By Daniel Etchells
Described as the UK’s fastest growing sport, racketball is making all the right noises on these shores.
For those not familiar with the sport, the simplest way to explain it is that it’s very much similar to squash – it involves two people in direct competition, two rackets, a squash court, a bouncy ball and a wall.
The subtle differences to squash are that the rackets are wider with shorter handles and that the balls are bouncier and don’t need to be “warmed up”.
Since being incorporated by England Squash in 1984, the sport has grown rapidly in the UK alongside squash, to the point where tens of thousands of people are now playing racketball regularly at different levels.
The governing body, which was renamed as England Squash and Racketball (ESR) in 2009, is based at the National Squash Centre in Manchester and Angela Cwaczko, ESR’s North West Regional Manager, said that the centre has provided a platform for racketball since it was built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
“It had a massive impact because people that necessarily didn’t know the sport or hadn’t played the sport before actually thought I’ll give it a go,” said Cwaczko.
“It’s open to the community as well so there wasn’t this big club emphasis on the sport either. It was open to anyone and everyone to be honest to come into the centre.”
Numerous racketball programmes are piloted at the centre – and in clubs around Manchester – before being delivered and repeated in the different regions of the country.
In this sense, the North West of England is central to the racketball boom across Britain, however, on what basis can it be justified as the UK’s fastest growing sport?
According to Matt Baker, who has the lead role for developing racketball in England, the claim is primarily based on the sport’s participation levels.
There have been nearly 2000 new users in clubs and public facilities since June 2009 which is allied to nearly 8000 current recreational users.
Whenever a player steps onto a court and plays racketball for the first time they are essentially classed as a new user and because the sport is still in the process of establishing itself, the figures are extremely high.
So is the claim somewhat of a misconception? Baker thinks not and believes that the appealing aspects of racketball alone add to the claim and will ensure that the sport continues to grow.
“It is very easy to play in terms of being able to get a bouncing ball out of the box straight away,” he said.
“You haven’t got to warm the ball up (as you do in squash), the equipment’s still relatively cheap, squash courts are still relatively cheap to hire, so I think that all contributes to the claim.”
With regards to the participation levels in the North West, Baker said: “As we currently stand, the North West compares very favourably with the rest of the country – they’ve got strong pockets in various counties.
“I think one of the reasons why the North West will become more and more popular is that it’s still got quite a big local authority perspective. Racketball’s very strong in those (local authority) centres simply because it’s pay and play.
“We are looking to engage people who like Pilates, yoga and body combat and offer leisure centres the option to be able to offer racketball.”
ESR have particularly aimed the sport at women, children and those over the age of 50 as they aim to broaden its appeal.
Steve Amos, Head of ESR’s National Network, who oversees the work of all the Regional Managers, said: “It’s being played in small pockets within communal parts of the country. We’re certainly seeing a huge growth of the game everywhere we’re putting it.
“We’re finding that children and adults, even older adults, are being able to have some real success with it.”
Looking towards the future, ESR’s main aims are to continue to attract new markets by running racketball activities in local authority centres and universities, and to increase the number of people using squash courts during the day time.
They are also keen to continue the development of the National Racketball Championships and encourage more top-class squash players to take up racketball and raise its profile, just as the likes of Peter Nicol (former world number one) and Daryl Selby (current world number thirteen) have done.
However, when asked whether it will surpass squash as a more recognised sport, Amos gave a rather diplomatic response.
“I think they’ll both work hand in hand. I think the more people that play racketball, the better for the game of squash,” he said.
“Some people move into one as they move out of another or vice versa, so I think both sports will continue to grow.
“We’ve got a target of introducing 55,000 new people to both sports over the next four years and at the moment we’re well on our way to achieving that target.
“We’ve introduced around 17,000 new people to both sports over the last 18 months and squash and racketball have both played a really important part in doing that.”