Womens Sports History

A History of Netball – Part 2 of 4

A History of Netball Play Netball

Penny Hopkins explores the development of the game in the twentieth century. In the first part of this series on the history of netball, we saw how netball developed as a sport, as distinct from basketball and basquette. In part two, we look at how and where the sport developed in the twentieth century.


History of Netball - Pt 2b

A History of Netball Part 2 – By the beginning of the century the sport began to spread across the British Empire (and later the Commonwealth). However, not only were the rules still not agreed but the name was still under debate. A first attempt at a rule book was published in 1900, but in some countries it was still known as women’s basketball or even women’s outdoor basketball.

20 million women and girls in 80 countries regularly playing netball

It is interesting to note that once netball was accepted as “suitable for women”, it was never challenged by the more conservative elements of society; it was a sport for women only, it was “ladylike” as it avoided contact and, therefore, was not seen as potentially corrupting in any sense.

With around 20 million women and girls in 80 countries regularly playing netball, charting the development of the game in all those nations would make a separate article so we will focus on the world’s current top five:

  1. Australia
  2. New Zealand
  3. England
  4. Jamaica
  5. South Africa

There can be no doubt that the dual powerhouses in netball at this time are Australia and New Zealand. Netball hit the shores of Australia probably just before the turn of the twentieth century, but it took until 1906/7 to reach New Zealand. It was still called women’s basketball there and indeed the name did not officially change in either country until 1970.

Australia did not have a national netball league until 1985.

Netball Australia


Australia formed the All Australia Women’s Basketball Association as early as 1927. Its first National Championships, held in Melbourne, happened the next year, and was won by Victoria. Before this there were leagues and tournaments all over the country but they are not well documented. They all played to their own rules and could be 5, 7 or 9 a-side games.
Surprisingly, although grassroots netball flourished, Australia did not have a national netball league until 1985. The Esso Superleague saw the top teams from each state league play against each other. However, it was never a real success as the teams could seldom raise the money to pay for all of the travel and associated costs.

It tried to reinvent itself as the Mobil League in the early nineties, but it was so similar to the Esso Superleague that it was doomed to failure. It was succeeded by Australia’s first elite domestic competition, the National Netball League, which itself was renamed the Commonwealth Bank Trophy (CBT) in 1997.

The format originally comprised eight teams: two from New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia and one from Queensland and Western Australia. Everything about the league was revamped; the length of the season and how women qualified to play, to the club badges and outfits.

The CBT lasted for 11 years, building on its popularity year on year until it was replaced by the ANZ Championship.

By 1976, there were 6058 senior teams and 2816 primary school teams affiliated to the governing body.

Silver Ferns

Silver Ferns

New Zealand

In 1906, the Rev J.C. Jamieson introduced netball (called basketball) into New Zealand after seeing it being played in Australia. The first game was nine a-side. Twenty years later there were 15 affiliated associations comprising 742 teams.
By 1938, the first New Zealand national side toured Australia under the auspices of captain, Meg Matangi. Domestic netball in New Zealand continued to develop and thrive, including school netball at all levels, although it wasn’t until 1961 that the International rules were adopted, while still being known as “basketball”.

It was in the period 1967-77 that New Zealand netball saw some important, but basic changes. In 1970 the sport’s name was finally changed from basketball to netball and its officials from referees to umpires. It was also the first time the Silver Fern was worn on the national side’s uniform.

By 1976, there were 6058 senior teams and 2816 primary school teams affiliated to the governing body.  In 1991, the governing body changed its name to Netball New Zealand and the New Zealand Championships replaced the New Zealand Tournament. Between 1996 and 2012 it introduced a succession of strategies not only to encourage the grassroots game, but to ensure the national side maintained or improved on its history of success.

1996 saw “Shooting for Success”, and in 1998 the “Future Directions. Strategy, when the 33 Unions became 12 regions and the 110 associations became Netball Centres. In 2005, the new plan was named “Out of the Circle” and in 2007 Australasia’s first semi-professional league was launched. This became the incredibly successful ANZ Championship.

In its 2009-12 Strategic Plan, Netball New Zealand announced its main aim was to make netball New Zealand’s top sport by 2020. With the strength of organisation and planning behind it, this could be a truly realistic goal.

In England in 2015/16 there are 219,800 players

Netball England


In 2016, English netball’s governing body celebrates its 90th anniversary. 1926 was the year the All England Women’s Netball Association was formed, two years after the London and Home Counties Federation was established. There were 12 leagues and 21 clubs affiliated in the first year.

The first Inter County Tournament took place in 1932 and was won by Essex. The tournament was a yearly fixture until 1996.

England’s first international matches were against Scotland and Wales in 1949. In 1966, the first National Clubs Tournament was held – a knockout competition for clubs all over England. The first winners were from Harborne, Birmingham.

