by Kate Cornish
a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or trade.
Never have I seen the level of disdain within the Australian netball ranks including players, coaches and fans towards its governing body as I have in the last week. When the Suncorp Super Netball Board announced on 23rd June that a 2 goal ‘super shot’ would be introduced for the last five minutes of every quarter of every game in the 2020 season, the usually polite and compliant netball cohort unanimously found their voice.
Within minutes of the announcement, social media erupted like a volcano and with that eruption came feelings from players that have perhaps been dormant for some time. While there was an immediate negative reaction from all cross-sections of the sport; the most noticeable noise came from leaders within netballs playing group. Diamonds captain Caitlin Bassett was one of the first to fire off shots directed straight at the board, and others were quick to follow. Caitlin Thwaites, Jo Weston, Helen Housby, Jo Harten and President of the Australian Netball Players’ Association Nat Medhurst (just to name a few) have since been vocal on their social media platforms in a united display of disappointment. For a sport that has historically been one that has remained quiet and polite, as an invested fan and advocate for women in sport, I was excited to see that players felt confident enough (or had had enough) to finally voice their opinions.
If you would like to know the overall feeling of the playing group, I will leave the media statement from the Players Association here…. https://mailchi.mp/d7f24ec33cae/anpa-24-6-20
In a stunt from the governing body that was definitely ‘shoot first and ask for forgiveness later’, you have to wonder, when stakeholders all across the game had made their opinion known time and time again in regards to the inclusion of a 2-point shot just how brazen the board is to go ahead with it anyway. In a move that they knew would not be well received, we also now know that there was no consultation with clubs, the playing group or Super Netball’s competition committee, of which Melbourne Vixens and Diamonds defender, Jo Weston is a member. Talking to the Guardian after the announcement Weston (also the vice president of the Australian Netball Players’ Association) did not hold back with her opinions. This quote by Weston perfectly summing up the feeling that fans also felt: ‘“There are only so many bells and whistles on a bike before it becomes a clown car.”
So much has been discussed in netball circles this last week and if you are reading this you are most likely one of those people who are invested either in netball or women in sport. You are also likely to watch it on television and maybe you attend games. Perhaps you are a member of a club and even buy merchandise; I do not need to give you a play by play of what happened, you already know. You see the value in this game and you saw it well before any bells and whistles were added.
If you are reading this and are new to our sport, I encourage you to keep reading, there are some things you need to know.
With the announcement of the Suncorp Super Netball franchise over three years ago, when the ANZ Championships dissolved in 2016, there was a real buzz amongst the Australian netball family. While we were sad not to see the skill of our mates from across the ditch week in and week out, there was no doubt we had enough skill in this country to not just survive on our own, but to finally see this sport and its incredible athletes shine and thrive. We welcomed new teams to the SSN franchise, the player movement was exciting and imports from other countries were welcomed with open arms. There was an opportunity here to elevate what already was a top product that was full of the best players in the world. The bones of Suncorp Super Netball are good and that is because the players in the league are the best in the business.
The carrot that was dangled in front of players to be part of the best netball league in the world was so strong that even when New Zealand’s governing netball body told Laura Langman, arguably the best netballer in the world, that if she played for a team in the SSN she would not be eligible to play for the national team, she did it anyway. At the time it was a massive call, but Langman maintained that if she wanted to improve as a player and athlete it was here in Australia that she would best be able to achieve what she wanted to professionally. The decision by Langman to turn her back on her national team would have been one of the toughest of her career but spoke volumes of the investment these players, both domestic and international were prepared to sacrifice for this franchise.
We are soon to start the fourth season of SSN, and if I am honest the latest antic by the board has made me question many things about the direction this sport seems to be taking. Like many fans I am concerned with lack of marketing to the appropriate audience and the shortfall of engagement to the stakeholders who invest the most into this sport; and as the SSN board continues to make changes to the game, it moves further and further away from the grassroots game that is played by 1.2 million people each year in this country.
Chair of the Suncorp Super Netball Commission Marina Go, has been emphatic that this decision was the right one for the sport and has been the one who has bore the brunt of much of the criticism that has circled about on social media. In a case where post-announcement ‘reading the room’ was probably the best option, Go released ‘A Message to Fans’ that stated ‘We knew the decision would create media and public interest as well as fierce debate and argument at all levels of the game and that’s exactly what has happened in the last 24 hours’. Go also stated, ‘But we welcome the debate because we want people talking about our sport…’
Unfortunately, there is no option to debate anything at this point. The board have made the decision on behalf of everyone, so that comment seems a little cheap after the fact. If a debate was in fact what they wanted they would have involved literally any of the many stakeholders who contribute to our fine sport.
The statement added further fuel to the fire with the words, ‘Most of all, we want a broader base of sports fans to consider Suncorp Super Netball as a sport to watch’. Which seems to be the overarching reason that this new rule has been rushed in only five weeks before the competition starts and dumped on clubs with very little time to prepare.
