A new sport has swept across America and is now making a name for itself in the UK. Now with over 30 sessions and clubs across the northwest, pickleball is here to stay.
The game is traditionally played on a badminton court with hard rackets and a plastic ball. Its popularity is mainly due to the fact that it is accessible to all ages and does not require a lot of equipment.
In the northwest there is a monthly doubles league with nine divisions. This is a relatively new initiative for the sport and has more than doubled in less than 12 months.
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The sport continues to grow, with Pickleball England boasting over 2,000 players, although it is widely believed that the actual number of casual players is over 4,000. Last year the BBC reported over 4 million players around the world, citing the pandemic as a contributing factor to the increased interest in the sport.
In Greater Manchester, seven pickleball clubs are currently registered with Pickleball England, one in Salford, Stockport, Rochdale, Leigh, Urmston and two in Bolton.
Robert Rosenfield was introduced to Pickleball while on a cruise and despite no instruction on how to play he picked up the game very quickly and looked forward to playing again once he returned home.
Upon his return, Robert started playing immediately at his nearest club, which was in Wigan. However, since then he has set up his own club in Bolton.
Currently, his club play Saturdays at Smithills School between 11am and 1pm. They only have two courts, but are always happy to welcome new members.
He explained how and why he fell in love with the sport, saying, “I went on a cruise and they had this game, so me and my wife and the kids thought we’d give it a try. There was no one to explain the rules, but I really understood and thought, I love this, this is awesome.
“So when I came back I looked for the nearest club that played there, found one in Wigan and fell in love with it and have been playing there ever since.
“It’s the fastest growing sport in America, it’s huge there, they have courts everywhere. It’s not as well known here yet, but it’s starting to get a few followers.
He added: “I want to expand it if I can. It’s a really good social, there are serious players in every sport, but the beauty is that it’s a sport for everyone. We we have 70-year-old, 80-year-old players in the league.
“The best thing to do is find your local club, everyone is really welcoming and then contact the club and they will be happy to advise you on how to get involved. It’s a really good sport to practice and a social sport.
The history of Pickleball dates back to 1965 when two fathers, Joel Pritchard and Bob Bell, were vacationing on Bainbridge Island just off Seattle, America and accidentally invented the game to ease boredom. They were attempting a racquet sport on a badminton court with table tennis bats and the dog’s ball, whose name was Pickle.
However, others claim the name comes from Joel’s wife, Joan, who said the combination of different parts from other games reminded her of the crews of pickle boats, or small wooden ferry boats whose crews were often the last to be chosen.
Elaine Shallcross, North West Regional Manager for Pickleball England, explained how she discovered the game in Thailand, played all over the world and decided to bring the game home to the North West, starting with Burnley.
She said: “The escalation over the last 12 months, certainly since Covid in many ways, is staggering. We had excellent visibility.
“Because of the name, I think pickleball wasn’t taken as a serious sport, to be honest, but now people are realizing that it’s a valuable sport on its own, even though it’s is a derivative of earlier sports like tennis, badminton and table tennis.
“We can barely meet the demand at the moment. It’s growing so fast.
“There are a lot of people who maybe played tennis or other racquet sports that couldn’t maintain the physicality of those sports anymore, so pickleball became a fantastic compromise for those people.
Elaine was introduced to pickleball while vacationing in Thailand where she met a former international badminton player who had started playing pickleball in Florida. Elaine started playing in Thailand and has since competed in tournaments in Madrid, Kyiv and India.
Upon her return to the North West, Elaine was determined to make a name for herself for the sport in the UK and in 2015 she pitched the idea for the game to Burnley council. She explained: “I went to Burnley Borough Council where I worked, I was responsible for sports and recreation at Burnley and said ‘I’ve got this great game and you have to try it’. We put it in a morning over 50 for several activities and it snowballed from there.
“We had two sessions during the day and one club in the evening, then we started again at Leigh Sports Village. In the North West, before Pickleball England even existed, I had already taken the initiative to be a local ambassador and to get as many clubs as possible, so we were in Clitheroe, Longridge and Chorley, Bolton and Wigan.
“Then the game itself became more organised, but my first tournament was in Madrid as there were none in England at the time. It is growing at the rate of nodes in other countries as well as here in England.
One of the problems with pickleball is finding facilities. It is a very versatile sport that can be played on tennis and badminton courts, both indoors and outdoors.
However, many sports facilities are already booked with better known sports and the weather in the northwest is unreliable.
“You can play away, but what is usually detrimental in this country is the weather. We don’t always have the best weather. So to organize anything like a special event is very difficult because there is no alternative.
“If we were having an open pickleball championship in Manchester at any tennis club, and it was absolutely abandoned this weekend, you can’t just pick it up and move into a sports center because there are the availability.”
Despite these concerns, Elaine has also noticed an increase in tennis clubs taking an interest in the sport, noting its accessibility for all ages.
She added: “A very recent thing, to be honest, is that the relationship between tennis facilities and clubs and pickleball has improved rapidly. At one point, I would say it would have been almost never the two will meet.
“Now it’s been realized that pickleball can help, especially young people, learn some of the basic motor skills needed in tennis and transition into tennis.”