Netball in Australia appears to be in a twilight zone, stuck in a position between its actual popularity and the perception of what that popularity actually looks like.
There’s two elements at play – on one hand, netball has long been one of the biggest grassroots sports for children, and continues to grow. In 2018, it was the fourth most popular team sport, and the third most popular for girls.
But also, netball, at its elite national level, tends to be placed by some sports fans firmly in the background – a reliable performer but never the main show.
This is not about its professionalism or entertainment value, which in the era of Super Netball can not be questioned. It’s more about how the game has been perceived and defined by the wider public.
It’s an odd contradiction, especially when you consider the international pathways and how well the elite national competition actually performs on all the measures that sport officials and broadcasters measure success.
Consider this. In 2018, during its third year of its partnership with Channel Nine, viewership grew by double digits – a staggering 25.9 per cent growth.
According to AdNews, the average game drew 140,000 viewers, with a total number of 6.733 million for the season.
Admittedly, the average viewership for AFL games in 2018 was 307,793, but given the enormous gulf in their respective profiles – and the free media publicity involved – it’s not a shabby result.
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.
We’ve long just been going about our business and there’s certainly a sentiment of ‘Hey, remember us, we’ve been around for almost 100 years’.”
Last year’s thrilling Super Netball grand final between Lightning and Fever ended in a nail-biting 62-59 result, with 1.07 million fans tuning in.
That result must also be placed alongside the sport’s sky-high participation rates. A 2017 AusPlay survey showed netball attracted millions of, mostly female, players across the country.
It showed 13.3 per cent 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 per cent.
That’s a huge demographic of future consumers – of sport and products.
And yet, the public and media perception of netball still seems to lag with this success. Why is netball mostly offered a participation medal just for showing up, opposed to the solid gold it actually deserves?
Looking at the coverage of AFLW in its first three seasons, there is certainly a disproportionate media component involved.
Super Netball and AFLW should not be pitted against each other – they’re both brilliant elite competitions and have the growing fanbases to prove it. But like the proverbial ‘shiny new toy’, AFLW has certainly grabbed the public’s attention in a way that netball arguably never has.
Part of the reason appears to be the AFLW joining soccer’s W-League as only the second elite women’s football competition in Australia.
Netball’s roots as a women’s game means it lacks the ‘unique’ crossover element of women taking on a game that was traditionally dominated by men.
Despite this, netball continues to grow, steadily, in the background.
The strong growth and popularity of netball has done plenty to help pave the way for other women’s elite competitions, including AFLW and the Women’s Big Bash League.
And this is something that should be celebrated, because the more women’s sport there is, the better for all of us.
Rather than competing for the one seat at the table, adding more chairs will ensure a bigger sporting feast.
Netball officials are determined not to remain a sporting dark horse.
“There’s this idea that women’s sport has been a recent phenomenon, but it’s not. Netball’s been at the forefront of that for a very long time,” Symington says.
“That’s a challenge for us, for the netball community.
“With this groundswell of other codes coming in and that fact that gender equity is a talking point, the fact that women are getting more access to men’s sport is fantastic.
“But netball is still the No.1 [women’s] sport and we do need to tell that story a bit better.”