Charlie McConnell in action with Hellbent
Charlie McConnell in action with Hellbent      

 

For those who have never played nor taken any but passing interest in the game – i.e. most males in this country – netball is a variant of basketball with the contact element taken out. Teamwork, allied to smart tactics, is essential for success. You score through an elevated metal ring as in basketball but with no backboard. No bouncing or dribbling with the ball is allowed, a player with the ball has just three seconds to pivot and pass it on to a team-mate. With the ball handler unable to advance herself, her team-mates must keep in constant motion to find space to receive a pass.

However each player is limited in the zones of the court in which she may set foot. If this were not so, there would be a congestion of bodies at either end and physical contact become unavoidable. As it is, the competition to get to a shooting position when your team has the ball, or to intercept when it doesn’t, leads often to a mutual flailing of limbs that the referee has to control vigorously. And, oddly, the no contact rule seems to end up favouring the larger and heftier players in tight areas, since they occupy more space.

The game is played ubiquitously by girls in schools up and down the UK and in countries of the Commonwealth – particularly Australia, New Zealand, former African colonies and the islands of the Caribbean and Oceania. And as a female adult sport it continues to attract high participation levels. According to Sport England’s most recent survey, for the year 2015/16, they are at an all-time high: around 180,000 people in England and Wales aged 16 or over (the vast majority female) claim to play the game weekly, a jump of 16% over the previous year and 61% higher than ten years ago.

This popularity is reflected nationally in sell-out crowds at the Copper Box, former Olympic site in East London which hosts top club and international matches, and in television deals with Sky and other broadcasters. But fundamentally the game has been thriving despite the absence of celebrity culture and commercial interests that increasingly dominate mainstream sports like football, rugby and cricket. How many regular netball players, let alone other members of the sporting public, could name either a single international player or a club playing in the principal home competition, the Vitality Netball Superleague (won this year by Loughborough Lightning with Wasps Netball as runners-up in case it comes up in an abstruse sporting quiz)? Furthermore there is no netball played in the Olympic Games, which means that there has been no capture for the sport of patriotic fervour and media headlines every four years, nor any dividend from Sport England in between with the justification of boosting our medal prospects.

The governing body England Netball (EN) clearly wants to change this, if not by securing Olympic status, which looks improbable in the near future, nevertheless by maximising the sport’s profile at elite level. In a government-promoted campaign called TeamUp running for three years from 2016, EN has joined with England Cricket and England Hockey to promote the hosting of World Cup tournaments for women in each of their respective sports over three successive years (the 2017 cricket cup has been and gone; hockey happens next year, netball in 2019). The campaign is intended to ensure that “all 7-13-year-old girls have the opportunity to experience the benefits of team sport”. However the stated goal – to maximise the legacy of three home World Cups and build a fan base for women’s team sports” seems oriented towards watching as much as playing. Teachers are offered “free training” and access to a “variety of support resources” with reward points for delivering girls’ team sport activities. These are then usable for potential free tickets “along with opportunities such as being ball girls for a World Cup Final”. Sports Minister Tracey Crouch put the message across: “The TeamUp campaign will maximise the legacy of these World Cup events and help the next generation of world sports stars”.

This “top down” approach is typical of the mentality in mainstream sports administration, but seems a change of direction in EN’s outlook. Back in 2010, with initial financial backing from Sport England to give credit where it’s due, it launched a mass “bottom up” programme Back To Netball. This funded local authorities to employ qualified coaches and run training sessions for adult women to return to the sport they learnt back in primary school. In recent years the funding has been renewed through Lottery grants and corporate sponsorship. This programme, as still promoted on the current EN website, makes no mention of the joys of team sport, nor of emulating elite players, but stresses health benefits – “losing weight, developing the body’s cardiovascular system and improving muscle tone”. Was there a belief that women must be appealed to in terms of things that do them good, an alternative to the gym treadmill or dance floor aerobics, rather than for competition’s sake?

Whatever the motivation, Back to Netball seems to have had notable success in Hastings, not just in enticing health-seeking women back into training sessions but turning them into regular players. There are currently nine local adult teams contesting weekly league matches, winter and summer. These take place on Wednesday evenings on two adjacent outside courts at Helenswood Sports Centre enabling a total of four games of an hour each. With each side deploying seven players at any one time plus two or three roll on/roll off substitutes on the sidelines, that’s up to 80 players competitively engaged each week, with many more attending practice sessions on other evenings.

Hastings Hellbent, a club formed by Active Hastings eight years ago with the deliberate aim of re-connecting players with the sport, has 20 affiliated women divided into two league teams, Hellbent Lightning and Hellbent Storm. The teams are of equal standard and status according to Lightning coach Eugenie Demeza, with no attempt to turn them into first and second team squads as more hierarchical male sports clubs might be inclined to do. The players range widely in age from 16 to over 50. (Apparently there is one redoubtable veteran aged over 70 who turns out regularly for another team in the league, Eclipse). Hellbent train regularly on Tuesday evenings at Summerfields. They would welcome further recruits: if they got enough they would form a third team to play in the Wednesday league like the existing two.

I watched the Lightning team in league action the other evening, winning a tight contest 29-27 against the current leaders Hastings. Eugenie was thrilled with both the performance and the result. She does not seem over-interested in netball at World Cup level. She does buy in eagerly, however, to the joys of team sport, and thinks that it is quite as natural to women as to men. They may be less keen to organise themselves hierarchically, preferring to connect organically with a group all aiming at a common goal. But it’s not only an evening of healthy physical activity they’re after.

Women can be just as competitive as men when they’re down, or (in the case of netball) up, to the wire.