Su­per-sized Net­ball

IN A PO­TEN­TIAL BOOM PE­RIOD FOR WOMEN’ S PRO­FES­SIONAL SPORT IN THIS COUN­TRY, THE IN­AU­GU­RAL SU­PER NET BALL COM­PE­TI­TION WILL NOT ONLY SHOW­CASE THE WORLD’ S TOP NET BALL TAL­ENT, IT WILL –FI­NALLY–PRO­VIDE A DE­CENT IN­COME FOR MANY OF ITS STARS. AMONG THE FRONT-R

Inside Sport - - CONTENTS - BY JAMES SMITH

Our net­ballers have pre­pared like pro­fes­sion­als for a long time. Now they’ll be paid like it.

Back in 2003, year-11 stu­dent Kim­ber­lee Green was in the mid­dle of a reg­u­lar PE les­son at St Pa­trick’s Col­lege, Suther­land. Mid­way through the class, a mes­sage was de­liv­ered to her teacher. There was a phone call for Ms Green at the front of­fice, an im­por­tant one the like­able Mr Re­drup thought she should take. On the other end of the line was then-coach of the Syd­ney Swifts, Julie Fitzger­ald, with an in­vite to be part her team’s Com­mon­wealth Bank Tro­phy am­bi­tions go­ing for­ward.

“Jules has given me the op­por­tu­nity to live a life that I’d never thought I’d ever be able to live,” Green pon­ders to­day for In­side

Sport. “To this day I’m still ex­cited and happy that she ac­tu­ally gave me that phone call and be­lieved enough in me … that this young whip­per-snapper who had a lit­tle bit of at­ti­tude at 15 years old was go­ing to have the abil­ity to do what I did.”

Fitzger­ald says of Green: “It’s been an ab­so­lute de­light, not only to watch her grow as an ath­lete and be­come one of the best cen­tre-court play­ers in the world, it’s been an op­por­tu­nity to watch her grow into such a ma­ture young woman. She’s a fan­tas­tic am­bas­sador for our team and our sport. Kim is re­ally tena­cious. She’s one of the fittest and strong­est mid-courters go­ing around. But most of all she has a beau­ti­ful feed. She reads the cir­cle re­ally well, pro­vides them with great ball.”

Green, now 30, is con­sid­ered among the top net­ball play­ers in the world. “Get­ting picked up early from school, fin­ish­ing a lit­tle bit early so that I could get to train­ing was al­ways a bonus. I’d rock up to train­ing in my school uni­form and get a lit­tle bit of flack for it from the girls, know­ing that they were just that lit­tle bit older.”

It was tough for a kid like Green back then, try­ing to keep up with the best play­ers in the world on the court while re­ly­ing on fam­ily to cover the costs of al­most ev­ery as­pect of her new, elite net­ball life. “My first con­tract was $500,” she re­calls. “In terms of school it was re­ally tough. As an ath­lete you make so many sac­ri­fices, but when you’re so young it’s hard to com­pre­hend some­times.”

The Com­mon­wealth Bank Tro­phy ran from 1997 to 2007. It was an eight­team comp which fea­tured now-retro- now-retro-ret­rosound­ing team names such as the Mel­bourne Kestrels, Ade­laide Ravens and Syd­ney Sand­pipers. Back in the day, then-Aus­tralian Work­ers Union (AWU) na­tional sec­re­tary Bill Shorten claimed the av­er­age net­baller was earn­ing just $4000 a sea­son. If the play­ers needed some­thing “ex­tra” like a phys­io­ther­a­pist, they paid for it them­selves. They jug­gled train­ing, play­ing and work com­mit­ments the same way a week­end di­vi­sion-F men’s soc­cer player does to­day. Un­sur­pris­ingly, in 2005, most of the play­ers in the Com­mon­wealth Bank Tro­phy made the de­ci­sion to join the AWU. Green’s ca­reer tra­jec­tory mir­rors that of the flight and for­tunes of net­ball in Aus­tralia. She is cap­tain of one of three new teams in a re­vamped do­mes­tic na­tional comp la­belled Sun­corp Su­per Net­ball, which is a sym­bol of the ex­cit­ing growth in re­cent op­por­tu­ni­ties for women’s sport in cricket, rugby and AFL. The Aussie Di­a­mond is a good one to ask about all mat­ter of things netty, es­pe­cially the sport’s nur­tur­ing of its next gen­er­a­tion in light of in­creased player pay­ments from ever-in­creas­ing broad­cast rights deals. “Sports have be­come a bit more savvy,” Green says of the cur­rent de­vel­op­ing player land­scape. “There are a lot of pro­grams that fit into the HSC and into cur­ricu­lums. They have spe­cialised cour­ses now. I know net­ball has just

