Bob Alman: The ability to notice what went wrong and what is off-course is actually essential to development in any organization, and I've got to tell you that croquet organizations around the world have often been inclined to ignore the clear evidence of their senses and their reason. Too often they build their programs and activities around preexisting biases of what "should" happen, rather than what needs to happen to build the sport. Yes, I know that some people really aren't interested in building the sport, but I am. There isn't anything more important than building more and better facilities and more and better players, to make more and better opportunities available to players at every level - whether they play novice level golf croquet once a month for fun or in the Association world championship. And the main purpose of that kind of growth is to attract a broader demographic of croquet players from the public. I ask you: Are there really any other important issues?
James Hawkins: I guess that's more or less right. I've had countless people writing to me over the years asking when TV channels are going to feature croquet. There's a prevailing attitude that TV coverage is some Holy Grail to solve all our problems. Many who play regularly want to see a higher level of exposure for the game, but the real question is how we accommodate everyone who wants to play, but doesn't have access to facilities. Even here, in croquet's birthplace, there are huge parts of the country where there are no clubs. That's where we really want to develop the game - we should build our club infrastructure before we widen our gaze towards the media. Having said that, we still need the media on our side. I've always felt that I've spent my life apologizing for playing croquet. We've always been the object of derision for lazy journalists, and I hate it. Whenever I have to talk about the game, I always feel I have to justify myself in light of the game's negative image. Or is that just me?
Gail Curry: Well, James, sorry to say I think that's just you and a few hundred others. I don't think I have ever apologized for playing, but I know I have surely done my best to dispel the Alice-in-Wonderland crap. I think we have a problem in that sometimes in our haste/thirst to gain publicity we allow ourselves to be manipulated by the media. We are either as John Prince states 'freaks', because they can't put us unto the category they wish, or alternatively we allow ourselves to be manipulated into quaint upper crust idiots who peer through hoops for the man with the camera. I guess it all boils down to whether you believe 'all publicity is good publicity' or not. Should we settle for the occasional feature article when there is little else to report in the local newspaper - as we have little chance to challenge the traditional sports pages given that we are not a moneyed sport?
My own view is that if a person wishes strongly enough to go and play croquet they will find a way, and it is a rare occasion when we will entice a person to play the game and continue to play purely from a place of us introducing them to the game. I can understand why in countries where the sport is still in its relative infancy those who do play seek to get more people to play, but I think that in the UK at least there is just about as much croquet as we can handle, provided we have an administration that responds to the needs of the players and that the players communicate their needs to the administration clearly.
Bob Alman: It's hard to believe that the editor of England's official croquet magazine actually said it, but there it is, in black and white: The UK has "as much croquet as we can handle." Wow! I could understand the upper-crust view that croquet is just too good for the masses, but "as much croquet as we can handle" suggests that the Croquet Association could not deal with more members and more subscribers to the Croquet Gazette and more players on the croquet lawns of the British Isles. Gail, more croquet results in more members of the Association, more revenue, more and better courts, more visibility for the sport, more opportunities to develop more great lawns and great players. Bigger, More, and Better are the survival imperatives of any organization, and certainly a small sport with barely enough resources to keep it going is no exception to this rule! James, am I wrong about this? Is your Liverpool Croquet Project foolish and quixotic in an England verging on "too much croquet to handle"?
Some people in the game think that the only way forward is a populist one. Give the public golf croquet, which is quicker to learn, is easier for clubs to sell to new recruits, and the lawns will fill up with new players. There's something to be said for that, as long as it's a controlled coexistence. Gail wants to see a governing body which serves its members' needs sufficiently. How do we manage that in a sport where the two competing formats are battling each other for the same lawn space?
Gail Curry: Well, yes, I did say that, but then I am probably one of the few people who can; I am not an official of the Croquet Association and as an editor I try very hard to be impartial, but at the same time I can and will be outspoken. Sure, we could do with more revenue, more clubs and more players, but which sport couldn't? I think our problem is manifest in our amateur status. We are administered at every level by volunteers and in general people want to get their croquet very cheaply. The vast majority of club players see no reason why they should be individual members of the Croquet Association, because they do not see the benefits. They see the tournament players as the only ones who benefit from the Croquet Association. The sad fact is that it is the regular tournament players who are the main financial supporters of the sport.
If we are to move forward in this country I think we have to persuade players and clubs of the benefits of supporting the sport, at whatever level and in whatever format. I believe we are entering a new era within the sport. If we are to grow and survive we have to embrace change and adapt to the real needs of the players now and in the future. I hope we are all up to the challenge.
Over the years Croquet in New Zealand has had a wealth of publicity through the daily papers - enough to choke not one but a herd of elephants - and from time to time exposure on Radio and TV, the result of a lot of diligent work by long suffering "publicity officers" as they're known in N.Z. The content in papers and radio has generally been centered on match results, with the odd interview with a player or an explanation of the game, the latter guaranteed to bore even the keenest sports follower.
But, alas, "odd" is often the operative word, especially on TV. The thrust of the interviewer's message and lead-in is one of surprise, suggesting amazement that Croquet actually has international matches, since 1925, no kidding! Perhaps we should promote ourselves as a "freaks" sport and be done with it. We could have a lot of fun acting out as freaks and weirdoes, instead of politely trying to justify our existence and make it sound like we're involved in an interesting, challenging and rewarding game.
