By any measure, Netball Australia’s long-awaited announcement about the future of the game – which includes the end of the trans-Tasman ANZ Championship, a new all-Australian league, with new sides aligned to AFL and NRL clubs to replace it and a paid broadcast deal with Channel 9 and Telstra for primetime free-to-air coverage – is pretty spectacular.
In the brave new netball world, Australia’s number one female participation sport will be on free-to-air TV in primetime, every Saturday night – and the game’s players can expect a big pay day, even full professionalism within half a decade, thanks to a cash from broadcasters and sponsors. More Australian players will get court-time at the elite level, which will further fuel the national side, the Diamonds’, international dominance. Like 193cm shooting superstar Caitlin Bassett pulling in a lifted ball as she nearly falls backwards out of court … it’s huge and exciting.
Collingwood, the Greater Western Sydney Giants and Melbourne Storm are now part of netball’s future, fielding teams in the new domestic league, which will begin in February. The Pies will have a Melbourne-based team, in direct competition to existing ANZ franchise, the Melbourne Vixens, GWS will work with Netball NSW on a second Sydney-based team and NRL club, Melbourne Storm, will set up a team at Storm’s Sunshine Coast facilities, in partnership with the University of the Sunshine Coast.
The five-year broadcast deal provides for live free-to-air television for two of four games each week and live streaming and delayed television for all other games. At present, only one game is on free-to-air live, each Sunday on Channel 10, and all other games are shown live and on replay on Foxtel. For years, the ANZ Championship has been effectively subsidised by NZ pay TV broadcaster Sky Sports, so a paid deal is considered the Holy Grail.
It’s hard to argue with Netball Australia CEO Kate Palmer when she says the deal is the “most significant broadcasting rights agreement in the history of Australian women’s sport” because the game will reach more eyeballs than ever and enjoy a position on the sporting landscape other women’s’ sport, such as basketball, can only dream of.
But the loss of the trans-Tasman element, a lack of detail about salary caps, import rules and any cross-over element with a new domestic New Zealand league, speculation about rule changes and questions about the TV coverage, as well as worries about how existing franchises can compete with behemoths like Collingwood, have all been talking points. So many questions remain.
Given most of the details were leaked, it was no surprise to learn the trans-Tasman alliance was killed off after nine seasons – but it still came as a shock. To most fans, it felt like a break-up you knew was coming. Where, yes, you know the other person isn’t right for you and you know you’re probably better off without them, but you still feel ... sad. You’re losing something you once loved. While in recent years, Australian teams have come to dominate Kiwi sides on the court, most fans have relished the trans-Tasman rivalry and will miss it – and the different game styles it showcases. The fierce competition between the two nations will continue at international level, but we’ll miss seeing players like Maria Tutaia – you gorgeous, talented freak – every week.
Or maybe we will see Tutaia in the Australian league? We don’t know, because there has been no word about new import rules. Will Netball Australia allow more overseas players? Will Netball New Zealand let Kiwis play here? Or will the governing body insist stars play in their domestic competition – as has been the case in the past – to be eligible for Silver Ferns selection? This will have a huge bearing on the success or failure of the new competition. Many have raised the idea of a cross-over final, where the winners of each domestic competition meet, but again, no details are known.
The next worry for purists is rule changes allegedly demanded by broadcasters. Rumours have been swirling that major alterations will be made to how the game is played – including the introduction of a two-point scoring zone – to make the game more appealing.
Netball fans would consider this blasphemous, akin to changing the shape of the ball in Aussie Rules or adding four more tackles into each set in league. Even though scoring variations have been trialled in pre-season competitions and in the Fast5, most fans – including me – think netball would cease to be netball with such a rule. Palmer chose her words carefully when asked about it yesterday, saying they “won’t be making rule changes for the sake of it.” But she added: “We’ll look very closely at how to make the game more appealing.”
Nine’s managing director, Amanda Laing – who would have put aficionados off-side when she used the term ‘hoop’ in interviews yesterday, when she clearly meant a ring – denied coming to the table with a list of changes. Time will tell.
Then there’s the TV deal. Diehard fans who have coughed up for long-term Foxtel subscriptions are miffed, considering they will have to pay Telstra for a subscription if they want to watch all matches from the new competition live on their TV screens. To watch live on an app will also cost. One fan noted on Facebook:
“The problem being, to see all games live, we will be required to purchase additional subscription services. There is also a big difference between watching in HD on a television and watching a game in an app on a smart phone. This is a huge step backwards.”
Fans are also rightly asking what the netball will be “up against” in primetime, especially on a Saturday night. Will it have to compete with the AFL? Blockbuster movies? Just like Australia, New Zealand is planning a domestic competition to replace the ANZ Championships, and our friends across the ditch say they will schedule matches so they don’t clash with other big sporting codes, in an attempt to maximise TV audiences. An interesting thought.
Palmer insisted yesterday the money from the broadcast deal will flow through to the players, but there was no word on what the new salary cap might be. It’s currently about a paltry $270,000 a roster. The players simply must benefit for the deal to be worth it.
Then comes the biggest elephant in the room: the power clubs like Collingwood and Storm wield. How will Netball Australia keep them in check? How will current franchises, run by state bodies, which have a responsibilities to game more broadly, possibly compete? It’s not a concern isolated to fans. Former Diamond defender and Vixens captain, Bianca Chatfield, is worried. She wrote in the Herald Sun club president Eddie McGuire had quipped with some junior Victorian players this week about the Pies “paying more than the other mob” come next year, when the Pies have a team.
“It was a gag, but it masked a harsh reality that could come back to bite netball in the butt. I truly hope the new teams coming out of the footy codes genuinely love our sport as much as we do, enough to value it equally alongside the elite men and the footy community that is their core business,” Chatfield wrote.
“I still hope no matter what happens in the new league, every little girl dreams of playing the green and gold, not just the black and white.”
Chatfield nailed it. Netball has invited the big boys onto the court, so we better be prepared for some contact and obstruction.