Ten- team bonanza kicks off a huge year for netball
Netball’s move into the mainstream is confi rmed by the fl air and fervour on show for a big crowd as a huge year begins, writes Nick Ames
When Serena Guthrie left Team Bath in 2015, relocating to the netball strongholds of New Zealand and Australia for the peak years of her career, it was diffi cult to entertain serious thoughts that England could decisively shift the sport’s dial. The fl ow of talent was going one way , the national team was consistently a step behind the antipodeans and the domestic game’s growth was not rapid enough to provide a credible platform for players at the very top level.
On the day she turned 29, Guthrie returned to a stage that could hardly have appeared more different. These days English netball is confident, vibrant, comfortable in its own skin . Guthrie, the infl uential centre in the Commonwealth Games- winning national team, was back in her old team’s colours for the 2019 Netball Superleague opener and the sense of momentum was unmistakable.
“Ten years ago this just wasn’t happening,” she said of a healthy 5,351 crowd at Arena Birmingham, many of whom stayed for all five games of an intensive “Super 10” matchday designed to put all the domestic big hitters in the limelight.
“It’s a really cool time to be a netballer in this country. I want whatever I experienced [ in Australia] to happen in England. If I can help to be a part of that, then amazing.”
England Netball’s unoffi cial target is for the Superleague to be able to compete with the world’s biggest by 2022. That Guthrie is back to help out constitutes a signifi cant feather in the cap and the return of the England captain, Ama Agbeze, who is recovering from knee surgery and sat out of London Pulse’s thrilling lastgasp defeat to Severn Stars yester day afternoon, adds further weight to a product whose audience is widening .
“When you walk into an event like this, there’s a different feeling around the sport,” said Joanne Adams, the chief executive of England Netball . “I feel incredibly proud.
“England’s success has given netball players pride in their sport. Previously, they didn’t exactly hide the fact they were netballers but they didn’t openly talk about it. Now the
One slick turn and release caused a supporter to exclaim:
‘ She’s ridiculous’
perception has changed and people know this is a fantastic women’s sport.”
The crowd’s demographic was subtly different from the norm. Previously, matches would be attended by a predominantly young, female base. Here, there were plenty of older faces – an impression perhaps confirmed when the Tina Turner tribute act commissioned to entertain between matches drew far wilder applause than similar impressions of Ariana Grande and Kylie Minogue – and the male representation was notable, too. “There are general sports fans here as well as just netball fans,” Adams said, and those on a learning curve have joined at the right time.
They saw Guthrie put on a mini-masterclass in Team Bath’s 58- 41 win over the Cardiff- based side Celtic Dragons, who finished bottom of the league last season. She drew gasps with one reverse pass from next to her own semi- circle, another slick turn and release causing a supporter to exclaim: “She’s ridiculous.”
In a sport where space is at a premium, and the real art comes in mustering the extra half- second to find some, it was the kind of elite perpetual- motion performance that justified the decision to set ticket prices at a typical £ 35.
Adams and her colleagues did not want to offer this event for peanuts. “For netball to actually hold commercial value it has to have a credibility,” she says. “Some sports offer tickets for a fi ver – we don’t want
to take advantage of anybody but this can’t be a giveaway sport.”
The intensity and tempo, for anybody who has not attended a live game , are eyecatching . “I think people are starting to understand just how fierce and fast this sport is, and just how hard we athletes work out there‚“said Natalie Panagarry, a recent callup to the England squad whose Loughborough Lightning side were thrashed 72- 42 by the champions, Wasps, in the second game. “It’s really nice that people are recognising it, but we’ve always been here .”
The task now, in a year that will bring a World Cup to England in July and a keenly awaited Quad Series against Australia, New Zealand and South Africa next weekend, is to make use of the springboard. The strength of the league and of the national team are, to an extent, symbiotic: if England are performing well, the local game will attract more attention and the talent pool is only likely to increase, particularly with an estimated 1.4 million women playing netball every week. “If young girls don’t get to see their role models play live then it’s much harder to get them to play the sport,” Adams said.
Their attention was held yesterday , and not only by Guthrie. Not everything was note perfect – a request for fans to come in fancy dress as “female icons” was almost entirely ignored and perhaps netball’s status these days merits a keener focus on sporting entertainment – but British netball’s journey into uncharted territory as popular spectator sport is in its early stages.
“I’m looking forward to riding the wave, riding the hype,” Guthrie said.
On this evidence she has no shortage of people to take with her.
Serena Guthrie makes her homecoming in the familiar colours of Team Bath after three years playing in New Zealand and Australia
Brie Grierson ( above right) fends off an opponent during her London Pulse side’s knife- edge 51- 49 win over Severn Stars
The reigning champions Wasps ( right) swat aside Loughborough Lightning 72- 42