On our return from the UK in 1986 with the MacRobertson Shield in hand, I was interviewed by national TV for prime time sports news - all good stuff - but then it's followed by "action shots" of two very elderly players running wide hoops at a deserted club with not a hint of finesse about their play. So one task is to make sure wherever possible that we stop shooting ourselves in the foot, and try to get the cameras to focus on our best players or our most positive images. But, even if we take out the negative aspects, would people be encouraged to take the game up or consider it serious sport? I doubt it.
I agree with James. It's bloody annoying to feel you have to justify why we play the game, dispel the negative aspects when the old chestnut of sending the opponent's balls into the shrubbery gets dragged out yet again, while no one with even half a brain expects Roger Federer to have to defend sending a tennis ball rocketing into a distant corner out of reach from his opponent! Interviewers seem to regard us with a sense of detached amusement; they tell their readers and viewers in triumph that they have uncovered for the first time a rather bizarre activity that has been going on in secret.
At the risk of being staked out on the nearest croquet lawn, perhaps we should adopt an approach like the late Maurice Reckitt took when interviewed by the Times during the 1974 MacRobertson series. When asked why there were so few women playing he replied saying that it reminded him of a famous player who was asked why his sister did not play, "Doris play croquet?" the chap said, looking puzzled; "But she's too stupid!" These days that would be guaranteed to get noticed! Perhaps we need to be controversial in our responses and not constantly defending our position.
If exposure on TV is likely to create a greater interest in Croquet and possibly attract new players, then the answer may lie in Golf Croquet. Watching some footage from a WCF final played at Florida, I couldn't fail to be impressed by the hard hitting action which I'm sure would impress any sports follower. The game is simple enough to be easily understood and if shown as a series like snooker's "Pot Black" (which introduced snooker to TV) perhaps a surge of interest would follow.
Everyone knows about croquet. Almost everyone has put'zed around in their backyard and would be hard pressed to come up with a single negative about the sport. Yet ORGANIZED CROQUET is unknown to the world! Thanks to the expense of greens suitable for the sophisticated versions of the sport, only a tiny fraternity of generally well-to-do individuals in America have encountered the country club venues where the "NEW" croquet generally LIVES!!!
In consequence, the very crowd of folks that USCA founder Jack Osborn aspired to appeal to in the first place are, for the most part, the ONLY participants - an elite and limited audience.
The expansion of croquet into the mainstream population is the answer to all our stagnant membership, monetary concerns and our healthy desire to share our passion for the sport with waves of others.
We CAN get this to happen. We CAN get the word out. My role as the Communications Chairman of the USCA and now the general manager of the National Croquet Club puts me on the pivot. My marketing plan has been released and officially approved. Without trying to describe its intricacies in detail.... it goes like this:
THEN, when interested and curious novices show up, GIVE them the simple versions of the sport to fuss around with. Let them GROW into the complicated versions of the sport if they wish to advance in that direction. I can envision Golf Croquet, 9 wicket croquet, Toquet and other "lesser" forms of the game overtaking American and Association Rules croquet in participation. And I can imagine clubs built around those alternative games, without expensive greens to play on.
We organizers of "serious croquet" have to be prepared to accept a new reality, a new population of players that come from ALL walks of life. THEN, some percentage of that enthusiastic crowd will begin to surface among our cadre of participants in the sophisticated versions of the sport.
I have a lot more to say about this and how it can happen, and you are going to hear about it. We're just getting started.
No self-respecting younger person would want to play the style of Association Croquet they would see played at the majority of clubs in Australia. Over half the players do not get past one-hoop croquet. Many players crave coaching, but there are very few players or coaches with the skills to coach them - and the handicap system is now no help. In the good old days, lowering your handicap from 22 to 12 reflected your knowledge of laying out the court for breaks, and making longer breaks. When the computer was introduced to calculate each state's handicaps (each state with its own system), handicap assignment became strictly a win/loss calculation. No longer did it matter how you won or lost. So why play breaks? Therefore, in Australia there is only a tenuous link between one's handicap and one's knowledge of playing breaks - yet handicaps generate bisques, and bisques are used to set up breaks and keep breaks going!
The current coaching scheme is of no use as the coaches are not adequately trained to coach breaks. You do not even have to know how to play all-round breaks (using bisques) to become an accredited coach, registered with the National Coaching Accreditation Scheme where over 50 sports are registered. So it's no surprise that the AC played at most clubs is not attractive to younger people looking for a challenging, skillful, satisfying sport.
Those clubs that play Golf Croquet (mostly or only) seem to find it easy to attract and retain new players of that game, at the same time that Baby Boomers are knocking on the doors of providers of leisure activities. But the clubs that play Association Croquet only are stagnating. If we want more AC players we need to target the under 50s. This can be done if real AC is played at the club. But the fact is that there are only a handful of clubs in each state where a newcomer can see quality AC being played on club days - and by that I mean reasonable sustained breaks and leaves under control. The critical issue, then, is coaching. What is needed is better training of coaches and more good coaches to elevate the standard of play in order to attract more and younger players to Association Croquet.
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