Penny Hopkins concludes our four-part series on The History of Netball by explaining how and where the sport is played in the 21st century
It perhaps seems a strange time to be writing a history of netball when the Rio Olympics have just closed and the Paralympics are about to start; as I mentioned in Part 3 of this series, netball has never been an Olympic sport, not even a demonstration sport. But actually it’s just the time to be writing about it – reminding the world that 20 million people in 80 countries play this game; that it is growing and evolving all the time; that girls and women of all ages are taking part, as are more men, and that interest, participation numbers, media coverage and popularity are growing year on year.
So to end this review of the sport’s history we’re going to look at the future for the netball and how it is adapting to the changing demands of the sporting world.
Growth and Opportunities
To begin with, there has been a growth in the variations on the traditional seven-player game.
High 5 is specifically aimed at 9-11 year olds. As the name suggests, there are five players on court, but another four can be providing off-court support by time keeping and scoring, so it gets more children involved.
Teams can be mixed or single-sex with a maximum of two boys on court at any one time. Players rotate positions so they can try everything.
In 2008, the International Netball Federation (INF) introduced Fast5 (originally called Fastnet) as an innovation in the adult game. It is a shortened, high- tempo version (as if traditional netball isn’t fast enough) and is sort of the netball equivalent of Twenty20 Cricket or Rugby Sevens.
Fast5 even has its own international competition – the Fast5 Netball World Series, with the next tournament due to be held in Melbourne, Australia in October 2016.
There are five players per side and each quarter lasts just six minutes. Teams can use rolling substitutions. There are points differences too with each side nominating a power play quarter in which each goal they score counts double.
The shooting area is slightly different with an outer zone and a super shot zone, as well as the standard shooting circle. Two points are scored from the outer zone and three from the super shot zone. There are no tied games, with a draw being decided by a penalty shoot- out.
The first Fast5 Netball World Series was held in October 2009. It now takes place annually between the top six national teams in the World Rankings. Australia has won the right to host the tournament from 2016-2018.
Fast5 was not the first variation to be introduced, though. For 30 years, Indoor Netball (or Nets as it is now known) has been played, mainly in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and England. Most recently the game has been introduced and developed in Sri Lanka and India. This version is governed by the World Indoor Netball Association (WINA) and there is an estimated 90,000 women, men and children playing every month.
Of all the “alternatives” Nets is the one that differs most from standard netball. It is played on netted courts and the ball is never out of play.
There are actually two versions of the game; one has seven players and the other six. The seven-a-side game is similar to standard netball with the court divided into thirds and scoring is only possible from the shooting circle and for only one point.
The six-a-side game, however, is radically different. The court is divided into halves and the team consists of two defenders, two links and two attackers. The two attacking players are in one half and the two defenders in the other. The two link players can go anywhere except the shooting circle. Points can be scored either inside the circle (one point) and outside (two points).
World Cups are quite complicated affairs because, although the number of countries is limited, both versions of the game are played and each game has four titles to chase; Ladies’ Open, Men’s Open, Mixed Open and Ladies’ 21 and under. The last World Cup was held in Johannesburg in 2014 and Australia triumphed in three out of the four categories, with New Zealand preventing a clean sweep by winning the Ladies’ 21 and under title. The 2016 World Cup is being held in New Zealand at the end of August.
While new versions of the game have encouraged people in who may not have previously considered it an option, netball’s higher profile has also attracted people who just want to play the traditional game, even when they haven’t done it for years.
Back to Netball
One of the most successful initiatives to be created to help in this is the “Back to Netball” scheme, introduced in England in 2010. Since its inception, over 60,000 women in England have taken part. Sessions include re-caps on the rules and drills in passing, shooting, defending and footwork, and usually end with a fun game. If you played netball at school, regardless of whether you loved it or hated it, if you have any interest in the game at all, Back to Netball is an amazing way to re-acquaint yourself with it.
And if the gap between your last game and now is just a little longer, why not try Walking Netball? It’s the game we all know and love, but played at a slower pace. This means people of any age or fitness can play.
