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27 May 2019

Netball fans are here if you need

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Lightning Shooter, Peace Proscovia (and team) running on to court with much fanfare after multi-million dollar stadium upgrade.

Women’s Sport in Australia is finally coming into some prominence. From Matildas to ALFW, everyone is getting regular mentions in our newspapers and in sports reports on the telly – not as much as we would like obviously and still not even close to the prominence of men’s sport but getting there (#BallsOnly). None more so than the Suncorp Super Netball, now in our third season and it is exciting stuff. This prominence also brings up issues that no-one seems to want to talk about. Well fans are, but not those in commentary or the netball hierarchy.

For anyone who has been following netball for a long time, it is patently clear how much faster, stronger and tactical the game has become.

Elite netballers finally getting a minimum wage and teams themselves upping their professionalism due to funds generated from a competition televised nationally ( and via an app), has cemented netball as arguably the premier female sporting competition in Australia. Netball has more viewers watching, old fans and new, than ever before.

Recently there was a bit of a brouhaha on twitter about the plethora of male commentators, questioning the value they give to the game. One or two know their stuff but for the others, it is obvious they are still learning the game. For the netball fans at home – which is still the vast majority of fans – it is infuriating to hear football terminology used instead of netball terms or not knowing players names or backgrounds. Fans quite rightly get annoyed, as with most sports, netball fans for years have also followed the likes of traditional male sports such as NRL, AFL, Super Rugby etc., and no way in hell would a commentator get the gig if they did not know the sport inside out.

In most sports the standard has always been that; you have a commentator who is in most cases a sports journalist who has moved into the broadcasting role, commentating in lower levels of the sport and covering it in either telly or print media for a number of years, before being given the opportunity to commentate at the elite level. You also have the ‘expert commentary’ as the wingman in the commentary box and one other down on the sideline, those roles are normally filled by ex-players or coaches.

For Super Netball, we have some wonderful ex-players in particular who are excellent in those roles, some who have been doing it since we had the former ANZ Championship and are now polished media performers. The sideline commentators are more recent retirees from netball and again, it is great to see them flourishing in post netball roles. Particularly now with 2 games telecast live on Channel Nine each weekend and all four games shown on Telstra TV and the Netball Live App, this gives retiring players even more opportunities for post netball careers.

What we lack is the professional caller in many instances. Most of us assume – as fans we are not told anything – that we have this plethora of blokes of varying degrees of competence and netball knowledge from the Nine stable to increase the ‘male audience’ – the thinking that blokes will be more attracted to the game if they hear blokes voices?  - or just to make the game less female centric? Look these blokes are probably very nice and I’m sure they will improve in time, and I’m also sure some of them are taking the criticism in the manner it is intended and working hard to prove they deserve those coveted sports journo spots but…

For many of us – including male netball fans – it feels disrespectful to have broadcast commentators who are not all over the game they are broadcasting. For women in particular, they are sitting back thinking, no way in hell would a female journo have risen to commentating the likes of NRL or AFL without doing the hard yards and being more experienced in the role, not to mention, would be flayed for making any of the mistakes we are hearing on a weekly basis.

As fans we feel all to often our game is being used as a training ground for Nine commentators to hone their broadcasting trade and to be frank, this would be a lot easier to cop if it was at least done on ‘merit’. With only 1 or 2 of the blokes we currently hear on the weekend deserving to be there due to their knowledge of the game, merit is questionable. There are some very good young female sports journalists coming through and yet we only seem to have ‘male’ ones in our coverage? Interesting how Nine’s commentators that are sports journalists/broadcasters for netball all seem to be male? 🤔

Anyhoo… This is where it gets tricky. Netball has fought for years to get this sort of prominence with a free to air national broadcaster, so no way in hell can they complain about this, in fact you see the traditional female commentators and others higher up in netball actively defending the coverage. I get that, many fans get that. We just have to suck it up as we don’t have the power nor exposure yet to expect the same level of professionalism the likes of the NRL or AFL would expect. We just live in hope that as the competition and ratings grow, we have that respect to look forward to in the future.

Netball traditionally also has the attitude of being grateful for exposure, being an amateur game for so long (even though it has been one of the most popular sports in the country since 1897), therefore even on the likes of social media you will see many commenting along the lines of ‘just shut up at least we are getting a good run on free to air now’, and we are, not just the Super Netball but also a lot of the international netball in the last year or so.

So, this is where I and many other fans have a problem. The professionalism vs the amateur mindset.

On one hand we are like the other elite sporting competitions, beholden to big sponsors and broadcasting deals which bring great benefits to the game, including in netball’s case, players finally earning a minimum wage. On the other hand, netball itself is still trying to keep the old ‘polite’ ways. Contrary to popular belief, Netball was not a deviation of women’s basketball but was in fact ‘ladies’ basketball emphasis on lady and the sport required all of the decorum and polite quiet behaviour that ladies were expected to exhibit. This tradition of being quiet and polite started in the 1890’s and while things have changed for contemporary ladies, some habits are hard to break. Today still we don’t complain about umpires or complain vocally at all really only quietly and privately are complaints voiced, instances of rough play are always given the benefit of the doubt as to being ‘accidental’ and of course, what happens on the court stays on the court.

