‘Non-essential’ Businesses of Henley: Playball

by | Personal Projects

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The ‘Non-essential’ Businesses of Henley.

This is an article where I interviewed a local business in Henley-on-Thames, UK to better understand how the national lockdown has affected the community. My focus is on the impacts on their businesses, themselves and people who indirectly benefit from the products and services that they offer.

I want to personally thank Matthew Mackinnon for being brave enough to sit down with me for an hour to be interviewed and photographed.


I sat down with Matthew Mackinnon, who owns and operates the Playball franchise of Henley-on-Thames. Matthew has been working in education for over 20 years and is a recent arrival to Henley. He has made big strides at integrating into the community and helping families.

About Playball

Matthew and his team of two PlayBall coaches offer extracurricular activities for children aged 1 to 5. He has been operating courses in various schools, nurseries and even in a local multipurpose space. Matthew has helped hundreds of families around Henley. His business provides a physical education play group that focuses on activities that build children’s motor skills, cognitive abilities, and self-confidence.

How was the first lockdown of the Pandemic for your business?

During the first lockdown, Matthew reports that the government was very clear in that all businesses like his should stop operating in person. This blanket statement made it very easy to determine what he could offer and what he could not.

The government offered his business some assistance at the time, but it only went so far. Once the first pandemic lifted, he was able to open his business. During the lockdown, he attempted to offer online courses, but it quickly became clear that this would not be possible. Most classes ended up with the parents partaking in the activities and the kids either sitting there and watching or leaving the room.

Even so, he was able to quickly amass an even larger group of children he was able to serve once the lockdown lifted. This was due to the permanent closing of many competing programs. He and a small group of other businesses with intramural activities continue to this day but operate within the restrictions detailed by the government.

Matthew Mackinnon of Playball in Henley on Thames observing his educational equipment going unused.

Empty Space

This now empty space in a multipurpose room of a local church was once home to afternoon 45-minute sessions where children of varying ages experienced sporting activities.

How has the second lockdown of the Pandemic affected your business?

While public children’s playgrounds remain filled to the brim with children going about their day interacting and mixing across bubbles, Matthew and his team are unable to conduct business in their private practice. However, confusingly, the government allows him to conduct business at these children’s schools.

During the second lockdown, Matthew lost about 50% of his client base. These are happy customers and are very willing to come back, but he simply cannot provide service to them at this time for fear of government penalties of up to £10,000.

He has developed plans to implement the track-and-traced schemes to help the children learn proper social distancing. And has appealed to the local government for clarification about whether or not he can operate with these measures in place. He also reached out to the local Minister of Parliament (MP) but is not able to gain clarification.

He’s frustrated by the inconsistencies in the UK law that have proven challenging for businesses like Playball. He still hopes he will be able to open back up once the lockdown ends.

Should the lockdowns continue, he may have to begin exploring alternatives for income. Businesses like this may no longer be able to survive because their employees and owners need to survive as well. Employers like Matthew will have to seek alternative ways to make income to put food on the table for their own families.

Adding to the confusion is often these rules and limitations are recommendations. This causes stress and angst among the people tasked with implementing these different programs to try to navigate the regulations.

Layered over all this looms the threat of large fines on business owners that continue to operate outside of the government-defined boundaries. For some businesses like barbers and shops, it is very clear that they are to close their physical doors. For Matthew and others, parts of their business are allowed to operate. He is allowed to continue to offer services to local nurseries and schools, but for 50% of his customers, the ones outside of the school system, it is unclear whether or not he can proceed.

Businesses like Playball fall into a gray area within the business-type classification. In order to operate, Matthew and his team require approval from the government, which the government so far, has been unable to provide. This approval would enable him to acquire insurance and re-open his facility at the back of the church for those private practices.


Equipment waiting. Normally these balls, hoo-la-hoops and more are in constant use by the local youth of Henley-on-Thames.

What are the secondary impacts of not being able to provide your services to children in the community?

Matthew’s program not only benefits the immediate students but their siblings. He has seen a marked ability of students who are siblings of former students. They are vastly ahead of the curve. This is simply not happening during this second Lockdown.

“For some children, Playball is a child’s first interaction with people outside of their immediate family group. Some children, during their initial sessions, will sit for 20 minutes in awe of all the activity going on around them.”

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Matthew is deeply passionate about physical education for youths and the unfortunate events of 2020, it has given him a chance to reflect, reevaluate his priorities and know for certain that he has made the right choice to provide these services to the community.

There have been obvious negative outcomes from the COVID-19 Pandemic, but he also gained a sense of extreme confidence knowing he’s in the right place to be able to help a lot of children and their families.

Interested in Playball?

Visit the Playball Henley-on-Thames website to learn more.

Matthew Mackinnon

Owner of the Playball Henley-on-Thames franchise.