Netball for men is also starting to take off in a big way. As well as competing in the mixed teams of Fast5 and Nets, there also men’s traditional national teams in Canada, England, Jamaica, Kenya, Pakistan and Dubai. Men’s netball actually started in Australia, with the teams being mixed, but in 1985 the first Australian men’s championship was held. The Pacific islands are fast becoming a powerhouse of men’s netball with national teams in Fiji, Samoa, and the Cook Islands to add to Australia and New Zealand.
Organisation, Sponsorship and Media
Along with the initiatives and developments have come more investment, more sponsorship and more media coverage. As with all chicken-and-egg questions, it is difficult to know whether improving organisation from governing bodies has engendered more media coverage and sponsorship for netball, or whether the advent of better sponsorship and gradually increasing media coverage for women’s sport in general has improved the image of the game. Both sides will probably take the credit, but whatever the truth, it cannot be denied that for English netball, the sea-change was the decision from Sky Sports to cover the Vitality Super League. It has made an incredible difference to the profile of netball in England and encouraged a healthy number of sponsors to get behind it.
Similarly, every national netball team’s website has an extensive list of corporate sponsors and partners, which is good to see. The capture of sponsorship of women’s sport has traditionally been seen as the equivalent of finding the Holy Grail, but netball seems to be bucking this trend and the future looks bright. And with increased media coverage comes increased interest in personalities, both as sporting superstars and role models.
While most international netballers can still live in relative anonymity should they wish, the Aussie Diamonds are reaching new levels of recognition in their own country and beyond. Generally women in sport face a struggle for respect or even acknowledgment, but sponsors Samsung have turned this on its head and produced a whole series of videos with the Diamonds entitled “Re-think Role Models”.
The series comprises a general piece on the team and then each of the major Diamonds’ stars has a clip of their own. Sharni Layton’s is entitled #ProveThemWrong – Caitlin Bassett’s – #RiseAboveIt, Laura Geitz’s -#InnerStrength, Paige Hadley’s – #NeverGiveUp and Kim Ravaillion’s – #WorthTheSacrifice.
They are, without doubt, the best pieces of promotional material, both for netball and women in sport in general, that there has been to date.
Final Thoughts and Olympic Prospects
In conclusion, netball has had a turbulent 120-year history. From its tentative beginnings – not even having a proper name in some parts until the 1970s, it has fought, adapted and made itself a real sporting force in the 21st century.
I would argue It is truly a global game; a quick scan down the international fixtures for this year sees tournaments in Gibraltar, Los Angeles, Liverpool, Durban, Miami, Gaborone, Edinburgh, St Maarten (Caribbean), Auckland, Bangkok, Melbourne, Singapore, Rotorua, London.
So to bring it back to the start of this piece, why isn’t it an Olympic sport? One standard response is that it’s “just a sport for girls” and, therefore, of limited interest. Another is that is only played in Commonwealth countries. However, this history, I hope, has successfully exploded both of these arguments.
But the biggest hurdle is a political one; although netball is played in 80 countries, it does not figure as a sport in USA, China or Russia and will, therefore, always be seen as having a limited reach. Although the U.S. has had an affiliated national association since the 1980s, it is thought that the actual number of women playing in the States is in the region of just 1,000.
There have been campaigns for Olympic inclusion since 2008 and they’re gaining momentum, but this problem is not one that can be solved overnight. How long does it take to develop a sport from scratch in three of the biggest countries in the world – 20-30-50 years?
Although this may sound a pessimistic note, there are plenty of positives when it comes to netball; it’s a dynamic, growing, vital sport and its governance, organisation and profile are constantly improving on an international scale.
When James Naismith was nailing his apple buckets to the wall in Springfield, MA in 1891 he could have had no inkling of what his idea would become. But 120 years on and numerous incarnations later, netball goes from strength to strength and, let’s face it, 20 million players can’t be wrong.
Penny Hopkins os a freelance writer based in the UK specializing in cricket and women in sport.