I have a Google Alert set up, which scans the Internet for any news items on the subject of croquet. Mostly that's a daily email to tell me about local recruitment campaigns or the occasional inter-club league fixture. But the last few days have provided me with some more alarming reading:
"Croquet will not survive to 2037 if young people do not take the sport up"
Oh, hello, what's this? It turns out that a research survey of 2000 Brits has shown that...
* Only 2% of the population play croquet regularly.
* 16 times as many people understand the rules of Quidditch (some made-up game in a children's book) as croquet.
* Croquet will inevitably die out in precisely 22 years' time.
A research survey, you say? Like, made out of science and facts and stuff? Yes, well, this one is in all the newspapers, and it was sponsored by London's Heathrow Airport and Pimms. Pimms are the people who make alcopops for cultured people, and Heathrow Airport... well, Heathrow's just an airport.
But--here's the thing--Heathrow are going to make our sport all better. They're going to stem our downward spiral, and they've set up a croquet lawn inside the airport. It's got Alice in Wonderland, and wacky musical hoops, and Pimms adverts, and blonde-haired PR assistants in Pimms t-shirts, and Pimms, and a shop selling Pimms. It'll be BRILLIANT.
Now. Here's how these things work. Pimms want to advertise their product, and get us all to spend our leftover euros at the airport shop. So their PR agency create a bogus survey to grab headlines. Suddenly, it's news. Not an advert. News. With all those hard, sciency facts.
Other examples might include Heathrow getting an article in the paper by telling us it's World Toblerone Day, or that they're hosting an International Baggage Reclaim Festival. This may be dispiriting for anyone who thinks that newspapers have a responsibility to report on European macroeconomics or religious fundamentalism. But, to prove my point to any naive readers, here's another of the survey's results, left unreported by most of the press:
* 36% of people would be more likely to play croquet if Pimms was available.
This, as we say in the UK, exposes the whole survey charade as a load of bollocks.
Our problem is that the [British] Croquet Association has its own concerns about an ageing population. Club members are getting older, and fewer young players are coming into the game. Those journalists who've probed the Croquet Association on this have found some statistics which work pretty well when taken out of context, and make for some depressing reading. Read the Telegraph, or the Daily Mail, or the Daily Mirror, and it appears that the sport is stagnating, moribund and not worth considering if you're under the age of 90.
Thanks for that, Heathrow Airport and Pimms, with your fancy-dress, jokey-crokey PR stunt. You claim you're promoting the sport, but--for those of us trying to deliver croquet to the uninitiated--this is just a massive boot up the arse.
But wait! It's only Thursday and this is a story with life in it yet. Tired of reporting facts, and with an empty column to bulk out quickly for Friday afternoon, the Telegraph ran an opinion piece the next day.
"Croquet bores have ruined the game by taking it seriously"
To save you the effort of reading this tripe, the (unnamed) author claims to be some sort of expert, as he once played the game while pissed up on supermarket champagne at some Downton Abbey-themed garden party. This is like me professing some sort of expertise in horseracing, because I had a stuffed toy donkey on wheels when I was three.
The reporter discovered the Croquet Association, found some content he didn't want to read, and concluded that it wouldn't have been worth reading. Apparently, we serious croquet players are ruining everything by engaging in a sport with some sort of substance behind it. One with rules and skill. One which he's not interest in playing.
We're talking at cross-purposes, but there's a genuine story lurking here somewhere. It's true that there's been a recent decline in younger people taking up 'serious' croquet in the UK. Existing players stick with the game for many years, and many of our recruits from 20 years ago are still enjoying club play. Membership holds more or less steady, but there's been a recent drop-off in younger players refreshing our ranks. Another 22 years, and--as the report claims--that could spell disaster.
But that's not what the Heathrow survey is about. It's about garden croquet. 2000 people have been asked if they've played in their backyard, and most of them have said no. Over the last two decades, homeowners have grown tired of mowing grass every Sunday afternoon. They've ripped up their lawns and replaced them with wooden decking.
Once upon a time, families would go to John Lewis to buy a croquet set, take it home, and spend every weekend playing in the back garden. Nowadays, no one has time to play croquet every weekend, because they're all shopping in John Lewis.
There's an inescapable trend. The public doesn't want grass in their back gardens. Perhaps croquet--the silly Alice-in-Wonderland, uppercrust, drunken-garden-party version of croquet--will die. That'll rob us of an identifiable prospect pool for new club players, but it'll also rid us of a class of players who claim a level of expertise and experience they don't really possess. For the sport's administrators, it'll entail changing our recruitment message, and delivering it to the public in a different way. But the withering of domestic croquet could be an opportunity for the serious game as much as a threat.
The sport of Croquet needs to be prouder of what it is. We can act like the sky is falling in, just because we're not like the other sports. If the average age in croquet is 68, and players can continue to compete into their 90s, does that make us worse than soccer or tennis or athletics? No kids coming into croquet? Yeah, well, what's your point? Kids won't pay full subscription fees for my club, they won't do any coaching, can't drive to Costco to buy wholesale beer to restock the bar, and I'm not allowed to make them strip the rear roller off my lawnmower. Instead they'll zing round the croquet lawns sugared up on Haribo Starmix and two-litre bottles of Tizer. How does that help croquet's survival?
Just as it's now illegal for new movies not to include computer-generated talking animals in 3D, it seems we're not allowed to say that--you know--croquet's kinda better for grown-ups. On the one hand, we proudly claim that croquet relies on wits rather than speed and stamina, so it's suitable for any age. But as soon as a journalist challenges that, we're forced to apologise.
So it's a breath of fresh air that one British newspaper followed the Heathrow furore with a proper bit of reporting. Hats off to Zoe Williams in The Guardian, who took the trouble to talk to some croquet players rather than swallowing the bullshitty press release from Heathrow's PR team.
"Cruel, evil, devastating, lethal. Think you know croquet? Think again!"
Some croquet players on social media have read this out of the context of the week's barrage of abuse. Its light-hearted tone may have grated on those competing in the British Open Championships at Surbiton Croquet Club as the article went to print. But it's not written for them.
There, tucked into the quirky detail, is the Holy Grail of croquet publicity. The bit that says--if you're a new player, and you want something requiring hand-eye coordination, tactical assessment, and thinking eight moves ahead, this may be the sport for you.
James Hawkins is co-editor of Croquet World Online Magazine and a pretty good croquet player, who's spent much of his adult life apologising for playing a minority sport. Now that he's entered middle age, he's refusing to conform to the same level of humility, and is developing new ways of promoting the sport at the club he's founded in Liverpool. That's given him an obsession with social media and lawnmowers as well as the history of croquet. He remains a strong advocate of the need to counter public misconceptions and forge a clear and uncompromising future for the sport.
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