Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Netball: Anatomy of a netball split

It is almost certain that Netball New Zealand and its Australian counterparts will next week formalise a split in the transtasman league. As the two parties prepare to announce their plans for new standalone domestic competitions next year, Dana Johannsen looks at how the transtasman partnership unravelled.
Kayla Cullen's Mystics and Tegan Philip's Melbourne Vixens are unlikely to clash next year. Picture / NZME
Kayla Cullen's Mystics and Tegan Philip's Melbourne Vixens are unlikely to clash next year. Picture / NZME

They were always going to make uneasy bedfellows.

Two great netballing rivals joining forces with a shared goal in mind: to create a new professional league that would attract top players from around the world.

Terms such as "ground-breaking", "revolutionary" and "game-changing" were used to describe the competition when it was launched in 2008. And it was.

The deal with ANZ Bank for naming rights was said to be the biggest sponsorship deal for women's sport in Australasia, while the significant investment from Sky not only ensured the players got paid, it elevated netball into primetime slots on TV - in New Zealand at least.

The cracks emerged early.

They were superficial at first. Australian netball identities vented their frustration that their deeper talent pool warranted more teams. They also complained the one-and-a-half-round draw format favoured the weaker New Zealand teams.

As the seasons went by, those cracks became deeper as the frustration at the inequalities - not just the competitive balance, but the greater level of commercial revenue New Zealand brought to the table - grew.

The beginning of the end

The rumours started swirling in July last year.

Changes were afoot in the ANZ Championship as the 10-year milestone approached.

Discussion documents were circulated and everything was on the table - expansion, rule changes, private investment and even, gulp, the two countries going their separate ways.

Australia was pushing to add two teams and cut the Kiwi franchises back to three, a move Netball New Zealand (NNZ) railed against. It argued that expansion should not come at the expense of its teams, particularly when the broadcast deal with Sky was still effectively funding Australia's existing franchises.

Restricting top-level competition opportunities for Kiwi players was an unacceptable outcome for NNZ, which was concerned the move would further reduce New Zealand's depth at elite level.

NNZ supported Australia's bid to add more teams, however, provided it could fund them.

Confirmation Australia was seeking to add more teams came via a joint press release from NNZ and Netball Australia (NA) in December, but it was clear the partnership was frayed, with neither NNZ boss Hilary Poole nor her Australian counterpart, Kate Palmer, able to guarantee there would be a transtasman competition in 2017.

The Weekend Herald story the next day read:

"The push for further Australian teams to be added to the ANZ Championship may be the first step in the competition splitting."

The ANZ Championship had run its course.

Broadcast is king

If it was Sky's investment that got the competition off the ground, it was also what killed it.

Many national sports organisations are beholden to their broadcasters as that revenue provides their biggest income source, while strong television numbers attract further sponsorship dollars.

This was a problem for NA as it was unable to secure a paid broadcast deal in the nine seasons, making for an unequal distribution of power.

Every time the calls came for New Zealand to ditch a team, or teams, the Australians were beaten down with the argument: "Well, you might need to front with some cash before you start making demands."

The final straw came when changes to the format in 2015 further skewed the competition in New Zealand's favour, with the introduction of conferences guaranteeing two Kiwi franchises passage into the semifinals. As netball commentator Sue Gaudion put it, the changes were "a slap in the face" for the Australian teams, who fought hard all year only to see less deserving New Zealand sides waltz into the finals.

It was this that ultimately convinced NA that it was time to act.

A new master

NA's plans to forge ahead with expansion were contingent upon securing a broadcast deal. But Australian broadcasters weren't so much interested in the Kiwi teams, they wanted more local content.

At the same time, NNZ was learning the transtasman element of the competition wasn't what appealed to New Zealand audiences either, with "local" derbies generally pulling in better viewership numbers.

It is one of the curiosities of this whole saga that NNZ didn't just walk away at that point. But, in spirit of the transtasman partnership, NNZ waited on the outcome of the Australian broadcast negotiations before deciding its own path.

NA had hoped to have a deal by the end of February, but reports out of Australia this week suggest that while a "lucrative" deal has been lined up with Channel Nine, it is still to be finalised.

In a rare display of tough talking on the eve of the 2016 competition, Poole expressed her frustration that NA was leaving New Zealand netball in limbo.

"I'll be honest, we are increasingly frustrated," said Poole.

"As time goes on, we start to look at other options as well, as we have been, but we start to look at other things a bit more seriously."

While the Channel Nine deal has been hailed as a landmark for the sport, it is understood NA has not been able to secure funding to the level it was getting with Sky.

It may come at an even bigger cost, with the rule innovations that have been proposed for the new Australian league, including the much-maligned two-point shot, believed to have been dictated by the broadcasters.

This has been met with anger by the state bodies across the Tasman, with NA accused of selling its soul for TV revenue.

Likewise, the move to a private ownership structure has met with resistance. The Sydney Morning Herald this week reported the Melbourne Storm and AFL club Collingwood had been linked with new franchise licences. Many of the existing franchises worry the players developed through the state systems will be lured away with the promise of big money offers and top-of-the-line facilities.

The increasing backlash threatens to overshadow NA's big reveal this week.

What does it mean for New Zealand netball?

Throughout it all, NNZ has been portrayed as the loser in the split. Headlines across the Tasman claim the New Zealand teams have been "dumped" from the league, which ignores the fact it's not actually NA's competition to axe anyone from.

While NA has been trumpeting its bold and visionary plans for the sport, NNZ has been quietly forging ahead with plans for a standalone domestic competition that will feature six teams. NNZ is also working on a concept that will include an international component, along the lines of a Champions League-style play-offs series.

Netball bosses here have the luxury of knowing they have a supportive broadcast partner in Sky, and, in a less congested sports market, there is still considerable appetite for netball coverage.

Concerns have been raised that New Zealand's top talent may be lured across to play in the Australian league, but these are likely to prove unfounded, with the Silver Ferns' selection criteria requiring players to be based here.

Given the two countries find themselves back where they started, it would be tempting to judge the past nine years a wasted exercise, but the progress for sport in both countries has been huge.

New Zealand players have been exposed to greater levels of professionalism, which NNZ will have to ensure continues in a new domestic league, while on a commercial level the game has raced ahead in Australia since the advent of the transtasman league.

But compatible bedfellows they are not.

- NZ Herald

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