started to get on board with a few things like that. Be­cause sport is be­com­ing so big, es­pe­cially in the fe­male space, schools are start­ing to recog­nise that, real­is­ti­cally, if we can sup­port th­ese ath­letes in their school­work, but also on the net­ball court or the footy field, sport can prove a re­ally good av­enue.”

An­other keen ob­server of the im­prov­ing sta­tion of net­ball’s up-and-com­ing young tal­ent is Net­ball NSW chief ex­ec­u­tive Carolyn Camp­bell, who over­sees the op­er­a­tions of both the NSW Swifts and Gi­ants Net­ball, the lat­ter de­but­ing in Su­per Net­ball when the re­vamped comp swings into ac­tion this month. “The big­gest up­lift has been at the rookie level,” Camp­bell tells In­side Sport. “In my Syd­ney mar­ket, the top play­ers con­tinue to be well-re­mu­ner­ated. But now the rook­ies have had an up­lift which the game has been able to af­ford.”

The good news for the firstyear play­ers is that the min­i­mum salary will more than dou­ble for the 2017 Sun­corp Su­per Net­ball sea­son, ris­ing from $13,250 to $27,375 – nowhere near a full-time wage, but as Camp­bell points out, a help­ing hand that wasn’t there be­fore. “Most elite-level play­ers are still semi-pro­fes­sional to a de­gree, but par­tic­u­larly at that rookie level, they prob­a­bly wouldn’t have been able to live on what they were get­ting in the past from net­ball alone; a lot of them had other jobs or they were study­ing. We are all about the holis­tic de­vel­op­ment of the player any­way, so that they do have skills and education for life af­ter net­ball.”

The gen­der pay di­vide in sport screams loud­est when look­ing back on re­ac­tions in 2007 to the ar­rival of net­ball’s suc­ces­sor to the Com­mon­wealth Bank Tro­phy, the much-hyped ANZ Cham­pi­onship. The brand-spank­ingnew league de­liv­ered in­creased player salaries as well as broader cov­er­age on tele­vi­sion via Fox Sports in Aus­tralia and on Tele­vi­sion New Zealand, Prime and Sky Sports across the ditch.

Then into her fifth sea­son of elite-level net­ball, Kim Green was like many of her up-and-com­ing peers – ex­cited at the at-long-last fi­nan­cial recog­ni­tion of the south­ern hemi­sphere’s emerg­ing tal­ent.

“My first con­tract was $500, so for me, head­ing into the new ANZ Cham­pi­onship, where the min­i­mum salary was $12,500, I was like, ‘Oh my good­ness, this is a big step up! This is in­cred­i­ble,’” she says. “To be com­pletely hon­est with you, we had play­ers there go­ing, ‘Oh, this is easy,’ be­cause they hadn’t been a part of the pre­vi­ous league, where you got paid $500 and won­dered why you weren’t get­ting more.”

Hit­ting the lo­cal sportscape like a comet, the ten-team league, fea­tur­ing Aussie sides the Queens­land Fire­birds, Ade­laide Thun­der­birds, NSW Swifts, West Coast Fever and Mel­bourne Vix­ens – and five do­mes­tic out­fits from New Zealand – pro­duced en­thralling net­ball and nail-bit­ing, buzzer-beat­ing fin­ishes. The pas­sion­ate, no holds-barred play­ers were front-and-cen­tre in pro­mo­tional cam­paigns, help­ing to el­e­vate the game to a new level in terms of player re­mu­ner­a­tion and re­spect. Prob­lem was, ac­cord­ing to Green, that’s where it parked for the best part of a decade.

