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January 23, 2023

Momentum is Growing on the Other Side of the Pond

By Karen Mitchell

Director, Pickleball England

The Pickleball England 2022 annual general meeting (AGM) was held (via Zoom) at the end of November, just shy of our four-year launch anniversary. AGMs are important for national governing bodies for sport. It ensures that information is shared for transparency and provides an opportunity for members to ask questions, debate issues and vote when appropriate.


It is exciting to see how pickleball has grown in just four years. We have an ambitious growth target in our strategic plan of 25,000 members by 2025 and we think we are on target to reach that goal despite the COVID-19 pandemic closing venues for seven to nine months during 2020-21. The table below shows the growth since our launch. We forecasted that by the end of 2022 we would have 8,000 players, 3,800 PbE members and 285 places to play.


This growth has been across the country but there are three regions that have been outstanding. Annualized growth for the North West Region is an incredible 179 percent, North East 141 percent and South West 103 percent. Kudos to the respective Regional Directors for these areas—Elaine Shallcross and her NW army, Val Vladea and her NE team and Richard Thoms and his SW crew.


For player numbers to grow there needs to be places to play, and since the last AGM, the number of clubs has almost doubled. The South East region has been the first region to have more than 100 places to play, with 104 locations listed on the club locator. The next biggest region is North West with 46 places, but the biggest growth has come from the North East region, which now has three times the number of places to play than at the last AGM.


We still have an age distribution that is skewed towards the over-50s but we now have a solid base of younger players—6 percent are 29 and under. The reason for the 50+ bias is because court availability is highest during the day when younger people are at work or school. As clubs demonstrate they can build session numbers, I have no doubt evening and weekends will start to be offered when other bookings drop off. I know many clubs that keep adding sessions to keep up with demand, which has also driven them to offer sessions at different venues. I play in Eastbourne and in 2017 we had one morning session a week. Now we have two morning and one Saturday afternoon Open sessions and three more advanced player sessions in the afternoon during the week.


All this growth fuelled the need for a Pickleball Leaders Certification, which we introduced in 2021. There was 120 percent growth in number of certified attendees in 2022. This number could have been larger, but we need to expand our tutor group. More players have also fuelled the demand for more level 1 and 2 coaching qualifications. We added 17 new IPTPA coaches in 2022 and now have two Master Teaching Professionals in the country (Sam Basford and Rob Williams).


I gave an update at the AGM on where we were relative to our five-year strategy. We had passed Sport England’s pre-approval stage and are now preparing our full application. To help with the process, we engaged consultants to do a GDPR (Global Data Protection Regulation) review of our systems and procedures. We have also added to our policies to meet all Sport England requirements. Finally, I advised that we invested in public relations to raise awareness of pickleball. There were 22 articles published at the national and regional level, and we have five more articles in the pipeline.


Within our strategy we identified festivals, tournaments, leagues, and ranking systems as important for player development and sustaining player interest. In 2022, PbE held 58 events and collaborated on another four. In comparison, we held 22 events and collaborated on three in 2021. Consequently, our gross income line, which was £35k in 2021, was forecasted to be over £100k for 2022.


We have begun to provide our tournament results to DUPR and Pickleball Global and when we can automate it, we will also send our league results. This will address our identified strategy to provide player ranking.


We provided a summary of grassroots development at the meeting. The awareness-raising public relations activity creates inquiries to clubs who offer free taster sessions. Additionally, directors, county representatives and pickleball leaders set up taster sessions for tennis clubs and other venues. We discussed identifying a way to track taster sessions as a growth key indicator.


Similarly with schools, we respond to inquiries for taster sessions or PE teachers to be taught how to play so that they can introduce the game to children, but we don’t have a formal tracking process that covers the whole country.


Three initiatives that have helped fast-track growth have been the rollout of pickleball to David Lloyd Clubs, working with Leisure Centre groups, and rollout of pickleball to University of the Third Age (U3A) programs around the country. U3A is a nationwide network of learning groups aimed at encouraging older people to share their knowledge, skills, and interests in a friendly environment. Dave Pechey, our Cheshire County representative, wrote an article for the U3A magazine about the benefits of pickleball and the success of several groups around the country and offered to help other areas to set up. Since his article, nine groups have been formed. We have around 600 U3A PbE members. Also, to support grassroots, we have made donations of equipment in England and Uganda. We have also made charity donations to Ukraine and Boot Out Breast Cancer through fundraising efforts.


We identified some challenges and made recommendations to solve them. It’s difficult to delegate some activities because our systems don’t enable compartmentalization of data. We need to move to a CRM system to enable access of information while meeting GDPR, i.e., role-based access. The scale of activity in terms of events means we can’t rely just on volunteer resources, so we identified two positions we want to hire. Additionally, our turnover and volume of invoices is such that financial reconciliation for year end is too time-intensive. We need to use a software accounting package to manage monthly income and expenditures.


Finally we acknowledged and thanked the army of volunteers making a difference in helping grow pickleball. We just presented the 2021 Volunteer of the Year award to Louise Stephens, and we will be opening nominations for 2022 Volunteer of the Year very soon.


At the end of the presentation, we had 30+ minutes of questions and discussions before our third AGM meeting was closed.


I share this information with the pickleball community in the hope that it will encourage other associations to share their player/membership/places-to-play information so that we can see how momentum is building around the globe.  •

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