Amid a summer packed full of major sporting events, the Netball World Cup has somewhat flown under the radar.
Over time, such a position has become the game’s default, at least until recently. As the global narrative surrounding women’s sport has undergone overdue reform, netball has found itself at a quiet forefront.
There was, perhaps, a perception — an unjust school of thought — that followed netball around; the idea that it was a slow, static, unwatchable discipline. The opposite of a spectator sport.
In the UK, nationwide fascination came with Commonwealth gold. If sport is about moments, then Helen Housby’s last-gasp penalty shot to give England a 52-51 win over Australia — the host and favorite — could scarcely have been more significant. It gave the tournament an unexpected winner and, ahead of July’s World Cup in Liverpool, it has opened the game up to a wider imagination.
Netball’s die-hard followers will argue that little has changed within its sport. Yet, it is in expanding the game externally where Team England — the Vitality Roses, as they are known — has prospered.
“In the last two years, we have moved incredibly fast,” reflects Tracey Neville, the national side’s head coach. “I think that win at the Commonwealth Games has added so much value for our sport.
“What we have done really well is expose that and capitalize on that, because when you’re winning you have to make the most of it.”
“We want this sport to become a lot more inclusive, a lot more diverse. Winning after winning is going to be tough — particularly on home soil. But I think, from our point of view, we are on a wave and we want that wave to continue.”
Nike has come on board as the team’s kit supplier, while insurance firm Vitality has long since been a major backer. They are the perks that come with winning. In the year since the dramatic victory — a game watched by more than 1.5 million people in the UK despite its nighttime airing, more than 130,000 people have taken up the sport in England.
They are encouraging figures for Neville, who is stepping down following the World Cup after four years at the helm, as steps on a journey that shows no signs of abating. The ultimate dream, however, remains in a distant future.
“The icon of men’s sport is probably 30 or 40 years above us,” she explains. “However, I think we are moving forward very quickly. Now, with male sportspeople speaking out about women’s sport and huge companies coming on board that have an impact on so many people, I actually think it will move at a quicker rate than what we expect. There is more work to be done.
“I would like us to get to the point where it’s not called ‘women’s sport’ anymore and it’s just called ‘sport.’ That is where I’d like to see it move to. The way we brand it is really important and it becomes a stigma.”
Neville speaks with more authority on the subject than most, having seen firsthand the value of positive sporting role models.
Her brothers, Gary and Phil, made more than 600 appearances between them for Manchester United. Phil, meanwhile, has been in the spotlight recently as the head coach of England’s women’s football team that finished fourth at the World Cup.
“I actually don’t look at us like that [as a successful sporting family],” stresses Tracey, who is Phil’s twin.
“We work hard. We love sport. We enjoy it and we’re passionate about it. If you go to work every day and you love your job, you never really feel like you’re having to work.
“Sport, for us, is like eating three meals per day. It isn’t a dinner table conversation for us because it’s everyday conversation for us. It’s nothing unique.
“We love sport and want to be part of it. We want to give back to it, having retired from playing. From an outsider’s point of view, we’re successful. But from our point of view, it’s like a journalist writing their best article. It is what you strive for.”
In a family as governed by competitive sport as the Neville clan, there must have been a starting point, a reason, a motivation. While Tracey and Phil have become major influences in the face of women’s sport in their country, Gary — a former manager of La Liga club Valencia and a highly-regarded pundit — also regularly champions his support for his sister’s exploits via Twitter.
“My mum was my role model,” Tracey states of her mother, a keen netball player herself. “She was for all three of us. She’s actually the only family member who’s still playing sport competitively on a weekly basis.
“She was the one who drove my interest in sport and made sure that we had a lot of opportunities to go out and do it. That’s the main priority for me. You need role models. It doesn’t necessarily need to be your mum; it could be your dad, a family friend, your auntie. You need ambassadors to be able to get yourself involved in that.”
As women’s sport continues to grow, so too does the importance of breaking down barriers increase. Neville’s focus is on simplicity: she wishes not to reinvent the wheel, but to make improvements where change is the obvious answer.
She speaks of extensions on physical education lesson times at schools, arguing that it would give girls the chance to get changed and put makeup on. She suggests making changing rooms better equipped — with hairdryers and straighteners — to deal with a new generation of female athletes and empowered youngsters.
“Society has moved on about the expectation,” she explains. “I look at our England girls. They have fake tan, lashes, they do their hair. They want to win, but you don’t just want to play well. You want to look good while you’re doing it.
“That is where women’s sport is moving to. It is about making an effort and having a brand you are really proud of. From my point of view, the obstacles in place are easily overcome without much money being spent on it.”
As a smaller sport by virtue of its fairly uncommon position, Neville’s thought process is just as well. Without male counterpart teams or, indeed, male players, the sport comes with a ceiling of sorts. Financially, it is more difficult; in the UK, the sport’s professional program is funded by the game’s national governing body. Given the sport’s budget, it makes completely professionalizing English netball a difficult task.
“If you look at women’s football, Chelsea can bring out £2 million and put it into the women’s team,” Neville explains. “We haven’t got anyone who is willing to do that across the whole program. That is where it is a little bit of a negative — we just don’t have that easy access to funds. It would speed the process up. We would love to move towards a more professional version of the game.”
Despite the situation, Neville remains an intensely positive voice. “I don’t think it’s a frustration,” she says of the financial disparity between her own sport and that of her siblings.
“Me, Gary and Phil have actually grown up with very similar career paths. But the external rewards have been so different. From my point of view, I have never seen it as a frustration because I have just taken every opportunity that I can. You have to live to your means. If you get frustrated about it, that is when you find negativity.”
And, perhaps, it is for this reason that netball is thriving so greatly. The upcoming World Cup is a global event in every sense of the term; if there is skepticism around the makeup of certain world championship competitions, then this summer’s extravaganza of netball cannot be tainted with the same brush.
While the ongoing Cricket World Cup featured ten sides — five of which are from the subcontinent and only one from Europe — Liverpool will play host to a veritable range of nations. Australia and England, Jamaica and South Africa, Malawi and Samoa, Sri Lanka and Uganda, Scotland and Barbados. It is a World Cup featuring the entire world.
It is a tournament that highlights a rare diversity, a characteristic that — at least in some way — has is roots in the game’s simplicity.
As Neville points out: “All you need is a ball, two posts and an outdoor playing area. If you’re not playing at the top level, it is a very cheap sport to play. It is a bit like football in Brazil — all you need is a ball and a street.
“I have been out to countries where they play in bare feet. It is so rewarding to watch, and it reminds me of how fortunate we are here.
“Teams [in the UK] are attracting players from Africa, Australia, the Caribbean. There are also some Fijians and Samoans in our league. Just to include their cultures, you learn so much.
“The stories that these athletes come with and the hardships some of them have experienced make you realize that sport can be so rewarding. It gives them a better life, it creates opportunities for them and it helps them to support their families back home.”