Sue Gaudion and Keeley Devery are confident that changes to this year’s Suncorp Super Netball will be match winners. They expect the proposals will add value to the league, making for a more exciting viewing experience for fans and fresh faces alike.
Netball is currently the fourth most played sport in Australia behind soccer, golf and AFL – it is the most dominant female code by some margin. However, that position has come under threat recently with increased pay deals and a wave of success drawing numbers to code competitors AFLW, soccer, cricket and rugby sevens. The game’s very existence depends on netball’s ability to stay ahead of the pack.
Netball Australia acted decisively in response to the increased amount of women’s sport on offer. In a bold move, ties were cut with New Zealand and in 2017 Suncorp Super Netball was introduced.
Wide World Of Sports commentator Sue Gaudion said, “That was part of how netball in Australia had to evolve. It was a huge decision to split the competition and there was a lot of criticism around it. But take a look at how well that has turned out!”
In the same year, Netball Australia established the Game Plan Working Group. Its role is to look at where netball has been, where it’s potentially headed and what needs tweaking.
Made up of experts across several netball-related industries, Gaudion explains that it has a crucial role in the game’s evolution.
“We’ve been blessed for a long time to be a sport that has lead the way in many facets. But the reality is that competition is now far greater for female sports than it has ever been. For us to think we can hold that mantle, but not continue to challenge ourselves or grow, is naïve.”
Netball Australia has been proactive in driving the game forwards. Work is being done from grassroots participation through to the elite level. At the latter end, part of the Game Plan’s aim is to make Suncorp Super Netball the best sports entertainment package in the business. It’s a big call, and one that continues to evolve.
When the new league commenced last year, Channel Nine came on board as a broadcast partner, with immediate impact.
Nine’s Head of Netball, Keeley Devery, has more than 20 years’ experience in the industry, is a former Australian international who understands her product and leads a team committed to producing the best.
“Our commentators are truly amazing, they’re legends of the game and know it intimately. Behind our coverage we also have production staff who love the sport. I think that passion shows in what we put out there. We knew how good the game could look and we wanted to make sure it did.”
Early concerns – the split from New Zealand, adding three new teams, unlimited imports and reducing bench rosters from 12 to 10 – came to naught. Standards improved, there was extraordinary netball on show and fans loved it.
Television ratings were good in the first year with a 26% year-on-year viewing growth and 443,000 fans watching the Grand Final – an 81% increase on Ten’s coverage of the previous year. The main hiccups were around scheduling – awkward timeslots and games shown on 9Gem weren’t ideal for fans wanting to turn up or tune in.
Devery said Netball Australia and Channel Nine worked to address the issues around broadcast times.
“Last year we had the Grand Final and some internationals on the main channel and it created some great ratings. This year we will have Suncorp Super Netball on Channel Nine on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and I think that will be significant. Traffic is so much greater on the main channels.”
While some viewers have complained of the new Saturday afternoon timeslot, it’s more child-friendly – an important part of netball’s fan base.
The moves are necessary to try and attract a bigger audience. According to Gaudion, “We have a critical relationship with broadcasters and they will jump onto the next biggest and best thing if it’s not us. Our current product needs the ability to get extra eyeballs watching and contracts depend on that. That’s the reality.”
As part of the Game Plan Working Group, Gaudion identified issues that she felt needed to improve.
“Number one for me is that our Super Netball clubs need far higher membership rates. How do we grow them? Where are the Saturday players if they aren’t turning up at games? How do we engage the person who walks into the stadium or turns the TV on?”
Such questions led to rule changes for this season. The biggest one – a new points system – came about after data from America’s National Basketball Association (NBA) caught people’s attention.
According to Devery, “They’ve found many young consumers will just watch the last five minutes of a game, or highlights, because that’s where the action is and where the game is won and lost. To an extent we needed to look at that. We needed to try and create mini games within the bigger game to keep people’s interest.”
Gaudion agreed. “The whole netball presentation package was done exceptionally well at the Commonwealth Games. We had a great gold medal match, but the reality is that we don’t get that all the time. So for me, it’s how do we create interest? One of the toughest things for a commentator is to engage interest, when at half time the result is already obvious.”
“With the new rules, it will change the conversations around our broadcast. We’re already intrigued with quarter by quarter scores, but it doesn’t always have an impact. So now we can tell a story within a story and that will evolve as the game goes on, rather than just watching a blatantly obvious outcome.”
“I believe we will have a greater ability to engage our audience. We can make it a better package on TV. That’s down to the way we commentate, the way we present it, the way we broadcast it, the way people see it, the graphics and the cameras.”
Devery added, “We aren’t just trying to appeal to the die-hard netball fans – you can’t fool them and we need to keep them happy. But we also want the fringe watchers, the people who’ve never seen netball before. We want to get them interested and watching the game. That’s crucial for the future.”
There are other significant advantages of the new rules. Changes are easy to unravel at season’s end if they prove unsuccessful. Fundamentals remain unchanged – players and coaches will still go about their business in the same way. They will still be trying to win each quarter, each game.
There will be no tactical differences between domestic and international games, something that will please national coach Lisa Alexander who’s previously been critical of suggestions around adding a two-point shot.
Netball fans are hoping the changes add to the game, partly because the spectre of Fast5-style innovations still hover in the background.
Gaudion said, “It will be tough to judge whether these changes are a success. Perhaps an increase in numbers, in talkability, whether the media can tell more stories, whether it creates more excitement. I have no doubt that there will be a controversial story that pops out this season as a result, but fans need to remember that has happened before.”
“We’ve had a team with three draws that ended higher on the ladder than a team that had more wins. And if this doesn’t work, Netball Australia may still consider changes such as a two-point shot.”
Gaudion is also well-aware that netball is going to attract some criticism for their brave new world.
“There is no guarantee that we will get this right, but it’s a well-educated guess. The sporting landscape tells us we must improve, to make change. This will get a hell of a lot of attention, in part just because it is different.”
“If we don’t go down this road, we will never know. I’ve said from the start I’m happy to get to the end of the season and say, ‘It didn’t work, but at least we gave it a go.’ Now what are we going to do. That’s what it’s about. That’s how you evolve, because you can’t sit still.”
“If we can value add without hurting the game, so be it. At least I feel that we can protect the sport while we try and get everything else right and challenge ourselves to think a little bit differently. Then if we still haven’t made a shift, we’ve got to have a red-hot look at the game itself. But I don’t want to go there when we could be doing better elsewhere.”
“Just look at the massive decision to split the competition from New Zealand, and how brilliant that’s been for Australian netball!”
New Rules for Suncorp Super Netball 2018
Win – 4 points
Draw – 2 points
Winning a quarter – 1 point for each quarter won
Drawing a quarter – 0 points
The winning team can earn between 5 and 8 points per game, while the losing team can earn between 0 and 3 points per game.
Each team is entitled to up to two time outs per half.
Any member of the team bench (players and officials) can move up and down their team bench to communicate with off or on-court players.
Umpires are no longer required to caution a player for delaying play or intimidation. A penalty pass will be awarded.
Quarter time breaks will increase to 5 minutes, the half time break will increase to 15 minutes.
Cover image: Simon Leonard