What’s with Netball in New Zealand?

___1636001_origThe ANZ Champs are no more. Netball New Zealand have extended their broadcast deal with Sky TV to cover a domestic competition with 6 teams (once agreed with Netball Northern Zone) and the Silver Ferns internationals. The number of international tests has increased and may include more games with England and South Africa (need to secure those fast) than in the past.

What does this mean for netball in New Zealand?

Can it be said, it is somewhat disappointing that netball has been unable to hold together a semi-professional, international club competition between the top two netball nations? This, in stark contrast to rugby, that has consistently expanded their international club competitions. It is unfair to make comparisons between sports, only to point out a contrast that speaks to what are many fundamental differences.

How have Netball Australia managed to secure a broadcast deal now, when, for 9 years, the broadcast (and primary funding) of the competition has been supported by Sky TV in NZ, while Netball Australia attempted unsuccessfully to secure an Australian deal? Is it a case of Australia only being interested in Australia and therefore, once Netball Australia planned to breakaway the broadcasters were far more willing? What came first, Netball Australia planning to breakaway or the broadcasters suggesting that they would support an Australian only league? And, if they are only interested in Australian teams, then why not show only Oz v Oz games within the ANZ Champs, or would that not have been good enough? Why not have taken the conference structure further, had an Australia only and NZ only conference final series (or similar)? Couldn’t a structure be developed that retained the international club competition while providing sufficient Oz v Oz games to satisfy Australian broadcasters? Takes one back to an earlier question, what came first, Netball Australia wanting to break up the competition or a broadcast deal?

Does the new broadcast deal bring more money into the teams in the new NZ domestic competition given the money was previously shared between NZ and Australia? Only NNZ and Sky know the answer, but if that is the case, then is a good thing financially, takes pressure off the NZ teams structures and should allow for more effort (i.e. money) to be spent on development. On a side note – good thing that the deal was inked before the Sky-Vodafone merger (maybe?).

Were the Australian teams really that much better than the NZ teams? Sure, on average, the Australian teams were better, considering the rugby comparison, you could suggest that the gap in rugby is greater than the gap in netball. There have always been a couple of weak NZ teams, unlike the Oz teams, but were not the match ups with the top teams close enough to be relevant? Was the gap big enough to warrant a reduction in the number of NZ teams as Australia were calling for? Or was that just a ploy to ensure their was a mutual decision by both NNZ and Netball Australia to end the ANZ Champs by presenting a wholly unacceptable alternative?

Will this adversely affect the high performance development of New Zealand netball? Can the development tier below the Silver Ferns improve as much without facing teams that are generally as good if not better than them, coached differently and playing a different style of netball? The addition of the Beko league (planned when Netball was restructured 4 years ago) is going to help development, but will it to do that to the extent the the ANZ Champs could have? NZ results (both international and club) have been getting worse in recent years, so something had to change – or was that just a talent cycle (no mass retirements recently) – or would the new development programmes put in place by NNZ have addressed that over time?

Will the international game be better or worse off? The development of netball was taking a trajectory similar to other sports – international club competition, a shortened format that included a celebration of the sport weekend (Fast 5). NNZ was doing a fantastic job hosting Fast 5 and momentum was building each year, and yet now it is no more. Maybe the same could be said for the ANZ Champs? Both moves are contradictory to other sports. Will Australian players having less exposure on NZ screens reduce or increase the interest in netball with Australia? Expanding the international competition to include more games with England and SA (if indeed that is the plan, as it appears) can only be good for international netball, IF England improve their game (as their playing numbers should allow) – maybe they need to import a few NZ and Oz coaches, and IF Australia don’t force their club agenda on English netball? Does Australia breaking away from an international club competition suggest their interest in the international game generally is waning? If Oz have a strong local club competition, will they care as much about the international game (see league, aussie rules and perhaps football for examples)?

Can NNZ pull off the ‘champions league’ style international club competition? This would be fantastic. But, it needs Australia and they are not locked in. Can an English club (would need at least an English club, but preferably a SA and Jamaican club too) afford to compete? Would the INF subsidise an SA and Jamaican team – surely it would be a great incentive to build-up their local club competition, or would NNZ need to subsidise? This competition would represent good sponsorship opportunities and may even become the celebration of netball that Fast 5 should be – this will only happen if it is a marketing lead venture.

Is it going to be harder for the NZ teams to get good sponsorship as the market of viewers is now smaller for an NZ only competition? NZ teams were sponsored by a mix of local and international brands, but the international brands appeared to bring in more money – how significant was the draw of being on Australian screens to these international brands? Will the opportunities improve as NZ will be able to structure the game times around maximising exposure for sponsors in NZ? Will there be greater viewership (the numbers were dropping) with only local derbies and therefore improve sponsorship?

Will Australia be able to offer better deals to top NZ players than NZ teams can, without a coordinated payments system as exists in the ANZ Champs? The Australian broadcast deal is not flash (despite the impression they give) so there won’t be floods of cash, but what can the league clubs offer up? Australia will be funding 3 more teams over and above the existing 5 state teams and have reduced their squad sizes – this would suggest they are not going to be flush. Netball Australia will put in salary caps, but these will be Australian only. Will there be restrictions on the number of overseas players – not if they have been trying to coerce England into changing their netball season in an attempt to attract their players to Oz? This is perhaps the biggest unknown and possibly the biggest risk to New Zealand netball. Even without big salary differences, it is not hard to see top NZ players being attracted to what may be, in the first instance, a more competitive competition.

Does any of this say anything about the power base in international netball? A few years back NZ and Australia were on a similar level, and used that to ‘influence’ the international game in a coordinated way. But, has Oz starting flexing their muscles more now? And if, so what are implications?

Netball is hugely important to New Zealanders and more importantly netball as a woman’s sport is critical in the New Zealand sports landscape, both at a community and international level. Neither of these can be eroded and the Netball NZ board and executive are of course acutely aware of this. So, at the end of the day, the governors and managers of NNZ are entrusted to have made these decisions with the best intentions in mind, even if their hand was somewhat forced by our neighbours.