Not just a ‘girls’ sport’

When Sue Reddish’s son Scott started secondary school, one lesson he learnt was that, as a boy, playing netball suddenly “became not very cool”. Scott and his friends had been part of a successful team in years five and six but, for most, that was where their netball involvement ended.

This story is not unusual. Only three per cent of Netball Victoria’s registered members are male, and only one per cent are juniors. The small numbers that do start are often lost in the in-between years after they turn 13, and are no longer able to compete in girls’ competitions, but not quite ready for the Victorian Men’s and Mixed Netball Association.

Netball Victoria’s Melinda Schloffelen says there are several barriers to growing those numbers – and hence the release last September of the “Promoting Male Participation in Netball Policy.’’

An extract: “Creating and fostering opportunities and choice for both mixed-gender and single-gender competition is vitally important to showcase netball as a strong and contemporary sport which provides every individual the opportunity to participate in a manner that is appropriate to their ability, comfort and personal preference. Encouraging a lifelong involvement in, and love of, netball starts with inclusive participation, particularly at the grassroots level. We are all committed to providing a safe, fair and inclusive sporting environment where all people can contribute and participate.’’

It is a delicate balancing act: providing a more welcoming environment for one half of the population in order to increase overall playing numbers, while protecting the strong desire among much of the netball community to allow adolescent girls, in particular, the choice of playing in single-sex competitions.

“When you think about what’s happening across other sports and you look at AFLW for example, there are a lot of young girls playing non-traditional female sport now,’’ says Schoffelen, Netball Victoria’s General Manager of Affiliate Capability Development.

“So in terms of us being able to continue to grow and be a really sustainable sport, it really is important that we have a number of new entrants into our sport, and one of those categories is males.’’

Boroondara Netball Association (BNA) is one organisation that is looking to expand by recruiting more primary school-age boys. Reddish, the BNA president, says the recent decision to advertise for grade five and six boys to form a new competition – in which girls, naturally, will also be welcome, as gender regulations require up to 13-and-under level – is part- practical, in terms of court utilisation,  and part-philosophical.

Schoffelen says the main barrier to male participation has been the general perception of netball as a “girls’ sport’’. There has also been resistance from some clubs and associations – despite extensive consultation revealing respondents to be largely supportive of providing more grassroots opportunities for boys.

“The majority of our community were in favour of that as a concept, but when it comes to actually putting strategies and actions in place to make that happen, there is still a limited appetite to go out of their way to create opportunities,’’ says Schoffelen.

“Some of the reasons are legitimate – ‘we’re full, we don’t have court space, we don’t have capacity to increase our competition offering’ – and others just simply don’t want boys to be involved in their sport.

“You hear this attitude that ‘boys can do everything, play everything, there’s nothing left that’s just for girls, other than netball, so leave our sport alone, let the sport be for girls, it’s all about girls and promoting women and girls into leadership roles through coaching and umpiring, committee positions, etc, and we shouldn’t do anything special for boys, because they can do everything else’. So that’s a mindset that exists to varying degrees.

“Our strategic plan definitely calls out with pride ‘we’re a female sport, and we’re about promoting the interests of women’. But there’s also piece that says ‘how do we look at growing participation, and males are the obvious big target group to help us stay a strong and sustainable sport, whilst keeping our female identity.’’

Boroondara, meanwhile, has advertised its new venture to its member clubs and local School Sport Victoria affiliates, and Netball Victoria hopes it’s a lead that will be followed.

“It’s the first time we’ve actually advertised for players because we just don’t have enough space,’’ says Reddish. “I’m concerned that we’re going to get too many boys’ teams, but we’ll just have to deal with that if it happens. We are currently working with Council to provide more courts to cater for the ever-increasing demand for netball in this area”.


Written by Linda Pearce