Pickleball in the UK: Loyal to Sports Lovers

by laurapbc on Jul 6, 2016

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From humble origins as 'pickle tennis' to over 1,200 weekly players across the nation, Clare Maclean-Bell has dedicated much of her time to carving out a place for pickleball in the UK.

Her background in sports development has given her an edge when it comes to building pickleball's reach, and it's exciting to hear about all the new programs on the way. Don't miss out on hearing about Clare's driven dedication to pickleball and the big events still to come!

Clare Maclean-Bell with the first paddles donated to her organization, GB Pickleball Clare Maclean-Bell with the first paddles donated to her organization, GB Pickleball

New Sports, New Challenges

Clare has been involved with a company called Motiv8 Sports for several years and currently serves as their Director. Their work provides people with access to various sports activities across the UK, and one of their main goals is to ensure these events are accessible to a wide demographic.

Enter pickleball, one of the most accessible sports for all ages! Since it's part of Clare's job to be on the lookout for emerging sports, pickleball quickly became a favorite thanks to its ease of play when she discovered it in August 2014. From there, Clare procured some gear and started Motiv8's first sessions in October 2014.

During this early foray, Clare was working with a local leisure center who insisted on managing all the marketing for the sport. This infamously led them to calling the first sessions 'pickle tennis,' but Clare speaks lightheartedly about the experience and ensures us that they've 'come a long way since then!'

All According to Plan

Clare explains that the UK was experiencing a healthy growth in pickleball for several years, but it was mainly within the 50+ market. Since her involvement on the scene, she's not only continued to spread pickleball to new locations, but included players of many different ages in schools and public locations.

Another prime factor in Clare's plans for the sport is a group called GB Pickleball, which is solely focused on growing the game and creating new opportunities for people to try it. Since Motiv8 seems to be deeply involved with GB Pickleball, we asked Clare how GBP got started and what role it plays.

GB Pickleball introducing the sport to a younger crowd GB Pickleball introducing the sport to a younger crowd

'GB Pickleball was born as a result of passionate and slightly—no, very—addicted pickleball players and Motiv8 sports directors. We saw a need to grow the sport from a grass roots perspective and help everyone get access to pickleball. We had already identified pickleball as a great community sport, very sociable and easy to start playing, so we wanted to expand from there.'

'GB Pickleball is a not-for-profit organization with an official constitution; we have a total of 20 people full/part time and volunteers. We have a somewhat defined history here in Great Britain, as we're now in our 3rd year of funding from Sport England to develop a sport which isn’t even recognized as an 'official' sport yet! We're proud to be seen as a group that achieves great growth results.'

Measured Steps

We were curious about the way Clare grows interest in pickleball since it's still such a young sport. Her answer is clearly backed by many years in the business and shows a level of marketing savvy we're glad she's using to get newcomers on the courts!

'We have a 5 year strategic plan, which will see an 'Activator' promoting pickleball in every county around the UK (48 in total). We have a very active presence on social media and a great reputation with many schools nationally. We've also demonstrated pickleball in partnerships with art galleries, shopping centers, schools, universities and corporate organizations. We try to be as transparent as possible and 'do what we say on the can,' so that helps build interest too.'

GB Pickleball giving a demo at Turner Contemporary GB Pickleball giving a demo at Turner Contemporary

Back in October 13, 2014, during GB Pickleball's first session, only one person attended and it lasted for an hour a week. Today, she happily shares that there are 250 players regularly playing in a 15 mile radius, a full 7 days a week! Across the nation there are 1,200 regular weekly players.

Proud of Pickleball

Clare remembers being laughed at when GB Pickleball first approached some groups to offer demonstrations, yet 18 months later people are clambering to ask for bigger program timetables.

'It always makes me feel proud (and a little smug!) to say we've been invited to the biggest art gallery in the UK and seen our name appear in their summer program. That was definitely a highlight for me in GBP's history. This month we were featured in the National Business Games program hosted in Kent, and I'd love to see more achievements like this in the future.'

'Two of our players also represented GB Pickleball in the US Open, and one came back with a silver (Sheena Maclean-Bell).'

A big congrats to Sheena for her representation and big win!

Sheena showing off her silver medal from the US Open in Mixed Doubles Sheena showing off her silver medal from the US Open in Mixed Doubles

Finding Picklers in the UK

We followed up by asking where people could turn if they were visiting the UK and wanted to participate in some of the fun themselves. Clare says all the players she knows are very welcoming, and will even offer bed and board to follow pickleball addicts.

If you're planning a trip, be sure to visit GB Pickleball's forum, as you can post details about your visit in order to facilitate contact with groups and clubs across the UK. You can always contact Clare directly by email in order to get an introduction to clubs near your location as well. Use info@gbpickleball.co.uk.

'We are working tirelessly to grow pickleball and have great support in making this happen thanks to Sport England. We have ambitious plans to develop and sponsor young talent after spending time in the States and identifying a real gap in play/skill level. We hope to bridge this by creating great coaching and learning opportunities as seen in the USA.'

GB Pickleball kids The cutest procession of picklers?

UK Pickleball Events to Come

In case you want to be part of pickleball history while enjoying the UK's lovely sights, be sure to keep an eye out for the following events Clare shared:

'GB Pickleball will be hosting two events in the near future—a Summit to highlight our growth and give the UK player base a say in what they want from pickleball over the next 5 years. Then the UK Open (International) Tournament will be on May 26-28th in 2017.'

'In addition to this we'll be running a national roadshow of events to engage schools and communities in the introduction of pickleball between now and 2018. It's going to be a fun and busy time. For more info on the Summit and Tournament, visit our site for more details.'