Six weeks before the 2020 Super Netball season started, the league dropped a bit of a bombshell.
A super shot was going to be introduced this year, in a bid to attract a new audience to watch the elite domestic competition.
Fans were told TV ratings had started to stagnate, and that the league needed to do something innovative to try to bump up its viewership numbers.
But questions are being raised by supporters as to whether the sport could be doing more to appeal to its huge participation base — particularly the women that already love the game in its traditional sense and play it every week at their local courts without the gimmicks.
Over a million people in Australia currently play netball at the grassroots level, and yet its elite product — the Super Netball competition — averaged just 135,980 television viewers per match in last year’s regular season.
This is not uncommon in the Australian sporting market, where football and basketball also struggle to convert participants into fans of the A-League and NBL.
However, neither of those sports claim to host the world’s premier club competition, unlike Netball Australia.
So if the sport is truly leading the way for women, why is it struggling to convert their attention from weekend sport to Super Netball?
‘Why don’t they ever communicate with me?’
Jessica Macartney has been involved with netball since she was eight years old, playing and coaching in her native New Zealand before moving to Sydney, where she has continued to engage with the sport.
But in the six years she has been a registered participant here, not once has she been contacted directly or indirectly by NSW Swifts or Giants marketing.
“I like to watch netball live and I like to watch netball on TV, but what I’ve found is that you have to be interested enough to seek out the information [about the games and broadcast],” Macartney said.
Macartney wonders why there seems to be a missing link between the top tier and grassroots in Australia — and finds it alarming that many women who have played the game for years, don’t even know Super Netball exists.
“Because I’ve worked in sport, I look for those things and often ask myself questions like, why don’t they ever communicate with me?”
“At Centennial Parklands there are no Swifts posters, branding or draws.
“Why isn’t there a ticket deal they ask associations to push through to all their registered participants. What is the barrier there? Or am I just not in a demographic that they target in their marketing strategy?”
Super Netball does, however, seem to be able to cut through to the younger generation.
And Macartney thinks this contrast can be related back to the league’s marketing strategy.
“It seems when you do go to the elite level games that the target audience is 10-year-old girls who clap thunder sticks,” she said.
“The crowd is probably 90 per cent of that demographic and it feels deliberate … that primary-aged girls are who they want to get to games.”
If you have ever watched Super Netball on TV, then you would have encountered some of the repetitive ads the broadcast plays in its timeout and quarter breaks.
The majority of these show a clear intention to appeal to kids, and while Macartney says she can understand the need to target young girls, it leaves mature fans out.
“I get that there is a lot of work done going to schools because you want to have a positive influence and you can convert them into fans and members,” Macartney said.
“But I feel like there are opportunities to draw older people in as well.
“There’s an entire part of their participation base and active community that actually would be easier to convert to Super Netball fans.
“I don’t understand why you’d be going for the people that are completely disengaged … when there’s so many people out there that are actively involved.”
UK has similar issues
Struggling to convert participants into viewership numbers and bums on seats is not an issue exclusive to netball in Australia.
Former England international Tamsin Greenway has been trying to get her head around the problem in the UK too.
Now working as a commentator and as the newly appointed Scotland national coach, Greenway thinks the breakdown might be occurring because the sport is not tailoring its strategies around the challenges women face when they try to engage with the game.
“My dad and brother go to every single football game. Home and away. They don’t even question it,” Greenway told Australian netball podcast The Netty Life.
“I don’t think the majority of women watch sport the same way men do. For example, they don’t necessarily have an affiliation to one team. They like certain players. They don’t necessarily care about the end result, and they won’t go home and be depressed about it the next day.”
“So we’re almost still trying to get women to watch sport in the same way that men watch sport, and I’m not sure that that’s the right way forward.”
Greenway — like Macartney — believes the elite level needs to build a stronger connection with its grassroots pathways, and she thinks sponsorship might be the best way to do it.
“Until we start exploring our commercial options, we’re not going to get any further. We’ve got to be far more creative about it,” she said.
“They may not want to go and pay 20 quid to go and watch an elite netball game but they’re still invested in netball… so how can we sell those hundreds of thousands of women to a sponsor?”
How can we market the game better?
One example of how the game could be more innovative with its marketing, came from Vixens sponsor Puma earlier this year.
Melbourne newspaper The Age had come under fire for publishing a TV review that gave netball a 2.5 star rating and labelled it as a “glamour sport”.
The sponsor was able to quickly turn around a social media video for release the next day, that channelled the outrage from the netball community and defended the sport’s fearlessness.
Neysa Goh, head of marketing at Puma, said the response to that video showed fans were passionate and could be engaged.
“We wanted the video to be something that really mobilises the netball community and gets them up and about. We read that review and it lit a fire underneath us,” Goh said.
“The landscape has changed. The game has changed. I don’t really remember netball ever being the way it was described in that review.
Goh had some other suggestions about how netball could make some small branding adjustments to more closely align the two realms and hopefully filter participation numbers back up the chain.
“It is about creating that connection. The clubs are trying to do that through grassroots programs that they run, but we probably need to look broader and find ways to really link back to the elite sport as much as possible,” Goh said.
“Maybe it’s things like aligning local team uniforms to replicate what the athletes are wearing on court. So you’re starting to create that loyalty and link.
“You see that replicated in other sports and maybe it’s those simple links and tie backs that create a connection.”