You’re in a Commonwealth Games Netball final. There’s a gold medal up for grabs. You get a penalty in the dying seconds of the game with the score tied at 51-all against the number one ranked team in the world. You have the hopes of a whole nation on your shoulders. You can shatter the hearts of a home crowd with one flick of the wrist. It’s a moment that’s both terrifying and electrifying.
But what if that penalty shot means more to not just one nation, but to a whole hemisphere? What if it’s a chance to do something a Northern hemisphere team has never done? A moment to re-write history and the opportunity to shake up the game?
So up steps Helen Housby, the youngest member of the England Netball squad, with the weight of the world on her shoulders. It’s a shot she’s made thousands of times, but this time it means so much more.
And she scores, just as the final whistle blows. They’ve done it. They’ve pulled off the most dramatic victory in netball history. England Netball are Commonwealth Games Champions.
Even now as the dust settles a few days on, it’s hard to predict the magnitude of the effect England’s win over Australia could have on the future of the sport. Or so you’d think. That was until the news broke yesterday that the triumphant gold medal winning team could be fighting for their professional status just over a year from now following the Netball World Cup (which takes place on home soil in Liverpool next Summer, 2019).
Netball is the biggest team sport for women in England and the fourth biggest team sport overall. Its participation figures are rising year on year with thousands of girls up and down the country taking up the sport across all levels of the game. But whilst Sport England continues to focus on supporting grassroots development, the fact that the elites of the game are also reliant on funding seems to have been neglected.
Despite an elite programme that has resulted in a historic gold medal, money is running out and soon the England Netball players could find themselves trying to compete with the top teams in the world whilst also juggling a full-time profession.
Sadly, it’s a familiar story in the world of women’s sport. Only a few months ago the England Women’s Rugby team learnt that despite finishing runners up in a Rugby World Cup, they would no longer be on the receiving end of a professional contract from the RFU. And yet the past few years have been dominated by female team sport successes; England Women’s Hockey gold in Rio, a World Cup win in Cricket, the Lionesses success at the Euros 2017. So why, after making global headlines, do we still find ourselves in a situation where the future and legacy of women’s sport in the UK is being called into question?
Ultimately, brands and companies aren’t investing enough in women’s sport to ensure the levels of commercial revenue needed to maintain elite status. It’s something brands recognise as a growth area, yet they are still unwilling to invest on a large scale.
Exposure levels are undoubtedly lower than that of their male counterparts, but the opportunity is there for someone to take the plunge and own an unconquered space. Investment in women’s sport has increased, but it isn’t enough and male sport continues to dominate the industry. England Netball’s gold medal win may have made headlines initially, but a few hours later when Manchester City secured the Premier League title, suddenly they found themselves a good couple of scrolls down the online news pages. Doesn’t that just say it all.
Unfortunately for Netball, there is no men’s game that can provide financial support. But why should it come down to that? The England Netball team has proven that it’s a leading competitor on the biggest stage of all, beating teams from countries with professional programmes and where netball is shown on free-to-air-TV, watched by the masses. This is a game driving not only genuine participation but also real success.
England Netball has just over a year to secure enough funding to ensure the continuation of a high performance programme, but for now it’s important to celebrate their incredible achievement. So, let’s continue to watch that winning moment – complete with disbelief, tears and back flips – and hope that enough people are inspired to not only take up the sport, but also help sustain its professionalism for years to come.
This is their moment and it’s been decades in the making. No one can take that away from them.