Dana Johannsen on sport

Dana Johannsen is a Herald sport writer

Dana Johannsen: Let Netball grow before creating short game

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The Front Ferns feature most of New Zealand's frontline stars including Irene Van Dyk. Photo / Andrew Warner
The Front Ferns feature most of New Zealand's frontline stars including Irene Van Dyk. Photo / Andrew Warner

Netball's new spin-off will come to life at Vector Arena tomorrow when Auckland hosts the first Fast5 World Netball Series.

It's the International Netball Federation's second crack at making a go of the game's shortened format and Netball New Zealand, with the help of local authorities, are plunging all their resources into making sure this weekend's event is a success.

That extends to their playing personnel as well. While Australia and England are using the event as a development tournament, bringing a team of largely second-tier players, the Fast Ferns feature most of New Zealand's frontline stars including Irene van Dyk, Laura Langman, Maria Tutaia... and Bailey Mes.

The reason Waimarama Taumaunu has asked her top players to prolong an already arduous season and take part in this weekend's shoot-and-giggle is to help pull in the fans.

Ideally New Zealand would also use the tournament as an opportunity to expose younger players to the international environment but, with all due respect to the Otago shooter, Te Paea Selby-Rickit doesn't quite draw the crowds like van Dyk does.

As much as this weekend promises to be an exciting spectacle (there's even a magenta court!), you can't help but feel their efforts are wasted.

I've never understood why sports need to create alternative versions of their game. It's a concession their original product is flawed.

Some will point to the success of the rugby sevens circuit as to how the model can work. Just yesterday we heard how tickets to the Wellington Sevens in February sold out in the space of 17 minutes, but the appeal isn't the rugby, it's the outfits. The event is popular more with fans who are handy with a sewing machine than to rugby diehards.

At least in the case of rugby and cricket, you have two sports that had developed to their full potential and had a strong platform to introduce innovations.

The decision to come up with a shortened version of netball is odd given the global game has not yet fully matured. If the top six nations had the profile and level of commercial support New Zealand netball does, then you could argue there was room to introduce a new format. There's still much to be done to grow the game worldwide.

Instead of diverting their limited resources into creating a new product, international netball bosses should focus on increasing the competitiveness of minnow nations. If they are serious about making netball an Olympic sport - and their efforts so far have been half-hearted at best - the INF need to address the huge gulf between the top four nations and the rest of the pack.

African netball is a well of unrealised talent. South Africa's playing numbers are about 20 times that of New Zealand, yet they are languishing at sixth in the world, while Malawi could potentially be a power if they were better resourced.

If they're to increase the sport's appeal, netball bosses must also address areas of the game that turn fans away. The biggest complaint from casual observers of netball, and even traditional fans, is the amount of whistle in the game. In the Silver Ferns' five tests against Australia this year, the average penalty count was 121. That means the umpires blow their whistle once every 30 seconds.

I'm not entirely convinced the umpires are to blame for this - the onus to tidy up on this lies as much with the players as the officials.

Australia were penalised 82 times in the final Constellation Cup test in Christchurch, Laura Geitz the main offender attracting more whistle than she would walking past a construction site. Geitz was penalised 24 times, yet received no warning.

There should be some sort of card system in play in netball to act as a disincentive. Persistent offenders should be warned, and if they don't adjust they need to be sent from the court for a period of time.

If netball bosses listen to the criticisms of would-be fans, they might come up with the audience numbers to justify a spin-off series.

- NZ Herald

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