Old style netball fans might cop this, and many do, but newer fans to the game who have grown up watching the likes of the AFL or NRL are more WTF!? Even for a lot of netball fans it is no longer quaint it is just unprofessional.

Some Fun Fan Facts:

  • Super Netball is shown live on Nine twice a week, with great ratings- thank you fans for viewing.
  • At least 2 games per week are shown live on Telstra TV, with other games shown on a delay – thank you fans for purchasing a Telstra TV box or choosing Telstra broadband for access.
  • All games and stats etc are on the Netball Live App – thank you fans for choosing to use Telstra to access free or pay the $29.99 per year for vision (stats and fixtures are free).
  • All 8 Super Netball clubs have ever increasing levels of memberships – thank you fans for paying to be a member of your club.
  • All 8 Super Netball clubs often have sell out matches – thank you fans for forking out the hard-earned to be courtside, some often travelling hundreds of kilometres to support your team live.
  • All 8 Super Netball clubs are doing well with merchandise sales – thank you fans for again parting with your hard-earned funds to deck yourself out in your club’s merch.
  • Super Netball is now a regular feature in most sport coverage, both in newspapers and on the telly sports reports – thank you fans for showing there is a demand for that coverage.
  • Hell, there is even betting on Super Netball – not sure that is a good thing, but obviously there are fans out there that want to bet on it and it still illustrates the level of interest in the game if the sports betting agencies have added it to their lists.

Without fans doing all of the above, we don’t have an elite sporting competition. The players would not even be earning that minimum wage. Yet we are still being treated like mushrooms.

If we have to accept less experienced TV commentators as we are a professional sport and that is just how it goes with broadcasting deals, then as a professional sport we should also expect we should have more professional processes like accountability when Diamonds are selected and a proper Match Review process just to name a few. Netball Australia can’t have it both ways.

With our athletes being able to dedicate more time to training and playing and clubs having better training resources, the game has gotten faster and harder. Even the difference between the first season of Super Netball to this third season we are watching is pretty significant.

Contrary to popular belief, netball has never been a non-contact sport. The aim has always been to not contact, but in a small space, players and their appendages in action and balls flying, it has always had a pretty high level of contact, with most of that contact being incidental. Even when there is doubt about the ‘incidental’ aspect, it was made to look accidental and often more a bad habit from a player ie hip swing when jumping for a rebound that ‘accidently’ tosses the defender off balance and similar and in most cases it was quietly worked out on court, probably where that vibe of what happens on the court stays on the court.

It really was pretty rare to see deliberate acts of contact, shoving in the back, tripping, elbowing someone in the face etc. That stuff was normally caught in younger grades with Coaches getting rid of it pretty quick smart, not like other parents around the court are going to cop that. Download the netball rules handbook here.

Now that we are in a professional sphere of competition that stuff should just not be happening, yet we are seeing it more this season than ever before. What commentators will normally describe as “it is getting willing out there”. Most likely due to the speed of the game and for many players, the value of what is on the line – a career for starters, selection in Diamonds, even notice for personal sponsorships. For the Umpires, well, bags not being them. The game is just so fast, there is no way in hell the best Umpire in the game can follow the ball and keep an eye on what is happening on the periphery, it is not physically possible.

Problem is, we are seeing some grubby play, go unpenalized and often uncommented on as well. That might be fine because the TV camera did not catch it (though sadly even when does, is often unpenalized and not commented on) but the 3000 odd in the stadium DID SEE that player chuck a tantrum and dangerously shove another player seriously hard in the back. No amount of ‘polite, what happens on the court stays on the court’ can make that magically disappear. Fans get livid. Often blaming the Umpire for not picking up, which, in my opinion, is unfair, the game is just too fast for them to see everything. More recent followers of netball in particular cannot understand how it is allowed to happen.

Netball seriously needs a professional – and accountable – Match Review Panel.

We had a number of deliberate – and dangerous – contacts on the weekend which they should be looking at. We have had a few in the past couple rounds they should seriously have been looking at. When one player broke the ‘polite rules’, Nat Medhurst tweeted the below. She was only saying what thousands of fans were saying both in the stadium and watching on the telly or their app.

 

Now Medhurst had to leave the court under the blood ruling for that hit, considering the game resulted in a draw, you have to be left wondering if the result may have been different if Medhurst had not been off the court having the red stuff (not to mention 4 stitches in the mouth) attended to? Let’s hope that splitting of points for the draw does not matter come finals time.

You also have to wonder whether the ‘hit’ would have even been looked at if Medhurst had not broken that ‘polite, what happens on the court stays on the court’ rule?

The so-called ‘review’ was anything but satisfactory for fans.

All we know is that it was supposedly looked at in some form of disciplinary process, we have no idea who actually did that review? Were they qualified to do a review? Who do they speak to? Are the players represented? What footage is used to make that decision? NOTHING! Hell, we don’t even know when the review occurred and how it was instigated. All we know is that it was considered hunky dory by Netball Australia and Hinchliffe would face no disciplinary action. Again… not that we even know what that disciplinary action would have been?

