How netball can withstand the rise of other sports

Ahead of Australia’s Super Netball grand final on Sunday, new research has revealed support for netball among its players has remained steady, despite increased attention on female Aussie Rules football and cricket. But experts warn that netball will need to respond to a changing landscape if it is to sustain strong participation into the future.

“Over the past few years, we have seen a small but steady increase in young girls participating in sport of all types and this has coincided with expanding opportunities in traditionally masculine sports, such as Australian Rules football and cricket,” says study lead author Dr Sam Elliott from the SHAPE Research Centre at Flinders University.

“There’s a concern that these increased opportunities are coming at the expense of other sports, such as netball, and the statistics do show this, with Netball Australia reporting its membership and participation rates dropped 20% between 2017 and 2020.

“We can’t assume, however, that it’s simply a case of girls choosing to ‘opt out’ of traditionally female-dominated sports in favour of ones suddenly in the spotlight. We need to fully explore what’s occurring and why.”

Dr Sam Elliott, from Flinders’ SHAPE Research Centre

The paper, published in the internationally respected journal Sport in Society, draws on data from a larger government-funded project involving both a large-scale survey and interview data, investigating how the promotion of contemporary sporting opportunities for girls and young females (aged 12-25 years) has impacted netball participation in Australia. This portion of the study focused on rigorous in-depth interviews with 27 female players, coaches and administrators in Australian netball.

“Our analysis showed that support for netball among its participants remains solid and stable but there were a number of areas that could see participation begin to falter, unless they are addressed,” says Dr Elliott.

“One major theme we identified was that of ‘cross-coders’ – those who play two or more sports, including netball. While many felt playing multiple sports assisted their netball performance and development, most felt anxiety about eventually having to choose one sport over another.

“If sporting codes, including netball, were to embrace and support cross-coders, it would likely see many staying on. Of those who do leave to explore another sport, fostering this curiosity would likely see them return in the future.”

Another area identified as a struggle for netball was how the small composition of playing groups is unable to generate the kind of exciting team culture observed in other sports, such as Australian Rules football. The study recommended that sports, including netball, should seek to innovate and diversify their participation base.

“Participants expressed that netball’s diversification, including the introduction of boys and male players, needed to come from the governing body, with many believing the game has sat on its laurels as the number one sport for girls for too long. Instead, it should get out there and promote the game to new players,” says Dr Elliott.

“It even raises the question as to whether the game needs to change to create a more dynamic and refreshed experience. We saw the introduction of the 2-point Super Shot into Super Netball’s 2020 season but it is unique to that competition and isn’t used in the community game.”

One of the biggest issues raised by participants was the limited opportunities to play at the elite level, with so few able to make it into the national team or even Super Netball teams, many of which have several international players on their roster.

“There are significant policy implications that require attention if netball is to manage talent development pathways successfully into the future. Otherwise, netball risks becoming a pipeline for producing athletic and skilled young females who ultimately leave the sport for greater opportunities in rival codes, such as AFLW,” says Dr Elliott.

“One potential strategy is to enact a more transparent, consistent and governed selection process for clubs and coaches, while at the same time articulating the other benefits and opportunities of playing netball at any level.

“By refocusing on what the sport can be, instead of dwelling on its shortcomings such as the limited opportunities to play at an elite level, netball can potentially distinguish itself in the market while maintaining its developmental pathways.”

While the study is focussed on netball, the authors say the overall findings can offer all sporting codes useful insights for navigating changing attitudes and preferences surrounding sport participation among young females.

“The issue of losing players is not unique to netball and there will be numerous sports across the Australian landscape that will be in a similar situation,” says Dr Elliott. 

“While it appears that support for netball among its participants remains strong, it is now competing in a crowded space with other contemporary sports and will need to find ways to maintain relevance if it is to remain the primary sport for girls and young females.”

Listen to Dr Elliott and the Advertiser’s Ben Hook unpack the study further on Australia’s leading sport research communication podcast, Beyond the Club.

‘The promotion of sporting opportunities for girls and young females and the implications for traditional female sports: a qualitative descriptive study’ by Sam Elliott, Murray Drummond, Ivanka Prichard, Lucy Lewis, Claire Drummond, Catherine Litchfield, Emilea Mysko, Kayleigh O’Donnell & Hayley Truskewykz is published in the journal Sport in Society. DOI: 10.1080/17430437.2022.2080059. This work was supported by the South Australian Office for Recreation, Sport and Racing.

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