Netball Superleague franchises struggle to envision their place in a Covid-19 world

“We just don’t know that anything is going to get any better," Dr Anita Navin, joint director at Severn Stars.

"We don’t want to lose the visibility of our sport because it has gained such momentum," Debbie Hallas, managing director of Manchester Thunder.

"We are fighting tooth and nail. We are leaving no stone unturned," Kat Ratnapala, Director of Netball at Saracens Mavericks.

Sunday, July 4 2020 came and went like any other unremarkable day in pandemic life. In an alternate Covid-free universe it would have been anything but.

The Copper Box Arena in London would have stretched open its doors to eager spectators all filing in to watch the Vitality Netball Superleague's Grand Final. Fans would have been treated to a semi-final play-off before the day's real event began. The final might have gone into overtime. It might have been the greatest comeback in the history of the sport, or even the most elegant title defence ever witnessed. Whatever the final might have been we'll never know and such imaginings now, have no place. Because the reality is much grimmer than that. The reality is about survival.

On March 15, the Superleague was suspended with immediate effect because of the coronavirus pandemic. On May 27, the decision was taken to cancel the season entirely due to the continued effect of the virus. There was some disappointment in the face of the decision, there was also some frustration, but there was mostly understanding.

Then, the damage left by the decision wasn't yet obvious; now with each week passing each franchise finds itself exposed in different ways.

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet, it might have been deleted.

For Dr Navin, director of Stars, a franchise that is backed by the University of Worcester and the University of Gloucester, the challenge posed by Covid-19 is two-fold.

"When you’re based out of a university, universities are not for profit so that means there is very little roll over of cash," explained Dr Navin. "There’s a little bit in terms of the season and the twelve month calendar year that we get sponsors for [but] that can actually really cost us.

"The testing time for us is going into next year because there will be a lag time for sponsors [...] Technically we're going to need to deliver 2021 potentially with no additional income and with no sponsorship because we're on a roll over. Four games in out of 18, we can potentially take some cash off them for this season but it is minimal so I think we’re probably more cautious going into the following season."

Additionally, while the franchises housed by universities benefit from the infrastructure in a way independent clubs do not, the future of the higher education bodies has also been thrown into doubt because of coronavirus.

"It's not a given that universities throw money at you anymore,” added Dr Navin, an honorary life member of England Netball. "I think one of our concerns will be, post-Covid, is how financially the universities are being supported with the government." If something has got to go eventually then what is it? At the moment we can say that Severn Stars gives our sports therapy and S&C [strength and conditioning] students a platform that they really value for their programme [...] that's what we hang on to at both universities at the moment."

Like Stars, who face the burden of trying to find £100,000 plus to make ends meet this year, the question of how, where and in what form financial support comes is critical. For while each franchise is autonomous and unique in its set-up, the loss of income battle is something they all share.

“It’s probably about £500,000 that you really need every year to be able to survive and it’s not just the Superleague, it’s for all of the pathways as well," detailed Ratnapala, whose club have turned to crowdsourcing in the search for funding. "When you’re having to pay out for hiring venues as well as coaches, strength conditioning coaches and physios there is a huge cost involved, and unfortunately it seems at the moment that it’s who has got the biggest purse that is able to get us through.”

All purses have strings and even the "biggest purse" in the land appears reluctant to help. Mavericks were denied a grant by Sport England earlier this month with no explanation detailing why.

For Hallas at Thunder, the approach to combating the potential devastation of Covid-19 has pivoted around honesty, proactivity and communication but the unknown continues to obfuscate her attempts at planning.

"We just want to get back on court. Our players want to play, that's what we are there for," Hallas explains. "At the moment we're trying to budget for next season but we’re budgeting for the worse case scenario, we’re budgeting for the best-case scenario and then there’s obviously a whole bit in the middle. We don’t if we’re going to have crowds, we don’t know if we are going to be able to do community netball, we don’t know if we’ll be able to get our import players back in."

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet, it might have been deleted.

To try and generate revenue the northern outfit intend to promote their membership to supporters. Building on a sense of loyalty and identity Hallas hopes Thunder fans will invest into the club and later down the line the club will return the favour. To compliment the membership Hallas also exclusively shared a new project. A club-centric podcast called 'Thunder Cast.' Hallas added, "It's something that can exist while we are not able to play netball, it's just trying to keep people engaged."

Sustaining engagement is just one of the many tasks facing netball's leadership during these unsettling times and although publicly remaining fairly quiet, the franchises feel assured that both England Netball and the league are working their hardest to help.

The league remains committed to working on their autumn proposition, a Superleague-based tournament that hopes to, in some way, substitute for the weeks of action lost. Of course, there remain lots of variables still at play casting doubt over its likelihood: funding, broadcasting, social distancing and testing are all obstacles that must first be overcome.

According to Hallas, England Netball is currently working on a study with both their performance analysis and medical teams to see how the virus can be transmitted during a game of netball. Such knowledge, which hopes to eventually be presented to the government, could prove crucial to netball's future both at the elite and grassroots level. As the time for membership affiliations to be renewed arrives the pressure will continue to mount on the national governing body that draws much of their income from sign-ups.

The disruption that the pandemic has caused for the wider vision of netball and its place in the women's sport landscape is not to be understated. "We were on a steep curve moving from an average crowd of 600 to 900 in the 2019-20 season,” laments Dr Navin. "We've been asked to be cost neutral by 2022 and that's a pretty big ask now; that won't happen. But we were well on our way with good sponsorship and strong ticket sales to actually achieve that."

Hallas similarly shared a sense of regret at the timing of the health crisis. "The momentum was so high; it was probably the best it had ever been in netball. For it to stop there, the worry is that we will lose our visibility and I think it is sad really that women’s sport isn’t getting the support that men’s is and I understand that the commercial in men’s sport makes more than women’s but we’re in a different scenario, we’re not a sport that has a men’s side… but a lot of women’s sport is in the same boat they just can’t afford to make anything happen."

Netball's desire to return to the forefront of women's sport after, or alongside, the pandemic has shown to be an aspiration not without backing. New Zealand ANZ Premiership, the only elite national netball competition currently being staged right now, reported that 88 nations have tuned in to watch fixtures. Similarly netball podcasts have thrived. Andy Lamb of The Netball Show said, "We've seen the importance of our podcast during this uncertainty. This has led to an increase in subscribers and downloads on a week-by-week basis since the league cancelled in March."The appetite for netball then, is still there and from that surely hope is one thing to takeaway.

For now, as we reminisce about the Netball World Cup and the joy it brought to see a world unite together around one game, let us remember that such an event was only possible because we supported netball whenever and wherever we could. If the league is going to survive this pandemic it will do so because of energy, time and devotion invested by fans of the game.