Imagine that happening in NRL or AFL? Imagine some player having to leave the field, blood streaming and a week later there is a vague mention of “yeah, nothing to see here, move on…” from NRL or AFL HQ?

No way in hell would NRL or AFL fans nor the sports journo’s covering cop that.

Yet netball, for some vague traditional (read: ladylike) reason pretty much tells fans to just get over it and worse, the commentators just never refer to it again, like it never happened and even if pressed for more information we are informed it is a ‘confidential process, as it should be’?

Ummm no! This is a professional sport now and all professional sports have an accountable, transparent Match Review Panel. Super Netball deserves the same. The players deserve that respect and so do the fans.

Look at this season alone, we have only just finished round 5 and nearly every week there has been a really bad injury that in a few cases has been season ending. Thankfully they have been ‘bad luck’ and ‘accidental’. But what if that next shove in the back in back play ends up with a player down with a serious injury? What if that player is crucial to their club and the team misses out on finals due to her absence? What if that player misses Diamonds selection due that injury? What if that player’s season or worse, career is ended due to that action?

The reason why dangerous play or deliberate acts go to a judiciary is to not only penalise the player who broke the rules but to try to get that sort of behaviour that can be physically damaging, out of both the game in general and the individual players game. If you know you are most likely to sit on the side-lines for 2 weeks, damaging your teams’ chances in the competition due to you losing your temper and lashing out, well, you tend to think twice before lashing out.

Netball does not have this. Yet we are seeing more it.

As it stands, one player who has engaged in at least one cheap shot per match, and is gaining a reputation for it among fans, is actually talked about as being a potential for the Diamonds squad to be announced on Thursday going to Liverpool for the Netball World Cup?

This is a young player with a bright future, but she needs to get that crap out of her game now, but why would she? There are no ramifications for that behaviour, the commentators won’t say anything when they see it, or if do, follow the polite ‘willing’ or give benefit of the doubt it is accidental, or just don’t comment at all, like nothing happened. Journalists who report on netball specifically will not raise it yet will raise the aspect of how this particular player had a sensational game? – which she did.

There is absolutely no incentive for this player to address their ‘bad habit’. I guess in the netball world if she is rewarded with that coveted Diamonds spot it will clearly illustrate that selectors care more about winning and let’s hope we are not embarrassed internationally with a similar incident at the World Cup. More importantly, we all hope that the next shove in the back, outside of play does not cause any form of long-lasting injury to the to the other player. Or do we just all pretend we could not see that behaviour in her game and are shocked?

With Netball Australia seemingly showing no appetite to put these professional processes like a Match Review with a transparent & accountable disciplinary process in place we will never know?

What I do know is that with the athletes getting fitter and the game getting even faster, if this is not addressed, we will see an innocent player have their career cut short. It will be too late for pearl clutching about politeness then?

Look, for all I know, Netball Australia may be working on a proper disciplinary and match review process as I type? Though, considering they are not terribly communicative we fans have no idea. Same as we won’t know reasonings for selection choices with Diamonds, same we won’t be given any insight into plans for expansion, next season changes etc., until these decisions are just announced.

Sorry, but that is just not good enough for fans. When it comes to that odious word ‘stakeholders’ which all professional organisations refer to, we are important. We deserve more respect. If we have to cop the Nine blokes on broadcasting training wheels because we are a professional sport beholden to a broadcasting contract and games televised at times that don’t suit many netballers, coz, well, they are physically out on court playing netball. Then it should go both ways, we fans should also expect that Netball Australia will treat us in a professional manner, being more open and transparent and instituting accountable processes like a Match Review panel and communicating with fans more.

I know many netball commentators, sports journo’s, netball administrators and players themselves struggle with fan commentary on social media, particularly Facebook, Twitter & Instagram, and some of it is nasty, it is a problem in all sports (arguably it is a problem in life in general), but the vast majority of it is just fans sharing their thoughts. It is not all bad, in fact, it is not even new, it is just the format has changed. Abusive swearing etc. on social media should never be condoned – and in most cases other fans will actually shut down abusive characters - but blocking and totally ignoring social media discussion by netball commentators, sports journo’s and administrators just because you don’t like what you are hearing or think netball is above reproach is ludicrous. Fans in most cases are only saying what they are saying in real life on their couches watching the game, in the car on the way home from attending the game, in the back yard at a BBQ etc., the only difference is you can actually see & hear it now.

Fans not only deserve respect they also deserve to be listened to. Without them, you have no professional product. A little bit of communication goes a long way, even if it is just to tell us you have heard our concerns about the need for a professional match review or international selection or any the other myriad of issues which will come up as the elite competition expands and grows.

We are here if you need.

Cheers,
Noely
PS. While I'm whinging... Would be great to see a bit more promotion of the ANL (Australian Netball League) as well, these athletes give up a lot of time and money to play in the level of competition and could be future stars, they deserve a bit more promotion and info so we could get behind them as well, watch their games and support that future.


Editing by Caitlin Mary @LacyMartini

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