Australian netballers say they are fed up with the governing body’s lack of transparency, after another key decision regarding Super Netball was dropped on them with little notice and zero consultation.
In response, Netball Australia (NA) acknowledged it had work to do to repair some of the hurt the players are feeling, but remained adamant it is committed to developing a sustainable sport.
On June 1, with just two rounds left to play in the regular season, News Corp revealed the 2022 Super Netball grand final would be played at Perth Arena, after NA took bids from various state governments.
Up until this point, the location for the biggest game of the year had almost always been determined by the victors of the major semi-final, rewarding the successful team with home-court advantage.
Three days after the story broke, NA and the WA government publicly announced the news together, confirming the decision was financially motivated, divulging the dire situation the sport had found itself in during the pandemic, owing close to $4 million in debt and reporting a $7.2 million loss in revenue the past two years.
Despite this, NA is set to give a large chunk of the $300,000 cash it will pocket in its estimated $650,000 grand final deal back to the players, with the champions set to be awarded $100,000 in prize money and the runners up receiving $25,000.
The move raised eyebrows when it was announced, and even more so when NA pointed its finger at the players in a NewsCorp report on Thursday, suggesting one of the main reasons it is struggling is because the players receive 92.85 per cent of the sport’s broadcast revenue for their wages.
Former Diamonds shooter and recently retired Collingwood Magpies player Nat Medhurst told The Netty Life podcast she was confused.
“If you’re in that much financial strain, why would you give away such a large portion of the cash component of the deal to the playing group – it really just feels like they’re trying to buy them off,” she said.
“It shows the board have zero idea or understanding of what motivates these players and the meaning associated with playing a game like this and potentially winning it in front of their home crowd.”
The Australian Netball Players’ Association (ANPA) released a statement on social media via their president, Diamonds defender Jo Weston, suggesting the tensions between the playing group and governing body were reaching breaking point.
The biggest issue, they say, is the withheld information and absence of communication, considering the item was first raised by the NA board as an agenda with the eight club chief executives in late April, while players weren’t informed of the plan (or of the desperate financial state of the sport) until the decision was already finalised four weeks later.
Now these players, like Medhurst, are starting to question the board members’ motives.
“I don’t agree with the way it’s been carried out and it makes me question whether these people are just using netball as a stepping stone, making these big decisions and then leaving a mess once they leave to try and get onto bigger boards,” she said.
“I don’t think they value our game, there is not enough communication between the board and the playing group or the clubs, so no-one understands where the board is actually coming from and what they hold valuable to them.
“I just hate the fact that we’re selling ourselves so cheaply, we’ve done it for so many years … And that’s gone as far as how much we sell off players to do appearances for absolutely nothing. … In the past media would only come to us because they needed to fill a gap and it all comes back to us devaluing ourselves because we have this reputation of just jumping for anything.”
Medhurst’s concerns would likely not be put to rest after NA signed a new ongoing broadcast deal with Fox Sports for this season that will only generate $7 million for netball per year when it actually costs $8 million per year to run the Super Netball competition.
Players want a representative on the board to help repair the relationship
The findings of the independent State of the Game review, released in December 2020 and led by Australian legend Liz Ellis, suggested the sport needed to change its governance structure.
Some of these recommendations were adopted, such as the merging of the Super Netball Commission and the NA board, now made up of five independent directors, three member-voted directors and chaired by Marina Go. But there were two other key recommendations made that are yet to be implemented.
One of them was to ensure one of these people, at minimum, identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. The other was to add an athlete director that could speak on behalf of the players.
This athlete director could not be a current member of the Diamonds or a Super Netball team but must have played in either of those capacities in the past 10 years.
Former ANPA vice-president and Sunshine Coast Lightning player Maddy McAuliffe said if NA were to follow through on this, it would go a long way towards repairing its relationship with the players.
McAuliffe made her national netball league debut with the Lightning in their inaugural season of 2017 and was an active member of the ANPA before stepping away from netball at the end of 2021.
