Low wages combined with ever increasing demands of the professional era is forcing some players from the sport too early, says the boss of the New Zealand netball players' association.
The advent of the transtasman league has given some players the opportunity to earn a fulltime living from the sport, while others are at least earning a bit more than the petrol money players of Jodi Brown's era earned when they were starting out.
But the demands on the players are also much more taxing. To compete in the 17-week competition, players need to be fitter, faster and stronger - training and time commitments have intensified.
"I don't like the term semi-professional," says Tim Lythe, chief executive of the NZNPA.
"These are professional athletes training fulltime, they're just not getting paid a fulltime wage."
One of the biggest challenges for Lythe has been to educate franchises and coaches about what is fair to expect of the players given their remuneration.
Teams have operated on a salary cap of just $300,000 in the competition's five years. Split 12 ways that is just $25,000, but socialism has never had a place in professional sport and star players take a big chunk of the cap, while the rest receive only the minimum player payment of $12,000.
"Some expectations are over the top. The coaches are fulltime, the administrators are fulltime, but not all the players are getting paid a fulltime wage. They want to win the competition so they want access to players 24/7, but that's just not realistic," Lythe said. "It can precipitate players leaving the sport."
The competition will always have top-end players and young rookies looking to establish themselves in the world's toughest netball league, but it is the "middle" tier that Lythe worries about - the experienced journeywomen who are still valuable contributors at ANZ Championship level.
"[This] group add depth and are the strength of the competition," Lythe says.
He cites players like former Mystics pair Stephanie Bond and Debbie White, who were forced to retire prematurely as they could not put their careers on hold for what they were being paid. There have been instances across the Tasman, too, the most notable being Firebirds defender Clare McMeniman, who retired at the age of just 26 after a stand-out performance in her side's grand final win in 2011.
Bond, a former Silver Ferns squad member, retired after two seasons in the ANZ Championship. The athletic defender found the training, travel and promotional commitments too difficult to juggle with her career as a sports lawyer.
"I reached a crossroads. I was trying to burn the candle at both ends and it wasn't really working," Bond says. "The sport has changed so much in terms of the hours you need to do and training during work hours, so it has basically become a choice you need to make - you can't play netball and work fulltime."
For the players to be paid more, the competition needs to be generating more revenue. But the lucrative broadcast deal from Australian networks that organisers were banking on when the competition started hasn't eventuated.
"It's really difficult to say the players need to be paid more because the money has to come from somewhere," says Bond. "There is a real balance between making it sustainable for the organisation and a sustainable career choice for the player."
Lythe, too, knows he's not in a position to demand more money for the players. The association has been able to make small steps this season, increasing the salary cap to $380,000 and raising the number of contracted players to 14 to formalise the training partner agreements. The minimum player payment has also increased marginally from $12,000 to $15,000.
"It's a small shift but it is a step in the right direction," Lythe says. "There is a frustration there that there is not a lot of money to go around."By Dana Johannsen Email Dana