What about men’s netball?
Is often the first comment you will read below a netball post on social media.
Generally with a hint of sarcasm, from a disgruntled male sports fan. Trying to show their disapproval of women’s sports’ rise in popularity, funding and exposure.
But, in a sad way, maybe the trolls actually have a point on this one?
As other Australian codes — like cricket, AFL and rugby league — have taken key steps forward over the last decade towards gender equality, netball has kept its focus firmly on participation for women and girls.
However, in recent years, it has been trying to find ways to grab the attention of more male viewers, with broadcast numbers stagnating and the sport eager to grow its commercial assets and audience.
This has resulted in rule innovations for the Super Netball league, like the super shot, which certainly made headlines around the country for its controversial introduction last year; much to the distaste of the majority of existing fans.
But maybe the answer actually lies in participation, with a number of male players believing men’s netball could be the key.
Eugene Lee has represented Australia and NSW in the sport and currently coaches women in the elite pathways.
As the assistant coach for the GWS Fury in the Netball NSW Premier League, he possesses a great understanding of the game and has a wonderful relationship with many of the female players.
“The majority of women that play at Super Netball and Aussie Diamonds level are really supportive of the men’s side of things, because at the end of the day we are just all netballers,” he told the ABC.
“We train against each other on a weekly basis, and they understand the level of commitment we put in as players, training and working full-time and having to fund ourselves for trips and competitions out of your own pocket with very little recognition.
“So, if you include men in netball, you’ll find there will naturally be more male viewers and that will also flow onto the women’s, expanding spectatorship and the chance of more sponsorship.”
The reluctance from women in the game
A year after basketball had been invented back in 1891, women’s basketball was developed with modified rules to ensure that the sport stuck to social conventions.
As time went on and the rules of the women’s game evolved further, a new sport was invented entirely, called netball.
From the very beginning, the sport was therefore developed specifically for women and run in a safe space, where its participants were treated as serious athletes and competitors, without male interference and ongoing comparison.
For a long time, the sport has continued to forge its own path, building from the ground up and advocating strongly for women and girls, while other sports discouraged and, in some cases, excluded female participation.
The idea that men would then like a slice of netball’s hard-earned pie, to develop better pathways and stronger men’s leagues, raises some concerns for those deeply invested in the game, about what it would mean for women playing the sport and whether they would end up disadvantaged if there was to be an even split in resourcing for both genders under the one governing body.
Generally speaking, boys in Australia are only allowed to play up until the age of 12 at grassroots, meaning few boys play as there is no real pathway to follow and no clear future in the sport.
But many parents say they prefer it this way, fearing rough play and an unfair advantage will become an issue if boys were allowed to play into their teens, as their bodies develop and become stronger through puberty.
Nathan Dart played competitively in the men’s NSW league for many years and is now directing the first men’s netball documentary, titled Rising to the Occasion, which is due for release later this year.
Interviewing various stakeholders, administrators and players across the country during filming, he told the ABC that exposure can help to combat these concerns.
“I think there are varying degrees and a spectrum of fear, but that is helped by exposure to the men’s side of the game,” Dart said.
“One particular goal of the documentary is to drive that awareness and visibility, to hopefully influence change and build some momentum behind it.”
During the NSW Swifts pre-season, the team played an exhibition match against the NSW men’s open side that was streamed online for fans to watch.
Eugene Lee played in that match and agreed people’s fear around rough play between girls and boys could be eased by exposure.
“Netball is such a unique sport where the main component of the game comes down to skill,” he said.
“There are things that the women are better at, and there are things that we are better at, but the scores are usually close; it’s actually way more of an even contest than people realise.”
Lee has also suggested that more of these games could be played for the public — even between the Australian men’s and women’s teams — instead of being played behind closed doors, as usually happens in the Super Netball pre-season and national camps.
“They’ve done that twice now, and I know from speaking to some of my friends from within that kiwi team that there have been so many young boys who have reached out to associations and also men that have realised there is an opportunity for them if they’d like to play.
“So that top-down approach has helped grow the grassroots for boys across the ditch and if Netball Australia could come on board and help men’s netball out by providing that level of exposure, it would really help.”
Boys encouraged at school but not on weekend
Kirsten Beniham is the mother of four children and her youngest two, 11-year-old twins Georgie and James, both play primary school netball together in the Sutherland Shire.
Students trial for these school netball teams and there is a general rule that no more than two boys can be in each side (although there are suggestions that this rule may have been relaxed).
Beniham said her son was not interested in any of the other winter sports available at school, instead deciding to give netball a go about three years ago.
“James helps Georgie practice in the backyard with the netball hoop and that’s where he realised he was good at shooting,” Beniham said.
Although James has been eligible to play grassroots netball at the family’s local association for the last few years, he cannot see the point.
“He’s not interested in playing weekends, because he can’t play past a certain age anyway, so it’s been a deterrent,” she said.
“He also tags along to Georgie’s netball and sees girls and women everywhere, there’s not even many dads, so there’s no male presence around that he can identify with.
“If he was going to play outside of school, he would probably want to play in more of a mixed environment, without the skirts and dresses.
Lee gave up on netball after primary school because, like James, there were no further opportunities for him to play.
But he started up again late in his high school years, purely as a way to get out of class.
While participating at a NSW Schools Cup tournament, Lee was spotted by a talent scout and invited to trial for the state underage boy’s team.
However, his story is quite rare, with many parents unaware that the teams even exist.
In good news, for the first time, there will actually be an under 14s and an under 16s junior boy’s division introduced at the NSW age championships this year, featuring different associations from all over the state.
Lee believes this is a really positive step in the right direction, to keep boys from dropping out of the sport.
“The pathways for boys aren’t clear right now, so there is a bit of a grey area in that 13-16 age group before they reach the men’s state teams and M-League.”
He has also encouraged anyone who would like to give boys’ or men’s netball a go, to reach out via the Men’s Netball NSW website or Facebook page.
“We are always there to try and support people and encourage them, whether they want to play or be an official or umpire,” he said.