The new National Netball League: The questions we need to ask

Megan Maurice Columnist

By , Megan Maurice is a Roar Expert

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    How about a Netball State of Origin? (AAP Image/Glenn Hunt)

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    The worst kept secret in netball has finally been officially revealed, with Netball Australia (NA) today confirming that the current Trans-Tasman Netball League (TTNL) will be disbanded at the end of this season and the two countries will form their own leagues for the 2017 season.

    As predicted, Australia’s league will feature the five existing franchises, plus three new additions – a Melbourne-based team owned by the Collingwood Football Club, a Sunshine Coast-based team owned by the Melbourne Storm and a Western Sydney-based team jointly owned by Netball NSW and the GWS Giants.

    Channel Nine and Telstra have also been announced as the broadcast partners, with two live games to be played on Nine each Saturday night and the remaining two games to be broadcast on Nine on delay, as well as live on Telstra TV and the Netball Live app.

    While this is a lot of news to digest for netball fans, we don’t as yet have all the details about how this new league will operate. There are still plenty of questions that need to be answered and I’ve detailed just a few that I think fans would like to know in order to fully get behind this new venture.

    What will the rule changes be and how will they impact the game?

    Much has been made of possible rule changes said to have sealed the deal for Channel Nine to broadcast the league. One that has been touted is the much-maligned two-point shooting, where goals scored from an outer ring of the goal circle are worth two points. While this may seem like a simple change, it is one that will affect the very fabric of the game.

    A similar scoring zone (though worth three points) was trialled in the 2016 Summer Shootout preseason competition and although it was certainly sport taking place out on the court, that sport was not netball.

    The likely affect of this change will be that tall shooters will be positioned under the post as rebounders, while goal attacks will need to become long bomb specialists, constantly shooting from the outer ring as their goal shooter rebounds the ball and passes back out. Defenders too will need to switch their mindset to try to force their opponent deep in the circle, rather than trying to hold them out on the edge. The game may also become scrappier as more shots are missed and the ball travels up and down between goal circles more often and player fatigue sets in.

    The big consideration to come out of this change is how the players will then adjust to playing the traditional rules of netball in the international arena. The impact is likely to be especially brutal for young players who come up through the system under these rule changes and then step into international competition having never played under International Netball Federation (INF) rules at the elite level.

    NA CEO Kate Palmer addressed the rumoured rule changes briefly in the press conference, simply saying in a very Dolores Umbridge way that rule changes would not be made “for the sake of it.” This seems to suggest that rule changes are inevitable and fans must continue to wait to find out exactly what these will be.

    How will the talent imbalance be addressed?
    Although all five Australian franchises have had successful periods across the TTNL, with every team bar the West Coast Fever winning at least one premiership across the eight-year history of the competition, there continue to be talent imbalances.

    The NSW Swifts and Queensland Firebirds have been dominant for the past two seasons and each have a swathe of international players at their disposal. With three new teams entering, how do we ensure that the talent is spread evenly across the competition?

    As netball is currently only a semi-professional sport, the salary cap hasn’t been able to effectively address this, with contracts able to be topped with third party deals and non-monetary benefits such as cars and accommodation for interstate and international players.

    The idea of a ‘points cap’ has been raised, with a certain number of points assigned to players based on their experience and credentials and a cap on the number of points each team can have. This seems to be the best solution to the problem and would hopefully prevent a return to the pre-TTNL era when the old National Netball League was dominated by three teams for much of its run.

    If no new system is brought in, there is some danger of the three new teams either being hopelessly out of their depth on entry to the competition (as was the case for the Gold Coast Suns and GWS Giants in the AFL in their early years) or the very opposite – the new teams use their resources from the private sector and their position on the Eastern seaboard to drain talent from the farther flung teams, the Adelaide Thunderbirds and West Coast Fever, and leave these existing franchises languishing.

    What happens to the ANL?
    On establishment of the TTNL, NA set up an underpinning league, known as the Australian Netball League (ANL) to bridge the gap between the state leagues and the elite level. It has been a highly successful competition in terms of talent development and has allowed young players to experience the high performance environment and make the step into a TTNL franchise without missing a beat.

    Currently the league contains six teams – one each from the TTNL franchise states, plus a team from Canberra. Will the ANL continue in its current form, be disbanded or move into being a direct feeder league, with eight teams each linked to a top level franchise?

    How will netball in NSW look with two elite teams both managed by Netball NSW?
    The situation in NSW is an interesting one, with a joint bid by Netball NSW (NNSW) and the GWS Giants to be granted the additional licence in Sydney. There are many questions that arise out of this, particularly around financial contributions. Will NNSW be contributing equally to each of their teams? If so, how will this affect the Swifts’ bottom line and will it mean and increase in registration fees for grass roots players in the state?

    How will the two teams be marketed – will netball associations be divided into zones and assigned teams to support based on area? We have seen this work effectively with Cricket NSW’s two Big Bash League franchises, however the Swifts have built a great deal of good will in the state and fans will not jump ship easily. Does the focus instead go into converting GWS AFL fans into netball fans? Will NNSW look to spread talent between their two teams or try to lock the Swifts existing players in and only permit the new team to recruit from interstate and the ANL?

    This is a particularly interesting situation that not many predicted when expressions of interest were originally called for, so it will be a development that we will watch with interest over the coming months.

    How will netball in Victoria and Queensland look with one elite team managed by the state body and one privately owned and run?
    On the flip side, the state bodies in Victoria and Queensland have announced they will not be involved in the management of the new teams in their states. This has already had an impact on the current Melbourne-based team the Vixens.

    The team is searching for a new high performance base after the Victorian Institute of Sport revealed that as they will be unable to provide a base for both teams in the new competition, they will withdraw their support from the Vixens, in the interest of fairness. As the new team will have access to all the facilities that the Collingwood Football Club can offer, this hardly seems like it is in the spirit of fairness, but as a government funded organisation, they must feel the need to appear impartial.

    In terms of attracting talent and getting access to development pathways in the state, we don’t yet know how difficult the state bodies will make it for the privately owned teams. However it must be assumed that access to grass roots players for the purposes of marketing will be severely restricted and the new franchises will have to look at converting their existing footballing fan-bases into netballing ones in order to get bums on seats at their games.

    What will Channel Nine’s broadcast product look like?
    The landmark broadcasting deal is potentially the most exciting aspect of the new league. Previously NA was not only giving away the rights to the games to Foxtel and Channel Ten for free, they were also paying the production costs via deals with sponsors. Having all games on free-to-air television, with two games shown live in prime time, in a paid deal is big news.

    But before we get too excited, we have to wonder how Channel Nine will present and promote the game. Journalist Geoff Lemon created waves last year when his article Just not cricket – how Channel Nine is destroying a legacy went viral and thousands of cricket fans across the country expressed their dissatisfaction with the product that Nine was peddling, with similar criticisms levelled at the station’s rugby league coverage.

    If this new broadcast deal sees Michael Slater showing bikini glamour shots of the players during the breaks or features Ray Warren and Phil Gould arguing over an umpiring interpretation for half the game or Shane Warne pondering which Melbourne team would eat a dirty rotten pizza the fastest, it might be a recipe for disaster.

    I think we can safely assume that Nine will take Liz Ellis – essentially the face and voice of netball in Australia – into their commentary team, but the make up of the rest of the team is unknown. Fox Sports have been strong in providing a predominantly female commentary team, but whether Nine feels an injection of male voices is required remains to be seen.

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