Caught in the net: Women are forsaking the gym for the netball court

For some it brings back memories of happy school games; for others it means overcoming horrific flashbacks of gym knickers. But more women are returning to the netball court, lured by the prospect of exercise and team spirit.

The number of people aged 16 and over playing netball at least once a week leapt by 12 per cent to 133,500 in October 2009. According to Sport England, there was a 52 per cent rise in players aged 20 to 24.

Tracey Neville, a former England international and commentator for Sky Sports, said at a time when there was "a massive drive towards getting fit and healthy and reducing obesity", netball is an easy sport to pick up because everybody had played it at school and knows the rules.

The amateur sport attracts up to 250,000 television viewers, with Sky Sports screening matches from the nine-team Superleague weekly, as well as internationals. "People are starting to recognise the sport, follow it and get an interest in it," said Ms Neville, whose brothers Gary and Phil are Premiership footballers. "When people can relate to the sport, they want to go out and play. It's like when Wimbledon's on, all the tennis courts are full."

Sonia Mkoloma, the current England co-captain and Surrey Storm defender, agreed that coverage since 2006 had boosted participation. Superleague matches can attract crowds of 3,000, with 10,000 spectators expected at the O2 in London on 23 February for the final game in England's three-match series against Australia.

Netball has a high drop-out rate, with about 80 per cent of girls quitting at age 16. But Paul Clark, chief executive of England Netball, said its accessible Back to Netball campaign was encouraging women to return.

The sport's governing body launched a pilot of pay-as-you-play sessions in the north-west of England 18 months ago. The scheme, which provides skill development and court play, now runs 180 programmes nationwide for nearly 5,000 women.

Helen Rigby, 25, of Leigh in Lancashire, will play for Tyldesley Storm in Bolton's Back to Netball league from April. She returned to the game in September after a seven-year break and said it was cheaper than joining her local gym. "I don't really enjoy the gym," she said, "whereas at the netball club you look and the time's gone. I have a really good time and it's good exercise. It doesn't matter about your ability because it's one of the places where you realise that nobody is going to laugh at you if you drop the ball and don't know the rules."

Word of mouth also plays a role in women rediscovering netball. Sophie Abbott, 26, asked her friend Louise Coe, 28, to join the Whippets in the All Nations social league in London 18 months ago after more than 10 years away from the game. Ms Coe said netball was "just as much about having fun and socialising with a great group of friends as doing exercise".

Kate Croughan, 52, of Hull, put on a bib 18 months ago for the first time in 30 years after persuasion from her sister Pauline Hardy, 55, who is netball development officer for Humberside. Their other sister, Pam Newham, 47, has since joined them at Reckitt Benckiser club in Hull. This inspired two of their cousins to join the Back to Netball programme in Hornsea.

Mrs Croughan said: "I was apprehensive, thinking 'am I really going to enjoy it?', but I have enjoyed it and am very glad I went back."

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