Netball Superleague gears up for new season amid popularity boom as players call for professionalisation

Ben Bloom
Manchester Thunder are the defending champions, having beaten Wasps in last year's Superleague Grand Final - GETTY IMAGES

That netball is booming is evident by the record 9,000-strong capacity crowd who will fill the Arena Birmingham on Saturday to watch all 10 Superleague teams compete on the opening day of the season.

The rate of progress has been stark. Not so long ago, the sport had no television presence and little exposure outside the niche netball world.

Now the entire day will be shown on Sky as the sport continues to ride the wave of England’s historic Commonwealth Games triumph less than two years ago.

But if England are ever going to challenge world No 1 side Australia and world champions New Zealand on a regular basis, there is general agreement about one final hurdle that must be overcome.

“We’re not professional enough,” says Severn Stars defender and former England captain Ama Agbeze.

“Teams and players aspire to be professional and try to act professionally, but if people have a day job to go to you can’t train as much as you need to train.

“In Australia and New Zealand, their leagues are really intense and it’s almost like playing an international.

“Lots of England’s players who played in the Commonwealth Games and last year’s World Cup have played abroad and so have experienced the intensity and consistency you need to perform at that elite level.

“There’s an array of players coming through now who haven’t experienced that, so need our league to be as good if not better than Australia and New Zealand.

“If we don’t do something about it soon and the intensity and pressure doesn’t increase there’s going to be a disparity. As long as Superleague has that feeling of being blown away when you play an international, the league isn’t good enough.”

Ama Agbeze has called for further professionalisation within netball - GETTY IMAGES

Fran Williams, England and Wasps defender, agrees: “It’s the hard truth. With extra funding and money to make us professional athletes, that’s where we’ll see the rise in the league and the quality of the performances.

“We’re all training as professional athletes in the Superleague, but not all players can actually be professional. They’ve still got other jobs.

“There’s fatigue, we can’t all train together, we have to train at strange times – all these little factors come down to not having enough hours in the week. That all comes with professionalisation.

“The players are ready and the league has the ability to grow to that – it’s just taking it to the next level.”

Their aspirations are nothing new to those at the governing body, with England Netball chief executive Fran Connolly this month revealing ambitions to fully professionalise the Superleague and make it “the best women’s league in the country” across all sports.

Agbeze also says she would like to see more respect given to players operating at the highest level of the sport.

“It’s taken a long time in the UK to shift the mindset from: ‘Netball is something the girls used to play at school’ or ‘my daughter plays that,’” she says.

“If it was football, we’d never compare the England football team to going to watch your daughter or son play football. But that’s the mindset people take with netball.

“People’s mindsets have started to shift, but not completely. I think there definitely needs to be a differentiation between netball for participation and netball at elite level.”

Such concerns would have seemed trivial when Agbeze lined up for the inaugural Superleague match in a vastly different era 15 years ago, when the sport was simply fighting for any sense of recognition.

Agbeze jokes she had “definitely come a decade or two early” and Wasps shooter Rachel Dunn – who also played in that first Superleague match – says the improvements have been vast.

“People know what netball is now and people have more respect for you,” she says. “The standard on the court has definitely improved over the last 15 years – even the last couple of years I’d say.

“In the first couple of years you used to have blow-out games where you’d go and win 80-30 and stuff like that. Now you don’t know if you’re going to win any game or not.”

  • Sky Sports is the home of the Vitality Netball Superleague. The season starts February 22, with all five games live on Sky Sports