By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – The sight of playground netball matches taking place in schools the length and breadth of the country is as much part of the English sporting fabric as village green cricket and Sunday morning football.
Tens of thousands of young girls play it at some stage during their education but until relatively recently it barely registered in the psyche of the nation’s sports fans.
Joanna Adams, CEO of English Netball, admits the sport, invented in England as a variation of basketball in the 1890s and exported right across the former British Empire, had an image problem. Not any more though.
Fuelled by England’s national team, the Roses, winning the Commonwealth Games gold last year, the sport is booming and last weekend a sell-out crowd in London watched them beat world champions Australia in a nailbiting finale to the Quad Series.
With a home World Cup looming in Liverpool in July, no wonder Adams says it is the “biggest time in the history” of the sport in England — a chance to complete netball’s elevation from the playground to the world stage.
“It’s because it’s the first time the sport has really reached an audience outside the traditional netball audience,” Adams told Reuters in an interview.
She is not wrong. The recent Quad Series, a twice-yearly event between England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, was televised live while last year’s Commonwealth Games final Down Under against Australia captured the public’s imagination in spectacular fashion as Tracey Neville’s team caused a huge upset in thrilling fashion.
At the prestigious BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards in December the Roses beat off the likes of Gareth Southgate’s World Cup soccer semi-finalists, the European Ryder Cup squad and Ireland’s Six Nations rugby champions to win ‘Team of the Year’.
England’s stunning 52-51 win over Australia was also voted by the British public as the “sporting moment of the year” — eclipsing cricket captain Alastair Cook’s farewell century and England’s penalty shoot-out win over Colombia at the World Cup.
“The Commonwealth Games meant we reached a whole new generation of sports fans, and don’t forget it was also a time when we were fighting for our funding,” Adams says.
“Then SPOTY brought it all back to everyone’s attention. For us to win the public vote and beat football was massive. It was huge. An incredible time for us.”
The old image of a rather static game played by girls in bibs has now been replaced by a slick, fast-paced sport where handling skills rival that of basketball.
England’s 10-club Superleague, televised live by Sky Sports, includes Saracens Mavericks and Wasps — both backed by Premiership rugby clubs.
While getting rich from playing netball in England is still a pipedream, Adams believes it can become a professional career path like in Australia.
Last year U.S. sports giant Nike signed what Adams called a “game-changing” multi-year deal to supply the England Roses.
“We were seen as a schoolgirl sport even if people were embarrassed to say that to us, but we were,” she said.
“Now over the last six or seven years we have worked so hard to change the perception through our Superleague.
“We call the concept ‘from navy blue knickers to Nike’. That sort of says it all. Young girls now see incredible athletic, bright women playing this amazing game and it’s not that schoolgirl image any more.”
Adams says netball is the fastest-growing team sport in Britain, with 130,000 women saying they either returned to netball or took it up after the Commonwealth Games.
With UK Sport funding assured until 2021, the priority now is to maintain the momentum leading into the World Cup and the signs are encouraging. All England’s matches are sold out and organisers have reached 2 million pounds in ticket sales.
“It’s going to be a huge. It’s like an alignment of the stars,” Adams said.
England’s 35-year-old Commonwealth Games winner Jade Clarke says there is now a buzz about the sport.
“The whole nation had been watching and we’ve sort of rolled with it,” Clarke, who has more than 150 caps for England told Reuters.
Clarke, who studied at Loughborough University, had to spend seven years playing in the Australian league as there were few opportunities to make a living playing netball in England.
She has returned with Wasps though and with Adams hopeful that the Superleague will be completely professional by 2024, hopes that in future English girls shooting for the hoop in the playground will be able to aspire to a career in netball.
“The English league is on the rise,” she said. “When I started you couldn’t make any money. But now my dream is that little girls growing up can say I want to be a professional netball player.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis)