Netball Australia’s fiscal fairytale set for sour ending after wrong turn at fork in the road

Once upon a time, two countries – let’s call them Australia and New Zealand – packed a basket of goodies and set out through the forest on a netball journey, looking for a meadow filled with gold medals and piles of sponsorship money – the like only ever seen by men’s sports. For a long time, this journey was pleasant and collaborative. When they hit a snag, they worked it out and merrily continued. But one day they reached a fork in the road. New Zealand was keen to take the smooth, flat path, while Australia thought the dark and dangerous route would be quicker and ultimately more rewarding.

And so, in 2016 Netball Australia announced it would be splitting apart the trans-Tasman ANZ Championship and going it alone with a brand new Australian domestic competition. This announcement – which seemed like a watershed moment at the time – now appears to mark the point where things started to go very wrong for Netball Australia’s finances.

As reported by News Corp this week, Netball Australia now finds itself in deep financial trouble, with losses and debts of up to $11m – of which the $300,000 in cash and $350,000 in contra the organisation secured by selling the hosting rights to the 2022 Suncorp Super Netball grand final will barely touch. This fork-in-the-road moment is worth examining more closely, as it is indicative of many of the issues that continue to plague the sport.

The decision itself is one that made sense on the surface. Statistics bear out the suggestion that New Zealand teams were not strong enough to sustain the competition as it was. In 2016, Australian and New Zealand teams played 24 matches against each other. Of those encounters, Australia won 17 matches with an average winning margin of 18.29 goals. New Zealand teams won six with an average winning margin of 8.33 goals and there was one draw.

While on the international stage, little could separate the two countries, at a domestic level there was a serious discrepancy in depth that needed to be addressed. Understandably, New Zealand were resistant to reducing the number of teams in the competition, as a significant portion of the funding came from their broadcast deal with Sky Sport who were not open to more games featuring two Australian teams, which their local subscribers would have limited interest in.

As is often the case, there were plenty of merits to Netball Australia’s decision. It is the timing and execution that were questionable. By splitting away from New Zealand so quickly and without a definite broadcast deal and proven marketing plan in place, the new competition wasn’t given the time and preparation it deserved.

The decision to leave was made and announced before Australia negotiated its own new broadcast deal with Channel Nine – spruiked at the time as ground-breaking and momentous. In fact, the deal removed the financial certainty provided by Sky and was instead based on sponsorship and advertising.

On the court, the Suncorp Super Netball competition is the best in the world. The game has evolved incredibly since the split from New Zealand and it is doubtful such an evolution would have been possible had Australia continued with the status quo. However, off the court, not enough has changed to keep pace with that evolution.

Marketing efforts remain laser focused on young girls; an audience that has been targeted since netball’s first forays into elite domestic competition. As recently as November 2021 Netball Australia embarked on a partnership with My Little Pony – a franchise whose audience is primarily two to five-year-olds – younger than even netball’s tiniest participants.

There seems to have been an assumption that simply a higher quality competition would be enough to bring in more fans, more sponsors and more broadcast dollars. When this did not prove to be the case, rather than examine the strategy and evolve the marketing of the sport, another quick fix was sought in the form of the two-point super shot. While the rule change itself was questionable, more concerning is that it appears to have been considered enough to simply create an audience for itself – without the marketing or game day experience behind it to bring in and connect that audience to the sport.

Netball Australia CEO Kelly Ryan said on Friday that netball is “not on the brink of financial ruin” yet desperate times call for desperate measures as she indicated that looking to gambling companies as sponsors was not “out of the realms of possibility”. The move is as disappointing as it is confusing and further highlights a lack of understanding of a cohesive target market and a plan to engage them. The scattergun approach is one that is unlikely to work in the long term.

As Australia continues to follow the twists and turns of the treacherous path it has found itself on – the basket of goodies now empty and wolves starting to close in – it will take some serious navigating and a long, hard slog if they hope to ever reach that golden meadow.