Meet The Club - Manchester Bees

Meet The Club - Manchester Bees

They’re the biggest club in the UK. Their black and yellow kits are the envy of Wiz Khalifa fans across the country. Around every corner of St George’s park, you can hear the sound of buzzing. Manchester Bees need no introduction – and yet here I am, writing one anyway, as we recently sat down to talk to Aden Woodall, committee chair for the club, to talk about what exactly goes into making, growing, and running a club of that size. It’s time to meet the Manchester Bees.

And yes, fair warning, I did get my thesaurus out for the puns. It’s the bees. It had to bee done.

Humble Bee-ginnings

Manchester Bees started back in January 2013, founded by a group of grads from the University of Manchester. It originally had six women and around ten men, some of whom were casual players, but it became obvious that this was something that could grow. “We quickly saw the potential of the club as a place to get people of all kinds of backgrounds together, which is something that really motivates me to this day,” says Aden Woodall, who became the committee chair in 2015. A major part of the development of the club was to try and make sure that it grew past just a group of friends, and into something more sustainable, a step that many clubs struggle to achieve.

“One particular success was adding an extra training session in 2015. The men’s first team had just lost out on promotion to DPL [Dodgeball Premier League, the top league; equivalent to Super League] by a narrow margin. We had to make a decision between staying a really inclusive and welcoming club to maintain high numbers, or altering sessions to drive improvement of the top players. We tried to have it all by moving to two sessions a week, and this allowed us to offer a chilled-out, fun, and more welcoming social session alongside a more serious member’s only session, meaning we could cater to many more types of players. The next season, the men were promoted into the top league after a very dominant year. 

“Another success was recruiting enough women to run women’s only sessions. We try to aim for a balance of mixed and split gender sessions since this caters to most people’s interests and preferences. We certainly saw more women coming back each week when we offered them women’s-only dodgeball.”

As the club eyes up its rapidly approaching tenth anniversary (a sentence I’m sure will cause many players to feel absolutely ancient), it has changed hugely since those initial days. It still enjoys a close connection with its local university dodgeball clubs, Manchester Met and MUDS, but many of its players have joined as casual members originally and grown within the club, or transferred from other clubs as work and life brings them to the big city. As such, the club has well over a hundred members, including a thriving youth academy, three regular men’s teams, and two women’s.

The Club Bee-Thos

With a club of that size, the amount of work behind the scenes to keep everything moving smoothly and efficiently – and still continue to grow! – is immense. The Bees committee has had up to twenty-five named members at any given time in the past. Running a club successfully becomes a matter of spreading the work out as much as possible, with everyone pitching in where, when, and as much as they can. 

“On-court, I’d say our club ethos is first and foremost you should enjoy yourself. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? Apart from that, we try to play clever and make opponents work hard for every hit, dodge, and catch against us. Off-court, I always try to make people understand that if they enjoy our sport, then they have somewhat of a duty to help it to grow. This could be by volunteering to be a committee member or a coach, or if you’re not in a position to do that, then just making sure you’re a friendly face and saying hello to new people and make them feel welcomed at a social session, as I’ve heard countless times that something simple like this has made the difference between someone staying and someone not coming back.”

Unpaid volunteers are the backbone of every dodgeball club, and that’s no different here; but Aden would like that to change. “Most clubs rely on volunteers with hardly anyone taking payments for their hard work and time; I think this is brilliant and would never denounce this. But I’ve seen many volunteers burn out and leave either the role or the sport altogether, due to not being able to cope with a certain role’s demands (and I’ve felt like doing myself a few times being honest).

“I don’t want to see a conveyor belt of new clubs of active players forming and then disappearing five years later. This won’t develop the sport in the long-term. I want to see clubs growing as organisations that work with British Dodgeball to grow participation in their locality (via project work, outreach in schools, starting new satellite club sessions in neighbouring areas etc.). As such, I believe that our clubs in the dodgeball community need to shift our attitudes towards seeing how other sports ensure their clubs develop and grow. “

To try and help with rewarding volunteers and supporting them, Bees now offer various forms of repayment for those who offer their time: small weekly payments, free sessions, free kits. Their coaching staff are paid or receive subsidised trainings. Although dodgeball has an incredible number of hard-working individuals who are willing to work for free, they shouldn’t have to. As the sport continues to grow, these kinds of financial offerings should continue to grow with them, making it a very exciting time to get involved in the behind-the-scenes of dodgeball.

