I have fond memories of ballet school. Mum would drop me off and I, after waving goodbye, would slip out the side door. My perfect execution of a pirouette had nothing to do with heading for the gaggle of smokers and snoggers huddled behind the nearby sheds – but everything to do with an uneven asphalt court two blocks away.
I’d watch girls a few years older than me run up and down calling for the ball, some controlled, others flapping wildly. It’s here where I taught myself the basics of the game and here where my undying love affair with netball began. The boys could wait.
I replaced my ballet shoes with a bottle-green pleated skirt, matching canary yellow t-shirt and knee-high socks. A uniform that made the Socceroos early nineties jersey look like haute couture. I wore it outside of game day. Long before Magda made it fashionable to do so. Enough said.
I’m a bit more savvy with my dress sense these days but my passion for the game hasn’t changed. Unlike the sport itself, which continues to grow having shed the old thinking that’s historically held it back. It’s been a remarkable transformation.
Netball does a lot right these days. Sponsorship revenue is up, membership’s blooming, 1.2 million people play the sport and the netball “economy” (total national turnover) has grown considerably. For that we can thank the ANZ Championship.
Netball Australia says the sport has never been in better shape. It attributes this to “strong governance and leadership and a clearly articulated strategy that is aligned across the sport nationally”.
Record crowds at the ANZ Championship this year confirm Netball Australia’s assertion but the next big challenge for the sport is to convert those one million plus participants into fans of the game who will watch the sport on TV.
Not an easy task. Sport is a sexist place. And any sport labelled as “women’s sport” is automatically seen as a lesser product. Cultural change is slow, painfully slow. When Network Ten walked away as broadcast partner eight weeks before the start of last season it gave this blunt reason – netball is “not a premium sport”. Well that clearly depends who you talk to.
I hope those executives bothered to watch some of the current season, so beautifully unpredictable and arguably the most exciting in the seven-year history of the trans-Tasman competition.
As fans we were blown away by the shooting prowess of Mwai Kumwenda. The Malawian international scored 540 goals at 91.4% accuracy to deservedly take out the best new talent award this week. As a frustrated “centre” I’ve loved watching the young, brash talent thrown into the Vixens mid court, their power and grace. Twists and turns every week. Winners have been impossible to pick.
Next up is an enticing grand final between the Melbourne Vixens and Queensland Firebirds, a team written off before the start of the season. Coincidentally it’s the 100th match for both sides since the championship began. It’ll showcase the two best defences in the competition in front of a raucous Melbourne crowd.
On Sunday when the players are introduced onto court one by one, the butterflies in my stomach will start to dance, for although I never achieved my goal of playing at the elite level, the game is buried deep within me. I will remember the young girl, skin stripped from both knees, playing purely for the love of netball.
Give me that over a cursed swan in a tutu any day.