“There was a whole lot of ex­cite­ment amongst the play­ers about the new league, but I think a whole lot of hope, as well,” shares Green, who in 2015 took up a role with Net­ball NSW as a well­be­ing of­fi­cer and has just tran­si­tioned over to the Gi­ants’ women’s AFL squad in a player de­vel­op­ment ca­pac­ity. Green is also 18 months into a univer­sity de­gree in coun­selling, which is very much sat­is­fy­ing a strong pas­sion for look­ing af­ter the wel­fare of play­ers.

“For me, back in 2008 when the ANZ Cham­pi­onship started, my per­sonal hope was to play net­ball for a liv­ing – to be able to put ev­ery­thing all in one bas­ket so that you could be the best player you could be.

“The tran­si­tion in 2008 … to be hon­est, we jumped up a big level, but then we stayed stag­nant for nine years; there was no pay rise in nine years of the com­pe­ti­tion. That’s tough when ath­letes are re­ally start­ing to build ca­reers and are putting in ex­tra hours at train­ing, but still get­ting paid the part­time salary of a semi-pro­fes­sional. Like I said, there’s a whole lot of hope there and I hope, again, go­ing for­ward, that we can con­tinue to step up and keep pro­mot­ing the sport. We have an in­cred­i­ble prod­uct.”

CON­TRACTED PLAY­ERS IN SU­PER NET­BALL WILL SHARE IN A TO­TAL OF $5.4 MIL­LION IN PLAYER PAY­MENTS.

While the trans-Tas­man league failed to move past its peak, that be­ing seem­ingly the league’s very for­ma­tion, net­ball in Aus­tralia has been re­pro­grammed to in­cor­po­rate change into the growth of the sport, ac­cord­ing to Carolyn Camp­bell.

“The whole com­mer­cial model has mor­phed, and prob­a­bly will con­tinue to morph,” Camp­bell says. “The good thing about net­ball is it has al­ways lived within its means. But the Su­per Net­ball com­pe­ti­tion has a new com­mer­cial plat­form to it. There’s been some ma­jor changes. The fact it’s an Aus­tralian-only com­pe­ti­tion, I think, will have in­creased and sus­tained in­ter­est.

“What the num­bers were show­ing us was that the Aus­tralian-ver­sus-Aus­tralian games were re­ally sought-af­ter view­ing­wise, more so than when our teams played New Zealand-based sides. Lo­cal-ver­sus­lo­cal games are go­ing to dou­ble the amount of peo­ple ac­tu­ally watch­ing the game. In re­gards to pay and con­di­tions, be­cause it’s a new league which is start­ing from scratch, we’ve been able to deal with that all the way through so that we’ve got ev­ery­thing re­vised and re­newed.”

Un­der a new col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment for play­ers, net­ball com­pares very favourably to its ri­val women’s leagues, for want of a bet­ter term. Con­tracted play­ers in Su­per Net­ball will share in a to­tal of $5.4 mil­lion in player pay­ments. Each club will have $675,000 to spend on its list of ten con­tracted play­ers, mean­ing the av­er­age player salary will be $67,500. Ac­cord­ing to the Swoop web­site, play­ers will be en­ti­tled to a ground­break­ing parental care pol­icy, pri­vate health in­sur­ance con­tri­bu­tions of up to $1500 per an­num per player, and 100 per­cent in­come pro­tec­tion on all earn­ings for up to two years in the event of in­jury or preg­nancy.

Aus­tralia’s lead­ing fe­male crick­eters are the best paid of any women’s team sport in the coun­try. Many Com­mon­wealth Bank South­ern Stars play­ers, who were run­ners-up in the ICC World T20 in In­dia, are earn­ing in ex­cess of $100,000 a year. On top of that, Cricket Aus­tralia will soon in­crease its fe­male player pay­ment pool from $2.36 mil­lion to $4.23 mil­lion, with max­i­mum re­tain­ers for the South­ern Stars ris­ing from $49,000 to $65,000.

In Novem­ber 2016, the AFL fi­nalised a pay deal for the first two years of its new women’s league. In year one, mar­quee play­ers will be paid $27,000, the next tier of play­ers will re­ceive $12,000 and the re­main­ing listed play­ers will be paid $8500. All three tiers will rise in the sec­ond year. Ac­cord­ing to the ABC, the new deal also en­sures fe­male play­ers in the eightweek com­pe­ti­tion be­gin­ning in Fe­bru­ary re­ceive a travel al­lowance when play­ing in­ter­state, in­come pro­tec­tion in­sur­ance, cov­er­age for out-of-pocket med­i­cal ex­penses and an al­lowance to pay for a carer for a child un­der 12 months.

