13 Dec 2023

A crossroads for netball

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 13 December 2023

Not a crisis, but a crossroads for New Zealand Netball - one that requires some bold decisions if it's going to survive another 100 years

The Australian Diamonds and Silver ferns in a huddle at their final Constellation Cup match of 2023. The Ferns won the battle, but the Diamonds took the trophy on goal difference

Photo: Alexia Russell

There's plenty to celebrate about the state of netball in New Zealand as it heads into its centennary year.

It’s still by far the top sport of women and girls with more than 350,000 participants; the Silver Ferns boast numerous world titles and Commonwealth Games medals.

It will be the first national netball association to reach 100 years but in its own Poipoia development plan, the former chair of Netball NZ Allison Ferguson writes "we live in an era of rapid change, and unpredictability is all we can count on".

Ferguson goes on to warn: "No longer can we plan out precisely what is needed across our sport. Rigid planning will leave us behind."

Some close to the sport argue that it is already being left behind.

"I wouldn't go so far as to say the sport is in crisis," RNZ's In Depth sports correspondent Dana Johannsen tells The Detail. "But I do think it's reached a real crossroads and netball leaders, they need to make some bold decisions and show some real ambition for the sport if it is going to survive another hundred years."

Netball NZ led the way in terms of the commercialisation and professionalisation of the sport, she says, with the launch of a semi professional women's competition in the mid to late 1990s around the same time as rugby was taking the same steps with its men.

"But over the last five to seven years it really feels like they've been overtaken by Australia and even England have a really strong domestic competition in place."

Johannsen describes the impact of the trans-Tasman league split at the end of 2016 when the two countries parted ways on the joint contest and went in different philosophical directions, with Australia pursuing a paid broadcast deal which included some "bold calls and controversial rules".

It included the removal of any limitations on imported players to attract the best from around the world to its Suncorp domestic competition. And it brought in the two-point shot at goal, a move that offended traditionalists but has won the crowds.

Meanwhile, New Zealand has had the "security blanket" of a Sky broadcast deal, says Johannsen. It reverted to the old six-team domestic league, now called the ANZ Premiership, but it was very similar to the old National Bank Cup of the late 1990s.

To some extent the move paid off with the 2019 World Cup win to the Silver Ferns but Johannsen believes Netball NZ has not been bold enough with the domestic competition.

It is not just the domestic league that needs some brave decisions about commercialisation, she says.

One of the biggest threats to netball's future is the rapid development and allure of other codes to girls and young women, a problem other parts of the world are also encountering.

Former England player, television commentator Tamsin Greenway tells The Detail she wants to see the different netballing nations work closer together to keep the sport strong in the face of wealthier codes like football and rugby.

" I'd love to see international calendars aligned. Everyone at the moment is fighting for their own good."

Greenway says the alignment of playing calendars is all the more important now with the uncertain future of the Commonwealth Games, potentially leaving only the four-yearly World Cup as the only major international event.

"If the Commonwealth Games doesn't go ahead we need to have regular competition that isn't just about the top two or three nations. I think what's been so exciting over the past four years is that we don't have a given now that it's just going to be an Oz-New Zealand final and that one of them's going to come out on top. 

"We're starting to get competition around the world especially in those top five positions and I think the sport to grow globally needs to at least have that working down the rankings as well."

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