02 January 2021 06:33
Netball Australia is close to finalising a record-breaking broadcast deal for the sport's Super Netball competition, with the Nine Network and Foxtel expected to outbid other outlets keen on accessing the sport's unrivalled double-digit percentage audience growth. Key points: Netball Australia has doubled its business from $14 million to $28 million since 2017 Netball Australia has doubled its business from $14 million to $28 million since 2017 Super Netball and the Diamonds national side have driven revenue Super Netball and the Diamonds national side have driven revenue Super Netball's current broadcast deal, which was agreed with Channel Nine in 2016, expires later this year It is a very different environment to the initial broadcast deal struck in 2016 with Nine covering the production costs while the network and the sport's governing body came to an arrangement to share advertising revenue. Super Netball Commission chair Marina Go believes the deal will also drive growth for other sports broadcasting arrangements. "We are currently in negotiations so cannot say too much at this stage," Go says. "But the commission has a number of strategic objectives that we are aiming to deliver for the league and its stakeholders across the next five-year period and we believe the next broadcast agreement will enable us to achieve them.
"That, for netball, would be like hitting the jackpot. "The next agreement will be the first step on the path to growing the league, with the hope that the value created over the next five years for Australia's leading women's sport will start to deliver a more gender-balanced outcome in future broadcast deals for all sports." Each year since 2017 Super Netball's audience growth has surpassed all other sports, including AFL and NRL, even during the COVID-affected winter of 2020. In the same period Netball Australia has doubled the size of its business from $14 million to $28 million with a twin focus — the Super Netball domestic competition and the internationally recognised and hugely successful Diamonds national team. According to director of media rights value at Global Media and Sports, Colin Smith — who offers strategic advice to broadcasters and numerous sports including netball — Super Netball is unique in a crowded market. "It's one of the few sports in Australia that has grown its TV audiences significantly," he says. "It's been a standout. Experts say the presence of international stars like England's Helen Housby (centre) makes Super Netball the sport's equivalent to football's Champions League. (AAP: Dan Peled) "Prior to COVID most of the sports were flatlining or showing negative growth. Audiences for Super Netball have increased in that time period by about 20 per cent. "I would say this was the first women's league in Australia that was truly world class." Super Netball attracts some of the world's top players, making it netball's "equivalent of a Champions League or Premier League", according to Smith. Creating Super Netball as a television product was perhaps the biggest gamble the sport ever made. That gamble has paid off. Deciding to split from the trans-Tasman ANZ Championship in 2016 the sport's governing body hoped a purely domestic-based competition would appeal to broadcasters, putting an end to a relationship where Netball Australia paid some of the production costs to originally get the game on air providing exposure to its huge grass-roots base. Central to Super Netball's current deal, which expires later this year, was then-managing director of Nine, now chief commercial and content officer at Foxtel, Amanda Laing. She says despite not having any personal experience with netball it was obvious from her discussions with others that "this was a sport for which many, many Australians — men and women — had a deep affection and connection". "I knew that if we could find a way to give the sport and the players a higher profile, it could indeed be a 'sleeping giant'," she says. Numerous stakeholders have credited Laing with the game's commercial television success, believing she was more prepared to give the game a go than many of the other media executives approached — all of whom happened to be men. Laing is reluctant to accept such credit. "It's important to note that there were many people involved in getting Super Netball to broadcast — Nine's head of ad sales, head of sports sales, head of sport, head of programming and the CEO — all of whom were men," Laing told The Ticket. "I'd like to think that the massive participation base and unrealised potential of netball would have appealed to anyone who stopped to consider the sport, male or female." Where netball differs as a product to other sports competitions played by women is that those who play the game are not constantly being compared to male counterparts. "Absolutely, this is one of netball's superpowers," Laing says. "Not only does it benefit from not being seen or referred to as the 'women's version' of a men's game, but it is the best competition in the world with an extraordinarily successful national team. "I think this is one of the most interesting issues in sport — how do we change the narrative and vocabulary around sport such that we look at the differences between the way sport may be played by women and men and deem both as equally legitimate and worthy." Professionalising and increasing a media profile do not come without growing pains, as netball has experienced in the past year. Two teams in 2020 were fined for breaching the salary cap, Super Netball's lack of diversity came under the spotlight, and a controversial player send-off led to questions over whether umpiring standards were keeping up with changes in the quality of play. The recently conducted State of the Game Review has identified areas of improvement for the administrators, but they are not alone in their quest for growth. The Australian Netball Players Association will negotiate a new Collective Players Agreement (CPA) with Netball Australia once the Super Netball broadcast deal has been signed. Association CEO and former Diamonds captain Kathryn Harby-Williams believes while becoming more professional and increasing individual earning potential is a driver, it is not an "at any cost" scenario. She says elite netballers don't position themselves as bigger than the game but instead are custodians of the sport with the mission of leaving netball in even better shape than they found it. "Our CPA comes up at the end of 2021 and we've just done some work on a player manifesto," Harby-Williams says. "The number one element that is very important to our players is, yes, they want to become pro netballers but not at the expense of being well-rounded individuals who are ready to transition into life after their sporting career. "Yes, they want to make money, but they don't want to let go of having the ability to study, do work experience and develop life skills. "If you talk to a lot of athletes there are a lot that struggle when they leave the sporting environment that is very structured and within a bubble and the adjustment to real life is extremely difficult. "Our players are very conscious of that and probably educated because they've seen other sports go through this, so when they step away from our game, they want to be ready for the next phase." With increased revenue from a new broadcast deal there is certain to be more money for the elite players. It is expected that some of the restrictions around third-party sponsorships may be loosened so individual players can capitalise on their earning capacity but there is general agreement that the salary cap must stay to keep the competition equal. Foxtel executive Amanda Laing says the increasing coverage of women's sport, including netball, in recent years is "a start". (AAP: Albert Perez) Loading As the new broadcasting contracts are finalised, the last word goes to Foxtel executive Amanda Laing, who is in the unique position of knowing what the first agreement looked like and potentially will determine what the next broadcast deal will encompass. "I had high hopes that this [2016 deal] would translate into growth in the profile and revenues of the game — ticket sales, sponsorship revenues, merchandise, etc," she said. "I also wanted to make household names of the players, who I saw as remarkable role models. "I take great pleasure in seeing the significant increase over the years in the coverage of the Super Netball competition, the sport more generally and the players. "As you would know, this is also true of women's sport more generally. There is more to do, obviously, but it's a start. "I genuinely believe that advertising and media agencies, and many brands, have been surprisingly unimaginative and slow in realising how powerful an association with women's sport can be."