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  • Shauna Rush


Updated: Nov 19, 2020

This article was originally published on July 24th, 2019.

The sport born out of a misunderstanding of a diagram has burst dramatically onto the sporting consciousness over the summer.

As New Zealand's Silver Ferns dramatically defeated old foes Australia 52-51, in the Netball World Cup final.


Despite the sport not having a major presence in the US, it can trace its routes all the way back to New Orleans, Louisiana.

Netball is actually a deviation from the sport of basketball. After James Naismith invented basketball, in 1891, as an indoor sport for his students, news began to spread of the new game.

The news of the new sport would reach Clara Baer, a physical education teacher at Sophie Newcomb College, in New Orleans. Baer would contact Naismith, asking for a copy of the new sport he invented, so that she could introduce this to her female students.

In the copy of the rules in which Baer received, Naismith included a drawing of the court. The diagram had dotted lines on it, suggesting positions where players were best able to cover. She interpreted the lines as restrictions on where the players could move, so the first rules contained these restrictions.

The sport would be further modified when Senda Berenson, a physical education teacher from Northampton, Massachusetts, believed the sport to be unseemly for young women.

The sport would not gain significant popularity until it left the US. Netball would be exported to the UK where over the next two decades it would see continued growth in popularity.

The British would then take the sport with them sharing it throughout the Commonwealth. Nowadays the sport's main following comes from these Commonwealth nations, such as New Zealand, Australia, Jamaica, Singapore, and South Africa.

The Boom

It may be a sport that has never featured at the Olympics but netball is on the rise, with a record number of participants playing the game.

"Netball is thriving, a lot of girls live and breathe netball," says England Netball development officer Pauline Knight.

So what has caused the boom in the sport?

The launch of two successful professional leagues in England and Australia, along with the sport reaching millions through a sensational 2018 Commonwealth Games, has dragged the sport out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

Now the traditionally viewed ‘girls playground sport’ is evolving.

Since Helen Housby’s (@Helenhousby1) memorable buzzer-beater, which saw England pull off a huge upset by defeating Australia in the Commonwealth Games final, the country has seen a spike in participation. Grassroots participation in the country increased by 44%, with netball becoming the number one team sport played by women in the UK.

The Commonwealth Games final saw 1.5million people tune in in the UK.

The sport would gain much attention in the UK when the Commonwealth Games winning England Roses, from the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards. They were the winners of the prestigious Team of the Year Award and saw off competition from several highly regarded sporting moments to secure the Greatest Sporting Moment of the Year.

Furthermore, the Roses also took home a further three Team of the Year awards in 2018, including, Team of the Year at the Sports Journalists’ Association (SJA) British Sports Awards 2018, the Sunday Times Sports Women of the Year Awards and the BT Sports Action Woman Awards.

The sport's growth caught the of clothing giants Nike, who would partner with England Netball. Together with their Next Level Netball campaign has brought more mainstream exposure to netball, as it has given the historically viewed ‘girls playground sport’ a new urban and fashionable image.

In Australia, the sport is also hitting highs, with a 2017 AusPlay survey showing netball attracted millions of, mostly female, players across the country.

The survey showed 13.3 percent of girls 15 years and younger were playing netball out of school hours, with the biggest age group, girls aged 12 to 14 years, attracting 30.6 percent.

This large number of young players is a huge opportunity for the sport and brands associated with the sport. They will become a large demographic of future consumers.

This summer, netball has seen a further rise in participation, with England seeing an increase of 39.47%. Most of this occurred during the World Cup this month, illustrating the impact that hosting the tournament has had on people following the tournament.

Furthermore, netball is not just a sport for women. Male participation is on the rise, with new formats of the game, such as Fast5’s and ‘Nets’ (indoor netball), facilitating the sport’s appeal to a wider audience. Taking on a form like Twenty20 cricket, Fast5 is fun, fast, and vastly different from the traditional format.

Super Netball

The Australian based professional league Suncorp Super Netball, is looking to capitalize on the growth of the sport.

To ensure the best possible start Super Netball has utilized the knowledge of other Australian sports. The competition has seen a number of its teams backed by some of the biggest names in Australian sport. NRL team Melbourne Storm would back the Sunshine Coast Lightning, while AFL team GWS Giants and Collingwood would back Giants Netball and Collingwood Magpies respectfully.

The inclusion of teams supported by other sporting bodies from the NRL and AFL had been a positive move for the league.

“They have been fantastic and really great additions to our league, they obviously bring a whole range of different skills from outside of netball,’’ said Netball Australia chief executive Marne Fechner (@MFechner71).

The competition was only launched in 2017 and its rapid success has already brought about the question of expansion.

“We’ve seen AFL do it very successfully in the AFLW in relation to their expansion so it no doubt creates something different. We want this to be a thriving, viable, growing proposition so what’s the best strategy for us to do that? That maybe about expansion, it may be about other things,” stated Fechner.

The already gripping 2019 season, looks set to break viewership records for the sport. For the 2019 season fans have been able to enjoy four live games each week. Thanks to in part the successful 2018 season. Which saw a total of over 6.733 million viewers tuned in to a live Super Netball match, which was also an increase of 25.9% on the inaugural 2017 season.

The grand final broadcast reached 1.070 million viewers nationally on the Australian broadcaster Nine, as Sunshine Coast Lightning edged out West Coast Fever 62-59 to retain the title they won in 2017. 

The Netball Live Official App has brought a younger demographic to the sport. The app offers fans the ability to stream games live on their mobile devices. The app on its own is expected to grow Super Netball viewership by over 25%, by the end of this season.

According to Nielsen, over one-in-five Australian adults are fans or consumers of Netball. While compared to the other major women's sports, Super Netball fans are far more engaged, particularly when it comes to watching games on TV and attending games.

This metric is crucial for the sport's growth, as it can drive revenue to the sport. As brands are now measuring the impact of their sponsorships and the value of potential partners. This highly-engaged Super Netball fan base makes the competition a very attractive prospect for brands looking beyond simply the reach of the sport.

As the sport moves forward, it should focus on the thing it does really well, never sitting still. Marne Fechner would state, "I have every confidence in terms of what netball presents for women and girls will continue to be extraordinarily valued and will continue to be a sport of choice for women and girls long into the future and it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that we continue to push the boundaries.”

Suncorp Super Netball chief executive Chris Symington agrees, saying that netball has long been a “humble sport” but now needs to “own” its status as the biggest women’s sport in the country: “But netball is still the No.1 [women’s] sport and we do need to tell that story a bit better.”


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