major challenge of building the International Arena and investing something like �3.4m in a bowls arena to such a high standard without even having the World Bowls Tour by his side at the time... and we’ve been here now for 13 years.”

Maddieson feels the biggest challenge awaiting him is improving the Tour’s commercial prospects but he has not hung around.

The Tour already has a new website, six months in the making, where all matches are streamed live and in high definition – the only sport yet to do so.

From the quarter-finals of the singles competitions the championships will include a �5,000 prize for any player making a full house – where all four woods touch the jack in one end and for the first time every final during the championships will be televised live, including pairs, ladies’ and mixed pairs matchplay.

The Tour will also hold its inaugural awards night and gala dinner on Saturday.

But perhaps the biggest changes – controversial to some – have included making the qualifying process much tougher, introducing two wild cards and making the majority of the prize fund a winner takes all affair.

“All the players get a very basic retainer for being here but it’s a winner-takes-all prize pot – �40,000 – the biggest ever staged in bowls, possibly worldwide,” said Maddieson.

“Originally when the concept was first put to the players, yes it was a problem; that’s the truth – players felt aggrieved that they would be going away with possibly very little reward.

“Having said that, the players have accepted the fact that times change, the sport needs to continue to develop to prove itself to be exciting and to be retained on TV. Anybody can stage tournaments, the biggest problem is to get the interest.

“So we have to change to keep on stream with TV, which is why we’ve brought in the wild cards, full house, and this year we’re trying the winner-takes-all approach.

“The Tour was formed by the top 16 players in 1992. They put 50pc of their money from that World Championships, with the express purpose of keeping the sport on television. That’s how it all started; from bowls players not businessmen.

“The one great thing I would say is I have the utmost respect for all the players on the Tour. They are so professional. Everybody has their thoughts on things, but they are very supportive of changes to keep it on television.”

This year’s two wild cards have gone to Acle’s Tim Stone – a home favourite who only just made his first round match last year after his wife had a baby earlier in the day.

Popular Scottish prospect, 25-year-old Stewart Anderson picked up the second slot after an impreesive run that has seen him take his ranking from the high 70s down to a provisional sixth in the world.

“I genuinely believe with this year’s championships, you cannot tell who is going to come through,” added Maddieson. “But I would say keep your eyes on Alex Marshall, Paul Foster and Stewart, and Greg Harlow has got the bit between his teeth to retain his title.

“I think we’re in for a really exciting championships.”