It feels like netball is on the brink in the UK. Certainly with Commonwealth gold, a home World Cup and a core of elite-level players the window of opportunity has never been as wide – but how does the sport grow to match the levels in Australia and New Zealand?
The links between rugby and netball have long been present and in 2019, at the top level, they are stronger than they have ever been thanks to rugby’s venture to the court from the field.
From shared amateur level competitions across England and Europe to the prominence of both sports within the British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) programme, the relationship is thriving. And could it be key to netball’s future?
Amid the successful university programmes of Loughborough and Bath, the established development pathways of Celtic Dragons and Manchester Thunder, a new breed of club is emerging thanks to tie-ups with long-established sporting names.
It’s shaken things up in a sport that has been used to doing things a certain way for a long time.
Wasps and Mavericks became the first tie-up teams to go head to head on Monday night and it was Wasps who emerged triumphant.
The introduction of three new franchises in 2016 saw Wasps Rugby take the first steps. Wasps Netball joined Sirens and Severn Stars in shaking up the traditional Superleague surroundings and Wasps have gone on to claim the last two Grand Finals in their first years of existence.
Crossing codes, rugby league giants Leeds Rhinos are heavily involved in bringing Yorkshire netball back to the top level with Leeds Rhinos Netball. Having been granted a Pathway licence last year, they have Superleague ambition of their own following investment into the development side of the game over the last six months.
On January 3, benecosMavericks announced a partnership with Saracens after they acquired a 50 per cent stake in the Vitality Netball Superleague team. The organisation’s Commercial CEO Tim Hunt explained why netball caught his eye.
“Netball in particular for two reasons really. Specifically around Mavericks, the way in which their development pathways are set, the work they do in the community and the reach that they have into schools and clubs is very aligned to how we’ve had great success with Saracens,” Hunt told Sky Sports.
“And, we want to do more with Saracens on the rugby side particularly around the community engagement and outreach through schools and education so there were some synergies there.
“Also, one of the big things that we talk about, and build the organisation around at Saracens, is family.
“A lot of people think that it’s just a word that we use but it’s very real. Our owner and his daughter are my bosses, it is a family business.
“Those are the reasons why we very quickly increased our commitment, support and investment behind the Saracens Women’s rugby team and then added netball to the family as well.”
That relationship is two-fold, says Carter: “The opportunities to work with another professional club in a professional sport like Leeds Rhinos and mixing with coaches who have been working at the highest level over a number of years.
“The environment those players are in, how they structure a week around athletes, support stuff but also the Leeds Rhinos Foundation who are linked right the way through the school programme.
“The schools, the universities and the colleges are already attached the ‘brand’ if you like after years and years of hard work – it opens the door and makes it easier for netball to get in.”
At Wasps, the elements of diversity and audience reach were also drivers when it came to expanding their sporting footprint.
“For any kind of business, whatever business you are in, that question of sustainability becomes really crucial,” says Wasps Netball’s franchise manager Sarah Taylor.
“Certainly in the sports market it’s about diversity and being able to expand your reach, expand that level of provision, extend your brand.
“I think certainly from a Wasps point of view, in the 150 years that the club had been around it hadn’t done anything other than rugby.
“That natural synergy between rugby and netball was quite apparent and with it came an opportunity to expand the reach out to a female market.
“If you combine that with the fact that the West Midlands had been crying out for Superleague netball for a long time, it was almost like the stars aligned.”
The work of Sky Sports expert Tamsin Greenway was integral when it came to taking Wasps Netball from a notion to a reality.
Taylor’s own involvement grew from initially being Warwickshire’s netball development officer to becoming first-team manager, leading the community side and now taking up the position of Netball Franchise Manager.
When it comes to Wasps Netball and Saracens Mavericks, many may be wondering how the partnerships manifest themselves and whether there is true crossover between the rugby sides of their businesses and the netball? It’s clear from both Taylor and Hunt that neither organisation is paying lip service to the term ‘partnership’.
“The benefit of the model that we have is to have the learnings we can take from the rugby and visa-versa,” Taylor told Sky Sports.
“We learn so much, if you think about rugby what it takes to fill that stadium with thousands of people. How you engage with that fan base? How you develop a community programme that provides opportunities at grassroots?
“As a franchise manager I’m purely netball and there’s a small team that’s also purely netball but the bulk are provided from across the business and it’s really how it succeeds. We don’t stand alone.”
With a little over a month passing since Saracens and Mavericks aligned, the integration process is ongoing for Hunt, but he is very keen to stress that does not mean erasing what is in place already.
“I’m absolutely not swallowing up what’s been done before into Saracens as a whole, this is more about supporting, helping and adding to,” he adds.
“Of course there are crossovers. We’re already talking around how the medical services can support the Mavericks team, how our physios and S&C coaches can support and how our infrastructure can support the organisation as a whole.
“We want to grow Mavericks. We want it to be a really significant part of the Saracens organisation.”
What is abundantly clear from looking at both Wasps Netball and Saracens Mavericks is the considerable opportunity that the two Superleague entities have created by aligning alongside elite rugby organisations.
There’s no hiding from the fact that rugby is much more established than netball. What it does mean is lessons can be learned and benefits realised in the short, medium and long term on netball’s side of the fence.
The commercial stock of netball continues to rise and Wasps Netball and Saracens Mavericks have potentially created golden tickets through their choice of partners. Tickets that mean doors are opened into two sports for sponsors and commercial partners.
Australia and New Zealand are the benchmark for netball, full-time athletes, sold out arenas and stadiums and established relationships with their rugby brethren.
“We have done quite a bit of research, not just in the UK and that included going over to Australia where the tie-ups are quite prevelant, the Magpies, the GIANTS and most Suncorp teams are in someway connected to different codes,” says Carter.
“Rhinos went to Melbourne last year as part of the World Club Challenge and Gary Hetherington [Rhinos chief executive] spoke to them about how the netball side fits into their structure and how the relationship has grown.
“Rugby League is a good example of a sport that went from amateur to professional and netball is in that area at the moment.
“One of England Netball’s ambitions is to make the league full-time and I know that will make things difficult for the University models.
“I have worked with two at Superleague levels, I know what they are able and not able to do but with these relationships we don’t know where the ceiling is – for any young girl starting out on that journey there is a sense of where can this go, can we end up with our own Netball World Club Championships?”
It remains to be seen whether other Superleague teams follow in their footsteps and whether there would ever be a jump that could take us to a Loughborough Tigers and Glasgow Sirens or even a Manchester City Thunder or Chelsea Storm.
Funding and resources make the world go around, and it’s where netball in the UK still trails its southern hemisphere counterparts so to see teams establishing positions of strength that should have benefits from the top right the way down to the grassroots can only be positive.
As it seeks to seize its moment, new investment in netball can only be a good thing, when that new investment has proven sporting pedigree the game can only be giving itself further opportunity to continue growing.
Watch Saracens Mavericks take on Team Bath in the Vitality Netball Superleague on Saturday February, 16 live on Sky Sports Mix and Arena from 5.45pm. Also, Sky Sports will be showing every game of the 2019 Vitality Netball World Cup in July