The Netball World Cup just ended in Australia. Netball is the leading women’s sport and enjoys prominence throughout the world, particularly the British Commonwealth countries. It has rapidly grown in the last several years in throughout the Global South – including African nations – to become the most widely played women’s team sport. Yet, for viewers in the USA, few are likely to watch a single game nor read coverage about it in the media.
Netball is a women’s team sport that was originally adapted from Basketball. Therefore, it is conceptually similar to basketball in that two teams of seven players compete with the purpose of landing the ball in the opposing team’s basket. The netball world championship games have been the ultimate goal for any national netball team. It has become the pinnacle netball event for the millions of women who play this sport worldwide and for women’s sports in many countries.
Therefore, it seems ironic that in a country with a strong record for supporting sports such as the United States, many are still scratching their heads wondering what netball is. When one considers netball in the backdrop of gender and international politics, one can see that when it comes to women’s sports on the global stage, it has never been just fun and games.
The Politics of “Global” Reach
Since its inception in 1963, the Netball World cup has been held every four years. It has contributed to the growth of this game internationally. As such, it was also introduced to the Commonwealth Games in 1998. Currently, more than 20 million people worldwide play the game across 80 countries. Yet, netball has had a tedious history with regards to gaining the respect deserving of its stature at the Olympic Games.
Efforts to include it in the Olympics began in 1967. After years of lobbying, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) only gave the sport the distinction of being recognized as an international sport in 1995. Albeit its recognition as an Olympic sport, it continues to be excluded from Olympic summer games which are the zenith for all world sports. Its exclusion in the Olympics is considered a hindrance to being able to attract growth, funding, scholarships and media attention.
In spite of years of deliberations and the efforts of the netball international Olympic movement, netball has not met the ever-changing IOC criteria for being included in the Olympic Games. In order to be included, the International Netball Federation must convince the IOC that the sport as potential attract fans, viewership, revenue, and ticket sales. Along with other criteria, they also need to convince the committee that the sport indeed has a global reach. However, “global reach” is relative in the backdrop of power politics where the influence of powerful nations with money get to make the rules.
Is the US Holding Back Netball?
In spite of the game being played in wealthy Global North countries such as the UK and Australia, and New Zealand, many argue that it is the US that is preventing the growth of the game. Indeed, it does seem like the lack of local stakeholders in the U.S. is impacting the sport worldwide. The US, with its population of over 319,000 million, is one of the largest Global North nations and so a functioning league in that nation would add the numbers and support structure that the game needs for increased visibility.
The United States of America Netball Association (USANA) is recognized by the International Netball Federation (INF), but the game enjoys little popularity in that country. Notably, the low status of netball in the US has been attributed to administrative conflict between USANA and the splinter group, Netball America, who regularly compete for both recognition and members. This has created deep divisions within the sport which has curtailed its growth in a country which otherwise has an affinity for sports.
Another commonly cited reason for lack of fans is the poor performance of the US national team. The US national netball team is currently ranked 25th out 33 in the world rankings. This low ranking means netball cannot attract national support and subsequently, sponsorship. The lack of enthusiasm for the sport in the US means that the there is little support for the game by the US at the international level where the US has considerable power, money and influence over international sporting committees.
If the US were to participate in netball, participation and sponsorship would grow on the international level as well. U.S. involvement in sports is typically accompanied by media coverage and large US companies who sponsor competitions.
This would mean competitions such as the Netball World Cup would receive more funding. It would also mean US representatives in international committees would be more likely to support bids for netball to be accepted in the Olympics rather than blocking it. Many predict that US participation would mean the US would use power politics – as they have done in the past – to influence internal politics in the IOC which would result in a positive Olympic bid for netballs inclusion. Simply stated, if there is no support for it in the U.S., netball won’t be in the Olympic Games. Hence, if netball was to grow in the USA, it would not only impact the game nationally but also on the international stage.
Power, Women and Global South Games
Netball’s failure to grow internationally is reflective of the general hindrance to growth in women’s sports. Women’s sports worldwide receives far fewer sponsors and media attention due to gender inequality. Recent activism calling for gender equality in sports for women and girls has meant that women’s sports such as netball are receiving greater acceptance as competitive or recreational activities. Team sports teach all women about team work and leadership which is an important tool for empowering girls worldwide.
Netball is popular in the Global South where it is played in school yards in several nations. This explains why teams from countries such as Zambia, Malawi, South Africa, and Uganda, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tabago have performed competitively against nations with greater funding. Malawi and South Africa in particular are strong teams which may have brought home a medal to an African team in this years World Cup. In the Global South, girl’s and women’s sports receive far less funding and publicity then in the Global North even though it compliments “development” efforts. Netball offers them a safe space to develop skills and knowledge that can be used in their daily lives. Additionally, it provides them a space where they are empowered to compete as equals against women from the Global North in a world where power and money influence impact ones chances of winning.
Global South countries are typically at a disadvantage when it comes to power politics in international sports. African nations have less representation and control over decisions even though proportionally Africa (and Asia) represent more countries than Europe in FIFA (International Federation of Association Football) as an example. Therefore, like in soccer, the popularity of netball in the Global South alone, does not guarantee the game garnering more attention. Simply stated, any game that has the potential to be dominated by the Global South will have a hard time gaining international support.
In today’s new world order, it would take acceptance from the Global North, particularity the US, to raise the profile of this game globally. However, this is unlikely any time soon since relatively few teams in the Global North are considered netball powerhouses. Netball has already been rejected for consideration in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. This setback however, has not stopped netball enthusiasts and activists from calling for netball to receive the recognition it deserves.