Viewers of Sky Sports recently had the chance to see an English Ashes whitewash. The sport? Netball!
England’s world No.3 team took on the world No.1 and gave them what for. The feat was made even more remarkable by the fact that England had only beaten the Aussie side TWICE before this series and now that total is FIVE.
All the soundbites coming out of the series was how this is a huge step for the sport in this country, that is in its strongest ever position and will push on from here. I felt inclined to look into this a bit further to see if the buzz is justified.
Well, not only were the three games won by England, but they were won to sold out crowds. Ok, the venues aren’t massive capacity centres, but an aggregate attendance of around 16,000 saw the three games live at the venues.
Sport England definitely feel the sport is going in the right direction. Whilst a number of more high profile sports like Tennis and Rugby Union have seen funding cut for the four year cycle starting 2013, Netball has seen an increase to £25.3million from £18.7million given for the last four year cycle.
The funding increase is based on participation figures increasing by a third during the four year period. An increase of 40,000 people playing netball at least once a week during the period has seen overall participation rise to around 160,000 players per week.
During the period, participation increases were seen across age groups and demographics, but notable increases were seen in the age group 16-25 (25,000). The satisfied one of the key aims of retaining players to the game that are leaving schools and colleges .
The figures show a great success story at grass roots level. This is supported by the fact that Sport England funding figures during the period just ended included a bonus £1million that was awarded by The National Lottery as reward for Netball England’s ‘Back to Netball’ program. This program has been key in the boost in participation. The ‘Back to Netball’ initiative was showcased as a gentle introduction into sport and gives people from a variety of social, economic and ethnic backgrounds the chance to play. Clearly the number show it has worked.
With Netball it isn’t all about grassroots, as the England team have recently shown. Netball is one of only three non-Olympic sports that gets Sport England funding for the elite level of the game. £5million of the £25million allocated to the sport will go towards the senior elite team over the next four years. Key in this cycle, and undoubtedly a major reason for the elite level funding, is the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Building into that and as part of the sport’s growth is an increase to 12 test matches a year from six – so we can expect more series like the triumphant one we’ve just seen.
Optimism is high at the top level of the game. Funding isn’t the only reason for this. As well as having an organised regularly televised domestic league – the Superleague – for our players to compete in with a host of international stars featured, the top players are also now playing in the top league in the world – the ANZ League. Three players from the England squad are playing in this league now and the experts say it showed from the performances in the recent series win.
Attendances in the Superleague aren’t great (around 30,000 total in the 2011 72 game season), but trends have been upwards and some individual games have been able to attract four figure crowds. Sky Sports broadcast 6 live games in 2012, up from 4 in 2011. Typically broadcast on Thursday nights in late winter/early spring, the live games will have competed at times with Europa League football and Premier League Darts for viewers. Despite this, viewing figures have been promising. The 2011 Grand Final attracted 90,000 live viewers, and personalities like Gary and Phil’s sister Tracey Neville don’t hurt the games image at all.
The ashes series success has given the sport great exposure in the national media. Interview spots on BBC and Sky Sports News have followed and newspaper column inches have been dedicated more than ever before. So where next?
Well, the sport hasn’t moved out of definite minority status yet, that’s for sure. Participation figures are more than promising, but I feel this is still a participation sport, not a spectator sport. Media attention and sponsorship opportunities are on the up right now, but this has to be followed by a greater commitment to increasing audiences in arenas and on TV if the sport truly wants to get the national exposure the passionate contributors to the game feel it deserves.
A long term aim is to be an Olympic sport. The way I see it, being a participation over spectator sport plays into the Olympic wheelhouse – it’s basically a festival of high participation sports. The major stumbling block there is that this is a women only sport. Sports tends to be a male dominated area, making it hard to see a female sport dislodging a male sport on the Olympic slate. Another issue is this is seen to be a Commonwealth only sport – like cricket and bowls, it would be unusual to see the leap to the Olympic arena. Rugby has made the leap, but through the more accessible Sevens game which already has wider global appeal. Maybe having a 3rd best team that has only beaten the best team once in a series ever doesn’t help too – there isn’t much depth and unpredictability in the international game.
Me, personally, I’d much prefer netball in place of the completely uninspiring Women’s Basketball – but convincing the IOC and their sponsors isn’t something I see as likely.
Netball – definitely on the up in the UK, and in Australasia, but a long way off reaching the promised land. But hey, Gold for England in Glasgow would be pretty great.
Source: Netball – on the up?
Big sports fan (Wigan Warriors, Manchester United, Pittsburgh Steelers, Lancashire County Cricket Club, St. Johnstone). Walking enthusiast.