The av­er­age salary in the Aussie rugby sev­ens women’s squad is ap­prox­i­mately $55,000, with the top three or four women earn­ing around $80,000 to $90,000. Fringe play­ers, mean­while, earn some­thing closer to the min­i­mum wage. Re­cent re­ports sug­gested rugby's play­ers' as­so­ci­a­tion will down the track be re­quest­ing that base salaries for women – be­tween $20,000 and $40,000 – be raised to the men’s bench­mark of $50,000.

The FFA re­cently said it was likely to soon ad­dress the wage land­scape in the W-League. The salary cap for the na­tional women’s league is set at $150,000 per club, with a min­i­mum spend of just $35,000. Mean­while, an elite women’s rugby league tour­na­ment, run in line with the men’s NSW In­trust Su­per Premier­ship, could be launched as soon as 2019. The com­pe­ti­tion would mark the first time fe­male rugby league play­ers re­ceive match pay­ments.

Per­haps there’s hope for all as­pir­ing fe­male pro­fes­sional ath­letes, what­ever their game …

If any team per­son­i­fies net­ball’s lat­est chap­ter in Aus­tralia, it’s the Greater Western Syd­ney Gi­ants’ foray into the na­tion’s new do­mes­tic com­pe­ti­tion. The team was born out of Net­ball NSW’s at­tempts to keep the state’s tal­ented play­ers within the NSW sys­tem, rather than see them wear­ing the colours of their many in­ter­state-based ri­vals.

“We had, in the old ANZ Cham­pi­onship league, about 33 per­cent of the play­ers in the Aus­tralian teams com­ing out of our path­ways sys­tem in New South Wales,” says Carolyn Camp­bell, who is also re­spon­si­ble for the op­er­a­tions of the NSW Swifts. “We have 115,000 reg­is­tered mem­bers. I’m very proud of how

our path­ways sys­tem has de­vel­oped the play­ers. What we were hav­ing, though, was a bit of a block­age at the top end where we couldn’t nec­es­sar­ily ac­com­mo­date all the play­ers com­ing through.

“When it was mooted there was go­ing to be ex­pan­sion to the league and the op­por­tu­nity to have a sec­ond team in the Syd­ney mar­ket par­tic­u­larly, I put to­gether a work­ing group which came up with how this might look and how that might work. That’s sort of the brain­child as to how that hap­pened.”

One of three new Aus­tralian out­fits, along­side the Mag­pies and the Sun­shine Coast Storm (backed by Colling­wood of the AFL and the NRL’s Mel­bourne Storm re­spec­tively), the Gi­ants look set to make an im­pact in year one. The strong line-up is head­lined by star Eng­land goal shooter Jo Harten and former Swifts stars Green and Su­san Pet­titt. When In­side Sport rocks up to a train­ing ses­sion at the still-new mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar Net­ball Cen­tral com­plex at Syd­ney’s Olympic Park, the mood amongst the Gi­ants play­ers is fes­tive, jovial and fun – this de­spite a full morn­ing of pre­hab to get the glutes fir­ing, a solid agility ses­sion, plenty of con­di­tion­ing and then all-im­por­tant con­nec­tions and struc­tural work.

“Net­ball can be­come very se­ri­ous very quickly,” says the squad’s skip­per, Green. “It’s al­ways im­por­tant to have that fun side. I mean, we work su­per-hard, don’t get me wrong, but we do have a lit­tle bit of laugh­ter here and there through­out train­ing. As ath­letes, you’re striv­ing to be the best and you al­most have it in your DNA where you’re con­cen­trat­ing on one thing and one thing only: some­times you for­get to en­joy the mo­ment.

“We’re just start­ing to tran­si­tion into con­nec­tion work now that we have a few more play­ers back, who have been off do­ing all sorts of things. So it’s all about con­nec­tions now and build­ing those. We might play a bit of half-court at the end of a ses­sion; just start­ing to ramp-up our match-play and see­ing what that looks like; hav­ing some struc­ture around what we do on court.”