“The input of the players was largely unconsidered the whole time I was playing,” she told the ABC.
“It feels like players aren’t being treated as key stakeholders and so having a position on the board would mean that you immediately get that representation and chance to drive player input.
“We completely understand the commercial aspect of the game and that other stakeholders need to be taken into consideration, but we have been left out of a lot of key decisions, including the recent grand final one, as well as others like the super shot, bonus points and more.”
In the past three years, netball has attracted criticism for its handling of rule changes, salary cap breaches, player contracts and the CBA, standoffs between clubs over COVID-impacted matches and now this grand final decision.
There has been a change in leadership during this time, as of June last year, when Kelly Ryan took over as chief executive and promised a new era of transparency.
The super shot, in particular, shows NA has made a habit of dropping bombshells on the Super Netball competition within mere weeks before they come into effect.
Despite previous objections from players and fans, the polarising rule was introduced six weeks ahead of the 2020 season, when teams were in the final stages of their preseason preparations with their rosters already determined.
To make matters worse, the players were told it was going to happen three months after they had agreed to take a 70 per cent pay cut in order to keep the sport running. Finding out the news a day or so before it was announced to the public.
“The frustration for the players has been that, historically, we’ve always been incredibly cooperative with NA and have consistently acted in the best interests of the sport,” McAuliffe said.
“At the beginning of the COVID outbreak in Australia, we were asked to take a significant pay cut for five weeks, before JobKeeper later became available.
“The minimum salary was $30,000 a year then, so if you think about the enormity of that type of reduction, those players are earning like $200 to $300 a week – which is barely enough to pay rent – and overnight we got 80 players to agree to that.
“So when NA come out and say things like ‘the decision-making process was too quick, we couldn’t consult the players’, it really is tough for us to understand because we’ve sacrificed our own interests for the betterment of the sport and done so on a really tight turnaround before.”
With players about to head into Super Netball finals and the Diamonds off to Birmingham for the Commonwealth Games not long after that, they say their focus will be diverted in the coming months and that it will be hard for them to keep pushing their message.
Although some have spoken about the potential of protesting in some way to wake up NA, McAuliffe said this anger is unlikely to come in the form of a strike as the players are aware of the negative impact this could have on their fans and young netballers who want to see them play.
It will be interesting whether these tensions see them push harder in their negotiations for the Diamonds collective player agreement that are currently underway and set to be finalised before the upcoming Games.
“It really is about Netball Australia making it clear that they’re going to involve us in the decision-making processes about the competition,” McAuliffe said.
“At the end of the day that’s what you want on any board anyway; you want representation of your key stakeholders, you want people to understand the commercial reality, but you also want people to understand the players’ point of view … the other thing that would be helpful in that sense is that our players are very involved at a grassroots level, so we actually have a good grasp with what the fans want too.”
Netball Australia responds
Chief executive Kelly Ryan has offered a response on the matter:
“We know there is work to do within the sport to repair some of the hurt the players are feeling. Our players are now seeing the financial difficulty of the sport and we remain committed to developing a strong and sustainable sport — that will mean sometimes we will need to make decisions quickly if we believe the industry will be better for it.
There are decisions for the organisation to determine, and there are decisions that we absolutely need to consult the players about. Netball Australia has a number of key stakeholders, including the players, and it isn’t always possible to consult all stakeholders when matters are commercial in confidence.
Last year Netball Australia and its eight voting Member Organisations unanimously endorsed reforms to create the foundation for a more dynamic, efficient and innovative administration of Australia’s number one participation sport.
One of the key reforms was a commitment to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and athlete representatives are appointed to Board positions in accordance with the State of the Game Review recommendations.
We are currently seeking nominations from Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander candidates to join the Board, and we hope to make an appointment as soon as possible.
There are currently no further Director vacancies on the Board, but we are committed to appointing an athlete representative as soon a position becomes available.
Our sport will be better for having First Nations and athlete representation at the Board level.”
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