New Netball Australia CEO, Kelly Ryan, might be bleary eyed today, but she’s also clear-eyed. In touching base with the media this afternoon, as she stepped onto an Adelaide bound flight, Ryan started delivering what she had promised just one week earlier – greater transparency for the sport. And while for remainder of the Suncorp Super Netball season, the only certainty is uncertainty, Ryan shared what she could.
With the Covid19 Delta variant spreading at an alarming rate in Australia, and multiple states going into lockdown and/or slamming their borders shut, it was a sleepless night for Suncorp Super Netball’s decision makers.
With teams spread across four states – one each in Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia, and the remaining five in Victoria – it was crucial for rapid decisions to be made ahead of what looked like a Melbourne lockdown in the making.
In an around the clock effort, Netball Australia worked with the clubs, stakeholders such as broadcast partners, and the South Australian government and Health Department, to put preliminary plans in place.
Ryan said, “There’s been a number of calls and meetings across the entire night, including well into the early hours of the morning to try and come up with scenarios given we knew the risks around Melbourne going into lockdown was real.
“That planning has put us in good stead, because that lockdown has come to fruition, so really the welfare of our players was to get them out into a space that they could live as normally as they possibly can, and have the ability and right to train and play the way they need to play, and also play in front of crowds.”
In an operation that Ryan described as having ‘a million moving parts’, four of the teams in Victoria departed immediately for South Australia, arriving before a midnight enforced deadline that would have forced them into quarantine. Unfortunately the Firebirds had left for Queensland shortly before the announcement was made, and will fly south again tomorrow, together with the Sunshine Coast Lightning, also attempting to beat the curfew. In a piece of major good news, and based on current advice, it appears that quarantine will be avoided.
Given the Firebirds’ extra travel a secondary fixture reshuffle will most likely occur, with the Queensland team set to stay in South Australia. At this point, Fever will remain in Western Australia, with the Thunderbirds the team – given the open border between WA and SA – set to complete the Round 11 fixture in Perth. After the match, the Thunderbirds will fly back to South Australia, with the Fever to follow at a time to be determined by the league.
While Queensland was used as a hub last year, it wasn’t considered this time around, in an effort to minimise any quarantine requirements on arrival, or for teams when they eventually arrive back in their home states.
Netball Australia spoke with all athletes at 9 am this morning, with Ryan saying, “We told them what the challenges were that we were facing, and told them, ‘Please pack your bags. We are going to try and move this through as fast as we can to get you home as fast as we can.’
“There are a lot of factors completely outside our control that we have to stay alive to, so for some teams they’ll be in a different location for a lot longer than others, depending on again, what teams play into finals.”
Ryan strongly indicated that the remaining fixtures will move not only into a South Australian hub, but into a condensed finish as well, with midweek games on the cards. She said, “The main aim is to get our SSN season away so we are now exploring all options to not only consolidate the teams in South Australia, but also looking at options to condense the season, to be able to make sure that we can actually deliver a full season.”
While some states could potentially host matches, Ryan believes that it is vital for the teams to be located in one state given the strong possibility of midweek games. She said, “It will depend on how we execute the season from a fixture point of view. If we look at a condensed model, it would probably be better from a welfare point of view if the players were based in Adelaide to avoid multiple flights back and forwards, but notionally they’re all the conversations that need to take place.
“We will throw multiple options on the table and see which one we can align with, noting there will NOT be one perfect scenario. There never has been in these Covid situations. We will try and find an option that is most palatable to the greatest number of stakeholders.”
What the remaining fixtures look like is currently unknown. Factors also to be considered will include whether teams have travelled with extended squads, if match day benches will include 12 athletes as per last season, whether games might be shortened to support athlete welfare, or when the Vixens/Fever match will be rescheduled – something that Ryan is hopeful will occur. Teams that needed to take family members with them – particularly those with children – have been given the necessary support.
Even the fixture for this weekend’s Round 11 is still up in the air, with a kaleidoscope of scenarios to work through with clubs, broadcast partners, venue availability and welfare concerns, before decisions can be made. However Ryan is hopeful that the number of games yet to be played, together with the broadcasting of them, will remain unchanged.
The move will be another financial hit for a sport that, like many other codes, is facing significant outlays while operating on a restricted budget. According to Ryan, losing income is less of a consideration than finishing the season.
She explained, “We are not in a position where we are making any revenue at the moment.
“But there’s a bigger picture here…It’s really important from an integrity perspective to maintain that status of having the best elite athletes available in the world that want to play in this competition.
“Our focus remains firmly on that, and we will work tirelessly behind the scenes to work out what the financial implication is…They are tough and they’re tight, and we have these conversations on a daily basis with our teams. We are well attuned to what’s going on.”
Further uncertainties also revolve around the Players’ Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), which isn’t yet finalised. Under a condensed season, half the athletes could be out of employment in just over two weeks time, unable to be contracted by SSN clubs until the CBA is complete. While those athletes playing finals will have another week or two up their sleeves, with their livelihoods at stake, it’s a matter that will require urgent attention.
Despite all the challenges involved, the athletes are currently remaining upbeat and focused. Ryan explained, “From a welfare perspective, while it creates more disruption to their individual lives, they have been phenomenal in accepting this new challenge that we’ve thrown at them, with the pure goal of not only providing them with the best possible experience that we can to finish the season, but to give us the best opportunity to finish the season.
“We’ve asked a lot from them over the past 12 to 18 months, and they are putting that all aside again for the greater good of the entire league and the netball family, to be able to again try and execute the SSN season in 2021.”
Kelly also praised fans, who she said have been stalwart in supporting their clubs, despite a lack of home games, and Netball Australia and club staff. She said, “We’re all in it for the long haul, for the greater good of the game, to get this season done.
“Everyone is rallying around. We were on calls at 2.30 in the morning in dressing gowns last night. There is no start and finish line with this. There is an amazing group of people, not only inside Netball Australia, but each of our teams as well. The approach of all our teams, really working collaboratively on all the scenarios at play, has been nothing short of amazing.”