The AFL wants to poach the best female athletes in the country for its much-hyped women’s league, to begin next February, but the sport with potentially the most to lose, netball – Australia’s number one female participation sport – isn’t intimidated.
Erin Delahunty

9 May 2016 - 7:45 PM  UPDATED 17 Jun 2016 - 7:23 AM

Three of netball’s leading names – former player and coach turned analyst Sue Gaudion, current Melbourne Vixens captain Madi Robinson and former Australian Diamonds captain, now commentator Liz Ellis – said the sport is alert to the threat of future stars being attracted to AFL, but not alarmed. 

They say netball is keeping a watching brief on the AFL’s rising popularity, although the number of women and girls who play netball across Australia – more than 1.2 million – dwarfs the 284,501 who currently play Aussie Rules.

After the success of televised women’s matches, which showcased the best players from the Victorian Women’s Football League, the AFL last year announced a women’s league for 2017, but details about the competition’s length and structure, player selection and pay rates, rules and other key areas are still to be finalised.

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Bids for licenses in the league closed at the end of April, with AFL clubs Adelaide, Brisbane, Carlton, Collingwood, Fremantle, Geelong, Greater Western Sydney, Melbourne, North Melbourne, Richmond, St Kilda, West Coast and Western Bulldogs applying – some of which are rumoured to also want to field sides in next year’s new-look ANZ Championship, netball’s trans-Tasman competition.

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… but netball still has the upper hand

Despite the changing sporting landscape, Sue Gaudion said netball was in its strongest position ever, from grassroots to the elite level, insulating it from any potential danger the league and accompanying talent identification search posed.

“Should netball be nervous? Of course there will be netball athletes who will be very interesting prospects to potentially play Aussie Rules, but netball is an exceptionally good place right now, right across the board,” Gaudion said.

The national netball side, the Australian Diamonds cemented their place as the best team in the world last year, winning the Netball World Cup in Sydney, which attracted nearly 100,000 spectators over 10 days.

And according to the game’s governing body, elite Australian netballers, playing in the ANZ Championship now earn an average of $50,000 a year, up from a paltry $12,000 six years ago. The AFL hasn’t released details of a salary cap or pay structure, but some reports have suggested marquee women’s AFL players could earn about $20,000, while others nothing.

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“If there’s a player sitting in the (netball) system today, probably the carrot at the top is as good as it’s ever been. If it was five or 10 years ago, maybe the answer would be different, but netball is a powerhouse right now,” Gaudion said.

Nothing but support for women in sport

Far from wanting to compete with Aussie Rules, the netball fraternity is thrilled to see another opportunity for elite sportswomen to shine, Gaudion said.

“Personally, I think the pool is big enough for everyone. The more professional women’s sport that’s out there, the better!”

“At the end of the day, there has to be a passion for the sport you’re playing, too. One of netball’s great strengths over so many years has been the absolute burning passion for the sport we’ve seen from players. They’re not there for big bucks. We may lose one or two players to AFL, OK, but we may gain a few, you never know.”

Madi Robinson, one of netball’s best known names, doesn’t anticipate any affect ... yet. “In a couple of years’ time, maybe, it might affect player pathways, but the great thing about netball is that you don’t have to have a particular body type, like in some other sports. You don’t have to be tall, or a stereotype shape. Our teams, at all levels, are made up of different shapes and sizes,” she said.

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Robinson said netball’s formidable footprint across Australia, historically strong participation rates and clearly defined player pathways, put the sport in a strong position.

“There is always, always going to be people playing netball. The game offers so much to young girls and women, and boys too, and the health and social benefits of our game will stand us in good stead into the future. There’s such a depth of incredible passion and love for the sport of netball in this country,” Robinson said.

Junior development the key

Liz Ellis said while netball “absolutely has to watch its back”, the challenge for the game is at the development level, as much as the elite.

“As a sport, we want to ensure the best female athletic talent is coming to netball. It’s natural for kids to sample a range of sports as they grow up and our sport now needs to think about AFL as another option parents are looking at,” Ellis said.

She said the AFL does junior development really well. “The challenge for netball is – is the initial offering appealing enough? Is there a clearly defined career pathway all the way from NetSetGO to the top? Of course, from that very junior level, of all the kids, maybe one girl will go on to become a professional, but you simply have to have that prospect to attract the best talent,” she said.

The elite product was near-perfect, Ellis said. “Netball has had a lot of years to get the product right and it’s pretty close to spot-on right now. We have to continue to provide broadcasters with a dynamic and exciting product and be nimble enough to change where required,” Ellis said.

“Netball has a real competitive edge, because at the elite level, it is only played by women and that has a huge appeal to broadcasters, advertisers and the corporate dollar. Literally nothing compares to netball.”  

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