“Besides that, I’d say watching your hard work paying off is extremely rewarding,” says Aden. “Whether that is a new kit order coming in; a 24-hour charity fundraiser taking place; watching an under 11’s player take their first-ever catch in the West Midlands junior league meet last week or witnessing both our women’s teams getting promoted in 2018 after working so hard to develop new, local players. I’d recommend anybody to give it a go just for that feeling!”

Busy Bees

Still, it isn’t all serious, and it’s not all about work. Dodgeball is all about work hard, play hard. Dodgeball is all about socialising, making friends, creating a found family. Dodgeball is, according to Aden Woodall, all about “filling paddling pools with jungle juice and playing games until the sun came up” during the various Bees summer tours to Italy. “These were always highlights of our calendar. As much as I love to compete, I think these sorts of experiences are much more important – I don’t imagine that I’ll remember who won Super league in 2022 when I’m fifty, but I’m quite confident that I’ll still treasure the memories I’ve made and connections I’ve forged around Manchester, the UK and further afield.”

The Bees have always had a very active social calendar, as I’m sure anyone who’s had the joy of going to one of the last few Manchester Opens can attest to. These kinds of social events are vital in any club, but especially in a larger one where the worry is that club relationships can be a little tougher – it’s so much easier to bond in a tight-knit group of twenty, but a hundred? That’s a different beast, but one that Bees manage fantastically.

This is reflected in the way they play on court. It’s not impersonal; these are players that know each other incredibly well, even with the sheer number of fresh blood they’ve brought in recently. Many clubs have seen older players, leaders within their communities, leave dodgeball during the pandemic to focus on other parts of their lives. Every club has had to rebuild, and Bees was particularly affected by this: some of their lineups this year are unrecognisable compared to the 2019-20 season. But that rebuilding has required risks. “We weren’t sure if we had enough women to enter our 2nd women’s team this season, for instance,” says Aden, “but we made the decision to go for it and put in some hard graft, running new player sessions and opening up women’s only sessions to our local community. This paid off, with some ace new players coming through, who will be assets to the club for years to come.

“Our men’s teams have improved dramatically since the start of the season where many of the guys had never played together (or played dodgeball at all in some cases). Other than that, we’ve really enjoyed playing foam dodgeball as a new challenge, and our juniors have played in under 11’s leagues for the first time and are all enjoying the challenge this brings.”

They’re also looking into running some sessions within Manchester, with the potential to launch a city league with a ladder style, the same way that American leagues are run. The immediate mission post-pandemic is the same as it’s always been for Bees: develop the club, stabilise it, and make sure that it is professional. “I want Bees to be the benchmark for developing a dodgeball club in the UK, aiming to get the balance right of professionalising the organisation so it will still be around in 50 years with some full-time staff in place whilst maintaining the family, community feel that is special about dodgeball and special about Bees.”

Parting Words for any New-Bees

Okay, that’s the last bee pun, I promise.

Communities like Manchester Bees are genuinely life-changing for many people. For Aden, dodgeball has been a key part of his life for nearly ten years. So what would he say to anyone interested in trying the sport, or taking it to a new level and launching a club?

“It has certainly changed my life! From a fun pastime at university that I used to meet new drinking buddies to giving me the chance to play a second sport internationally, winning a world cup in the process. Dodgeball gave me many of my best friends and even my wife!” (Note: for legal reasons, House of Dodge cannot promise that you will also find a wife if you take up dodgeball. We can’t even promise that you’ll find Aden’s wife; it depends which league meet you go to.)

“On top of that, my experiences developing Manchester Bees and my work as a teacher has led to me being given the opportunity to work for British Dodgeball as one of a handful of people actually paid to develop the sport full time. I now lead on coach education at BD, so it is my vocation as well as my passion. I consider myself very lucky to work with a small, but growing, team that does an incredibly good job of developing the sport in our country compared to other, much larger national governing bodies.”

“Dodgeball is great for everyone, no matter your age, your background, your ability level, your commitment or your goals. I’ve seen all kinds of people come through the door to a Manchester Bees session, meeting new friends and playing a sport with a smile on their face so if that sounds like something you’d enjoy then come join in!”

Whatever level you’re at, however seriously you want to take it – whether you play for a big club or a small one, a hyper-competitive stalwart or a friendly group of mates that just want a throw around – there’s always a place for you in dodgeball. This club interview has been about people, about the huge number involved in keeping a club running, and about just how important those people become to you if you stick around long enough. 

Dodgeball is all about being part of a huge, close, jungle juice filled community, one that will stick with you long after you’ve hung up your kneepads. And honestly? There’s no place we’d rather bee.

(Okay fine, I lied. That's one is the last one.)