There are many sounds that are synonymous with Super Netball – squeaking shoes on wooden floorboards, the piercing shriek of the umpires’ whistles, the low growl of defenders pretending to be encouraging their own teammates while really trying to put off their opponents. Accompanying this curious melody is the roar of the crowd, working in sync to create an immersive soundtrack.
Netball crowds have always punched above their weight. For a sport that is usually played in stadiums with a capacity of less than 10,000 people, the noise is intense and focused. Find yourself in a crowd at a grand final or a major international game and the effect is further heightened .
The enclosed space and proximity to the court are factors in this, but so too is the fact that netball crowds are generally less inhibited than other Australian sporting crowds. Without being drunk and boorish, netball crowds are full of people willing to throw dignity to the wind and get involved in every moment.
But now, along with all professional sports preparing to return in the Covid-19 era, netball faces the prospect of removing this element from the game and hearing squeaky shoes echo across 10,000 empty seats.
The men’s AFL and NRL competitions have been desperate to get back to cash in on their broadcast deals, but netball’s contract with Channel Nine and Telstra is far less lucrative. Without money flowing to the clubs from broadcast, revenue from ticket and merchandise sales at live games is considerably more important. This will be a factor in decision making for the upcoming season.
Aside from financial concerns, Super Netball must also engineer its re-entry into a crowded market. With a number of sports starting at once and the probability of seasons extending into summer, there will be a fight for viewers’ eyes and media coverage. And with the coverage during the hiatus skewing towards men’s sport, netball will have a fight on its hands to re-establish its place in the Australian sporting landscape.
Fortunately they come in with a couple of extra strings to their bow with two significant rule changes coming into play for the 2020 season. Extra-time has been added for drawn matches and coaches have been granted the use of rolling substitutions.
The first is especially welcome – with seven draws across 14 rounds in 2019 fans and players have been calling out for extra time. Rolling substitutions were trialled in feeder competition the Australian Netball League last year and are aimed at eliminating the need for players to call a fake injury timeout to be replaced during play.
However the change that competition organisers have long been laying the groundwork for is the introduction of a two-point shot. In this scenario, goals scored from the outer edge of the goal circle are worth two points. Despite being presented as a possible change at the end of each season, the answer has consistently been a resounding “no” from both fans and players.
The most common argument against the two-point is that is fundamentally changes the fabric of the sport. Instead of shooters aiming to position themselves close to the post, they will try to be further away, which also changes the type of defence employed against them. This would have impacts for Super Netball players on the international stage – spending an entire season training to play a certain way only to have to change for high pressure international games at the end of the season will place them at a disadvantage.
Proponents of the two-point shot believe it adds excitement and removes the over-reliance on tall shooters who take their shots close to the post, from where they rarely miss. While these voices are much smaller in number, the fact that the question continues to be raised suggests they are being listened to.
With the possibility of a shortened season on the agenda, as well as the need to draw in more fans to ensure netball holds on to its place in the spotlight, this may be the opportunity competition organisers have been waiting for to test the waters and include the rule in some capacity under the guise of crisis management.
Times are tough, but the sport itself is strong. It has been built on the foundations of powerful women over more than a century, and while it has evolved over time, it has remained true to its roots. As administrators delve into the details of what the upcoming season will look like, fans will be hoping the integrity of the game can be maintained so that when they come back in their thousands, they will recognise the beats and tempos of the sport to create that familiar soundtrack once more.