Fans are keen to know just who this ‘broader base of sports fans are’, just how they will be reached and tempted to watch the sport when the current crop of fans (or those who would by default be much easier to attract, you know, the ones who actually play the sport), are often totally missed from marketing all together. Traditionally, netball has been marketed to young girls, which is awesome because the more these girls see and identify with these athletes, the more chance they will continue with the sport later in life, ultimately becoming lifelong fans. I understand firsthand how important that is because I was that young girl. Years down the track I am now a woman who is interested in sport (yes, we exist) and who has the means to not only support the game but have a financial impact on the sport in the way of memberships and merchandise; but even those things are limited for fans. There are limits to membership numbers (due to stadium capacity) and merchandise options sometimes miss the mark. It was suggested on social media the other day that if there were club jerseys with players names on the back, that there would be a market for that and I could not agree more. Imagine if jerseys existed and fans could walk around with MEDHURST proudly displayed across their back. Shut up and take my money.
There is a general consensus amongst fans that many opportunities are missed, and I cannot help but wonder why the SSN board has not first tried to engage what seems to be a captive audience with greater tenacity than introduce gimmicks into a game that simply does not need any extra coating to try and lure in spectators who, if I am really honest are unicorns at this point.
The current fan based is ropeable, I am not sure what the damage control will be from the powers that be, but how do you grow a sport when you have disengaged so many of the loyal fan base? A fan base that existed well before the board of the SSN came into being. Essentially, they have (willingly) alienated the hordes of netball fans who have stuck with this sport through thick and thin. The ones who defend the sport on multiple social media platforms to the very same people the board are trying to engage. Though netball has been a proud sport for (technically) 93 years in Australia, the SSN competition is still in its infancy and I am yet to see the heavy lifting that is required to grow and cultivate what could be a phenomenal sporting spectacle. You cannot simply click your fingers and will it into existence or introduce gimmicks and hope to make it happen. Thoughts and prayers will not work here.
If we read between the lines, the broader base of sports fans they are trying to appeal to are men. Which is actually hilarious because they barley engage women.
I have many friends who play the sport on a Saturday or during the week in social competitions (and have done for their whole lives) but who would never think to go to an SSN game or watch it on the television. If that is not a red flag that not enough is being done to engage the easiest fans of all, I do not know what is – yet here we are.
This new and shiny rule change seems a lazy attempt to slap a band-aid on the issues that are at the core of netball. Netball is tried and tested, it has withstood the test of time as the most played team sport by women, year after year. We have a national team who has won absolutely everything there is to win multiple times over and a group of role models that far out way anything that a male sport could replicate. Could the bottom line be that netball struggles because there is no male equivalent? This is a standalone sport that involves (mostly women) and as such has never received the respect it deserves, as has historically happened for women’s sports. Netball has never enjoyed the success it so rightly deserves because those who hold the most power have absolutely no buy into the sport and adding a 2-point super shot for 20 minutes of a 60-minute game is not going to change that.
The best marketing strategy for netball must surely be to embrace what makes it different from every other sport.
Talking my husband’s ear off about this topic was not only therapeutic but a great insight into a man’s opinion. He is heavily invested in sport, football and NRL being his preferred poison; but he has also had netball in his life for his whole life. He grew up around netball courts because his mother and sister played the sport and things did not improve for him when he met me. He is not one for many words (which bodes well for me) but he did offer this gem of an insight that has stuck with me.
“For all the hard work (netball) has been working towards for so many years to showcase the sport as the professional commodity that they want people to see it as, this new rule at the end of every quarter just feels like a gimmick to engage fans who have never engaged or have shown any interest that they ever would engage in the sport. You (fans) are either interested in the product as it is, or you are watching it as side-show entertainment and that is not how you keep fans long term.”
And the gems kept coming, “The women involved in this sport have worked too hard and sacrificed way too much over the years to let this be the case. I hope there is a voice for these athletes who play the sport now and for the ones who blazed the trail before them because this does not seem right.”
Here is a crazy idea, how about we see netball on TV ads and on nightly news sports reports, the same way the NRL and AFL are shoved down our throats. I might be wrong, but I have yet to see one announcement on Channel 9 that the SSN 2020 season is even on its way.
Despite a global pandemic and a string of sports who cannot hold a competition this year, netball again has shown its resolve, and the players have shown their dedication to the sport they love. This alone surely shows that netball is a leader amongst sport in this country in its own right, and instead of a board who feels the need to chop and change the foundations of this game, perhaps if they saw its value in the same way fans and players do, they would be able to implement ideas that better support the elevation and longevity of a sport that is full of class and already enough.
That is right – ALREADY ENOUGH.
In the current climate where live sport is threadbare, there were so many roads that could have been taken to attract some new viewers, this really could have been the opportunity netball had been waiting for.
The saddest part about it all is that the SSN board, fans and players all want the same thing, to see this sport grow and succeed, it is painfully obvious, however, that we wholeheartedly disagree on the steps that should be taken to get there. Bridges have certainly been burnt and how long they will take to re-build is anyone’s guess. Perhaps this will be a catalyst for change that will improve the way players are treated.
I am not sure what the 2020 Suncorp Super Netball season will bring, but I do know I will not be wasting my time filling out any more surveys asking for my opinion!