Netball: Huge windfall for England

By Robin Scott-Elliot

Pamela Cookey. Photo / Getty Images
Pamela Cookey. Photo / Getty Images

England-Australia clash in England tonight (NZT) will be the beginning of a £25.3 million odyssey for the English team.

That is how much money the netballers received in the post-Olympic carve-up of a massive, almost £500m pot to be divided among sports in England. With cricket's share cut, only cycling and football beat out netball as the main beneficiaries.

England against Australia is an enduring rivalry in 2013. The Ashes will duly dominate but the first Anglo-Australian encounter of the year will happen in Bath tonight in a sport that has quietly and efficiently tended to its grass roots - to dramatic effect.

This is a sport with green fingers. The £25.3m Sport England - in charge of grass-roots funding - handed to netball came in recognition of the rapid expansion of a sport that has re-invented itself.

More people play netball in England than basketball, boxing or hockey and three times as many as play rugby league. It has come a long way from its image as a pleated skirt, playground sport.

Pamela Cookey will lead England out to play the first of three tests against the world champions, the others being at Wembley Arena on Wednesday and Birmingham next Saturday. It will have the needle of any such encounter - Australia are the team England need to catch.

The ambition is to reach at least the finals of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the world championships over the next two years and be world champions the next time out, in 2019. The sport in Australia, where it is semi-professional, and New Zealand, is still ahead of this country and Cookey puts a five- year span on the gap.

Participation levels in netball have grown rapidly: 160,000 play it every week, according to the latest national survey, a number up by 40,000 since 2008-09. That compares to 183,000 who play cricket and rugby union. Netball's aim is to add another 40,000 over the current award period, 2013-17.

There has been a change of image through a marketing campaign around women who play the sport at a basic level, for social as much as physical reasons, combined with three successful campaigns designed to divorce the game from a perception that it is a white, middle-class pastime.

"We have worked exceptionally hard over the last four years to try and change the face of netball," says Paul Clark, England Netball's chief executive. "As a women's sport you have to work harder to gain the profile and the credibility. We have really got to ride the crest of the wave that we are on. From the performance side, we have to start realistically challenging the No 1 and No 2 in the world, Australia and New Zealand. We are pushing up towards those one and two spots - we have beaten them on occasions but we are not doing it consistently."

Games are shown on Sky, with the governing body contributing to production costs, considered worthwhile for the shop window effect. The standard remains below that Down Under but is improving.

"The broader you can build your base in terms of participation, the greater choice ultimately you have for internationals," Clark says. "By the same token, the more role models you have out there and the greater success of your international team, the more young girls want to play netball."

- The Independent

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