World Indoor Bowls Championships: How a village came to host a global event

By James LawBBC Sport
World Indoor Bowls Championships: How has Hopton-on-Sea become the home of bowls?

Big city, strong transport links and the world's most famous arenas - all an absolute priority when selecting a place to stage a global event.

But, while the seaside retreat of Hopton-on-Sea may not tick any of those boxes, it is celebrating 20 years of hosting the biggest competition in its sport.

So how has a sleepy Norfolk village - with a population of less than 3,000 and no train station - become the home of the World Indoor Bowls Championships?

BBC Sport has visited the holiday resort at the centre of the tournament to unearth some of the character behind an unlikely sporting success story.

World number one and resort employee

"Where's the toilet?" and "Why's that not working?" are not questions you would expect a player at the top of his sport to have to field from fellow competitors and spectators during the biggest 17 days of his season.

However, world number one Greg Harlow knows Potters Resort - which hosts the World Indoor Bowls Championships - better than most, given he works there all year round.

While all players stay 'on campus' alongside paying customers during the event, Harlow always resides there two nights a week and even has to get on with his day job during the sport's showpiece.

"On the days I'm playing, I definitely distance myself from my day jobs and just concentrate on the matches I'm going to play," he told BBC Sport.

"At the moment, I have two or three days without a game so I'm definitely back into work mode, checking all my emails and making sure everything's OK."

Harlow, beaten finalist last year and winner in 2010, is bowls ambassador for the family-owned holiday village - putting on weekly bowls holidays for guests.

He is one of a handful of players to have played in all 20 of the championships held at one of the most easterly points of the United Kingdom.

"On one hand, it's brilliant because you know the place inside out, you know everybody, but on a slightly negative point, sometimes you're getting asked: 'Where's the toilet? And why's that broken?' when you're trying to concentrate on your game.

"I've still got an eye on the day after the world championships finish - we have 500 bowlers booked in on the Monday."

Build it and they will come

EastEnders' Barry sings at the bowls

The arrival of the world championships in 1999 has made a sizable impact on Hopton-on-Sea, bringing broadband and gas to the wider village.

Before then the event had been held at more prominent locations - Alexandra Palace in London, Preston Guild Hall and Coatbridge, just outside Glasgow - so why has this unorthodox arrangement worked?

"Brian Potter [son of Potters founder Herbert] took the idea that it would be great if he spent £3m building a new arena, and could entice the world championships to Hopton-on-Sea, buried away in Norfolk," said World Bowls Tour chief executive Richard Maddieson, himself a former national champion.

"He took the gamble, built it and then came to us. Norfolk is, shall we say, very hot on bowls.

"You come here, into an auditorium we don't have anywhere else, and get up to 1,300 people coming in for the sport."

The World Indoor open singles champion pockets £55,000, with an overall prize fund of £145,000 - the biggest cheques in bowls.

Players from as far as Hong Kong, Israel and Australia take part with 20,000 spectators expected through the doors - about seven times Hopton's population.

"When the initial announcement was made, I think all the players were a little bit sceptical," said Harlow of the move to Norfolk 20 years back.

"But I think now we're a bit like the Crucible of bowls - nobody can really see it going anywhere else."

Here to stay?

World Indoor Bowls Championships: Potters Resort marks 20 years as host

The World Bowls Tour is in discussions with the Potter family about extending its stay on the east coast - but what do the players make of the 65-acre site?

"I've been here for the past four years now so coming back every year it's wonderful, it's a really nice feeling," said Katherine Rednall, reigning women's champion and the event's youngest-ever winner.

Wildcard entrant Wayne Willgress added: "This is the pinnacle - this is the best venue. It's a full house nearly every game, the atmosphere is brilliant, the whole setting is just fantastic."

John Potter, managing director of Potters, is the man who will decide if bowls is to stay at his resort and the signs are good.

He said: "If they tried to take it anywhere else, without the 20 years, the build-up and loyalty that we have here, I think it would look, perhaps, slightly less of a spectacle."

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