“THE CHANGE TEAMSPLAYE­RS RARELY BE­CAUSE OF MONEY; THEY LOOK FOR THE OP­POR­TU­NI­TIES WHERE THEY CAN BE THE BEST ATH­LETE THEY CAN BE.”

Men­tor­ing the Gi­ants in their in­au­gu­ral 2017 sea­son will be one of the most pro­fes­sional and ex­pe­ri­enced cam­paign­ers the sport has to of­fer in Fitzger­ald. As stated ear­lier, Fitzger­ald coached the NSW Swifts when the side claimed the in­au­gu­ral ANZ Cham­pi­onship back in 2008. Fitzger­ald is re­turn­ing to Syd­ney fol­low­ing three sea­sons across the Tas­man coach­ing the Waikato BOP Magic in the ANZ Cham­pi­onship.

It’s im­por­tant to Fitzger­ald that this ini­tial crop of play­ers sets the stan­dard for the Gi­ants, who might only now be just start­ing out on their net­ball jour­neys. “We want to make sure that we’re very much pre­pared for the com­pe­ti­tion; that we’re get­ting those com­bi­na­tions hap­pen­ing,” Fitzger­ald says.

“Like ev­ery­body else, we’ve had a very dis­rupted pre­sea­son be­cause of end-of­sea­son in­ter­na­tional tour­na­ments. Play­ers have been away, so we’ve had peo­ple com­ing in and out all the time. We have to work around that. But more than any­thing else, I’m try­ing to in­stil in the group that we are the foun­da­tion Gi­ants team; we lay the foun­da­tion of what’s ac­cepted on and off the court and ev­ery­where else. We can set the stan­dards of what’s ex­pected of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of Gi­ants.”

Like her ca­reer pupil Green, Fitzger­ald has been a close-up wit­ness to the ad­vance­ment of elite net­ballers’ cause in this coun­try over the last two decades. Make no mis­take, says Fitzger­ald, the way the game is played has changed to co­in­cide with more TV air­time and more money for its stars. Whereas they used to be blocks of clay which she could mould over the course of a sea­son, the mod­ern net­baller is an elite ath­lete, su­per-charged and ready for war.

“I think the great­est dif­fer­ence I’ve no­ticed, as the sport has be­come more and more pro­fes­sional, is the amount of time we’ve had to ded­i­cate to things like sports science – diet, re­cov­ery and nu­tri­tion and all those things which help us make bet­ter ath­letes,” says Fitzger­ald. “In the old days we never re­ally had the time to ex­plore that area prop­erly. Now we get to train at far more suit­able times of the day. In­stead of work­ing all day and train­ing at 7.30 at night, we can re­ally ded­i­cate our­selves to things pro­fes­sion­ally.

“There’s no doubt in the world, now that they’re work­ing full-time, and not rush­ing to train­ing and try­ing to fit a mil­lion things into their lives, that they’ve be­come bet­ter ath­letes. They’re fit­ter and stronger than they ever were be­fore. I still don’t think they’re mo­ti­vated by money. The play­ers rarely change teams be­cause of money; they look for the op­por­tu­ni­ties where they can be the best ath­lete they can be.

She con­tin­ues: “As a coach, I think you just have to adapt to the new era. The game is def­i­nitely faster than it ever was. The girls are stronger, the game has changed a lit­tle bit and you have to keep chang­ing with that. And you also have to be in­vested in the play­ers’ de­vel­op­ment to help them reach their full po­ten­tial, men­tally and tac­ti­cally.”

Head­ing into the first Su­per Net­ball sea­son, Green sums up the sport’s progress in Aus­tralia nicely. “Back in the day when we were in the Com­mon­wealth Bank Tro­phy, we prob­a­bly didn’t de­serve what we have now,” she says. “We weren’t the ath­letes we are now. We’ll prob­a­bly look back on to­day in ten years’ time and think, ‘Oh my god! We thought we were such ath­letes then. Look at us now!’ That’s just the evo­lu­tion of netty … of all sports, re­ally.”

Tay­lah Davies puts in the hard pre-sea­son yards at train­ing.

Giant pre-sea­son leaps to­wards a strong first sea­son. Skip­per Kim Green.

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