By 1989, there were six Netball Centres of Excellence and in the same year Channel 4 broadcast the Netball Challenge Cup for the top four county teams. The Fisher and Paykel Super Cup started in 2001 and lasted until the inception of the Netball Superleague in 2005 and although the sport was always popular in England, it is safe to say that the introduction of the Superleague caused an explosion of interest.  Participation numbers in England are on the rise and at a much faster rate in the last ten years since the introduction of the Superleague. In 2005/6 the figure was at 163,000, while in 2015/16 it was 219,800.

The league started with eight teams, seven from England and one from Wales. In 2008/9 a team from Scotland was added. In the final part of this series we’ll see just what lies in store for the Superleague which at the moment seems to provide a bright future for England at all levels.
Although other parts of the UK have not managed to match England’s international success, in recent years there have been great strides made in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, who are now eighth, tenth and twelfth in the world respectively.

Jamaica is currently ranked fourth in the world

Netball Jamaica



Jamaica joined the netball family quite early on in the sport’s development. By 1909, it was being played in schools across the island. However, it was not until 1958 that the Jamaica Netball Association was formed. It became a member of the West Indies Netball Board in 1959, as well as an associate member of the All England Netball Association.

In 1963, the Jamaican government announced netball to be the official sport for women on the island and today it is still the most widely played sport for girls and women with over 250,000 players.

In 2013, the governing body underwent a restructure becoming the Netball Foundation of Jamaica with a business trading name of Netball Jamaica. Jamaica is currently ranked fourth in the world and the new governing body has put into place a series of changes, not only to ensure that that ranking is protected, but can be built upon with a chance to challenge the Australasian dominance.

Other West Indies islands are also becoming forces to be reckoned with in netball. Trinidad and Tobago currently lies ninth in the world, while Barbados is climbing the table at thirteenth.

The history of netball in South Africa is as complicated as the history of the country itself.

South Africa

South Africa

South Africa
At fifth position in the rankings lies South Africa. In fact Southern Africa as a whole is a netball stronghold, born out of the British colonialist expansion of the nineteenth century. And whenever we talk about South Africa and sport, there is also bound to be some element of controversy.

The history of netball in South Africa is as complicated as the history of the country itself. Netball came to South Africa in the 1920’s. As with the American introduction, it came through the educational system. In 1925, Phyllis Cardin introduced it at the Johannesburg College of Education. From here it went to schools across Transvaal and thence through the remaining provinces. The first match between clubs is recorded in 1926 when the University of Cape Town played the University of Stellenbosch.

Each province had an official Netball Association by the end of the 1940’s and the first national governing body: the South African Women’s Netball Association, was formed in 1951. All well and good, but then you have to realise that all this was for white women only. The first association for black women, the African Women’s Netball Association of South Africa, was not founded until 1976. The first black teams then took part in national and provincial tournaments in 1977.

In 1969, the national side was barred from international competition due to its government’s apartheid regime and was not re-admitted until the 1990s. During this time the sport’s governing bodies went through many incarnations until in 1993 a unified body, Netball South Africa, was formed.

So, in pre-apartheid South Africa, netball was usually associated with the white middle classes, but it was actually being played by black South African girls as early as the 1930’s. Although only just over six percent of black children received any schooling in the 1940’s, the Bantu Inter-schools League in Johannesburg had 145 teams sharing ten courts.

During the apartheid era, sport for black people, be it men or women, suffered from, at best, under investment and at worst, outright discrimination. For example, in 1977 there were 517 white-only netball facilities in South Africa, while there were only 29 for black/coloured participants.

On South Africa’s re-admission to the international sporting arena, however, the controversy did not lessen. The sport’s governing body continued to be run by whites and in the 1990’s accusations of racism dogged the selection of the national team.

In 2006, a professional women’s league was formed and in 2007 Netball South Africa announced it was introducing incentives to encourage clubs to comply with its racial quotas. Thirty years after re-admission there are still problems in integrating netball in South African society. The first league ran into financial difficulties and it was only in 2014 that a successor emerged. But since the Brutal Fruit Netball Premier League started things have begun to markedly improve – so much that Netball South Africa has dubbed 2016 the “Year of Possibilities”.

The difficulties faced by teams playing against South Africa at home or away in the time up to South Africa’s expulsion from international competition will be discussed in the third part of this series, but needless to say, any team wishing to field black or coloured players were in for a tough time.

Although South Africa has struggled in the past to offer equal opportunities to its own white and black populations when it comes to netball, it has also worked to help develop the popularity of netball in other Southern African countries including Botswana and Zimbabwe.

All of the top-ranked countries have one thing in common – their commitment to investing in the infrastructure of netball. They have the governance in place and are willing to put money in facilities, human resources and promotion to get netball out to girls and young women. Anyone wishing to break into the top five will have their work cut out.

When you look at the list of the world’s top 20, it stretches from Australia to Malawi and Fiji to Canada. In part three of this series we’ll see how international competition developed, the barriers it faced and how they have been overcome.



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