If Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw was a sports writer I assume her columns would sound something like this: “I couldn’t help but wonder, wasn’t the label of choker a bit unfair to Sam Stosur? Would she ever get to change the public’s perception of her? Or would she be stuck with the title irrespective of her performances?”
Carrie Bradshaw isn’t a sports writer but I had a Carrie Bradshaw-esque thought pattern.
This seemingly new advent of women’s sport, particularly in team sports, has seen multiple discussions about player talent and commercial viability and remuneration and fan bases and TV audiences.
In these discussions, the men’s version of whatever sport is being talked about is inevitably brought up; they are, for the most part, an inescapable element in the argument.
So what happens when there aren’t any men?
Building their own path
Of all the mainstream Australian sports, netball is the only one without a popular men’s equivalent.
This is not to say men don’t play netball, but rather the women’s competition is the dominant one; an exception to the rule.
I couldn’t help but wonder what that meant? Are there any challenges or benefits netball faces or gains from being one of the only mainstream Australian sports without a popular men’s equivalent? Is the lack of a popular male equivalent a help or a hindrance? Is there even a clear answer to the question?
According to both Netball Australia CEO Kate Palmer and Fox Sports commentator Sue Gaudion the answer is it can both help and hinder the sport.
The lack of a high profile men’s netball league allows these women to, for the most part, play their own game.
“[Netballers] are very rarely, if ever, compared to their male counterpart” Palmer says.
This is unequivocally a benefit for netballers – there are no unnecessary references to how the men play or the perceived superior quality of the men’s game that other women’s codes face.
Naturally, the lack of a popular men’s equivalent also means that almost all of the governing body’s time, money and energy is focused on the women’s game.
“While being the highest participant female sport in Australia, it also enjoys the title of highest profile professional female league” Palmer says.
Netball has always been a sport played and watched predominantly by women. This is what makes it unique in the Australia sporting landscape.
With this in mind, Netball Australia’s CEO says it “has consciously marketed the game to females and families”.
But in order to grow the sport, and ensure commercial deals like what was announced earlier this year are not only continued but made even bigger, netball viewership both in homes and in the stands needs to expand.
“Netball needs to market [itself] to a male audience”, Palmer says. “The challenge is how to reach this market without reducing the opportunities for females.”
This poses one of the biggest challenges for netball – how to get men to watch a game played predominantly by women.
A brand new ball game
Of course, some men have been netball fans for years with plenty also playing the game both socially and competitively.
But for those who have never had an interest or any sort of link to netball, how can the sport turn them into fans?
Netball Australia has strategically aligned its three new teams for 2017 with AFL and NRL clubs and the CEO believes that this will be mutually beneficial.
“It is anticipated that links with the AFL and NRL will help to grow netball’s audience. Collingwood and Storm are both very high profile sport brands. It is also anticipated that both entities will bring new ideas and ways of delivering a professional sport team that will assist netball.”
The links with these football codes are expected to bring over both new men and women to netball.
When the situation is flipped, it can be argued that some women’s teams coming from sports dominated by men will gain the purist fans, those who will watch their team or the specific sport no matter who is playing, rather than fans from a whole other sport entirely.
However, this is not a guarantee.
“We don’t know how much of a leg up other women’s sports in the coming years are going to get by having a male counterpart in their sport” Gaudion says of the various new women’s leagues in sports like AFL and cricket.
The pre-existing large fans bases aren’t the only assumed benefits of existing in a sport dominated by men.
“Most other female codes sit within national sport organisations that have a much higher profile, have significantly more resources and have significantly more opportunity for growth and market domination. For example Cricket Australia’s turnover is $380 million, Netball Australia’s turnover is $20 million, FFA’s turnover is $163 million, Basketball Australia is about the same but benefits from significantly more government investment because it is an Olympic sport,” Palmer says.
The financial situation has always been an obstacle for netball to overcome, especially in relation to broadcast deals.
In the past, the league has had to pay to be shown on TV but now “to have a commercial partner come and say we’re prepared to invest dollar for the first time in the sport’s history, it speaks volumes”, Gaudion says of the deal between netball, Channel 9 and Telstra who will broadcast the new league in 2017.
It is this deal which highlights perhaps one the biggest benefits netball has from being a predominantly female sport.
“Netball very well could be not just in a unique position in the sense that we don’t have the male counterpart, but we could end up in a brilliant position going forward because we simply own our own brand and that’s the reality of it,” Gaudion says.
“It’s up to our sport to put forth the best possible package and have that broadcaster feel so invested in the product that they actually want to invest more.”
“We are completely responsible for putting out the best product we can and that’s both on and off court.”
The netball brand has spent years cultivating itself and it is the brand, and not any potential obstacles or benefits that present themselves through the lack of a male equivalent, which holds the sport in good stead.
“I sit comfortably in saying that we have a product that is very powerful, it’ss not just about being women – I think we’re a great sporting brand – and I think that’s what we’ve been trying to portray to the media platforms not just in the last 12 months but for the last nine years since we’ve had the ANZ Championship, that’s what it’s been about – athletes, sportspeople, it’s not just being female.”
“Netball is a leading sport in Australia,” Palmer says and the future is looking incredibly bright for this sport and its fans.