Come July 2023, the Spar Proteas netball team will stand on the podium in Cape Town to receive a medal in the International Netball Federation (INF) World Cup. And if Netball SA President Cecilia Molokwane has her way, that will be a fact — not a wish. There is a 50% chance that Cape Town will be the host city due to be announced by the INF by the end of March this year, as the only other approved hosting bid is from New Zealand.
In 2023 the team will be wearing PUMA shoes and kit, after PUMA SA announced a long-term exclusive agreement with Netball SA from 1 January 2020. Before that, the Spar Proteas will be wearing PUMA kit and off-court shoes during this year’s Netball World Cop in Liverpool. From 2020 there will also be a netball fanwear and replica range available from PUMA.
And after the Spar Proteas’ recent good performances in the SANZEA Quad Series, a world cup medal is more of a possibility than a dream. Ranked #5 in the world, they have shown that they can beat some of the higher ranked teams.
It is remarkable that the Spar Proteas is ranked so high despite the amateur team members only managing to get together occasionally for practices, since they have to compete against players who get year-round practice in professional leagues.
“What has to be understood is that Australia (World Champions) has a full-time daily training environment,” says head coach Norma Plummer. “South Africa doesn’t have this. I have just five days to get them together, while the Australians have camp after camp with their team together. The players are professional athletes who do not have to work.”
New Zealand (world #2) and England (ranked #4) also have a top league professional competition, like Australia. “They play 14 rounds, plus finals, while South Africa doesn’t have a national league to that standard,” she adds.
The introduction of a top line professional league to enable the Spar Proteas to compete against these top teams, really has to come, pleads Plummer.
In this, she is supported by Molokwane, who laments that a lack of financial support for the sport keeps this merely a dream — despite netball attracting far more local participants than rugby or cricket.
Funding for a professional league is desperately required, they both appeal.
To add insult to injury, Brutal Fruit would not be extending their naming sponsorship of the Netball Premier League (NPL) due to a change of ownership. This semi-professional tournament played over eight weeks every year, gives up-and-coming players much-needed experience. Some of the other tournament sponsorships that have to be negotiated this year might also not be renewed due to financial constraints from some brands.
The NPL will, however, go ahead without the current sponsor’s name, assures Molokwane. There will be some changes, however, as it will only be played in Gauteng this year, not across the country as in previous years.
Despite these handicaps the Proteas gave a good reckoning of themselves in the recent SANZEA Quad series tournament in Liverpool in the UK, where they competed against three of world’s top ranked teams as a warm-up to the World Cup played in Liverpool in July.
What’s more, goal defence and vice-captain Karla Pretorius was declared Player of the Tournament.
She believes the Proteas benefited from the number of players who are now playing in the Australian, New Zealand and English leagues. “You train with the best day after day, and every weekend you play tough matches against the best players. It also helps that you learn how to play the best players — you learn their habits and understand how to deal with them,” she says.
Apart from herself, eleven South African players gained experience from playing in the overseas pro leagues, including captain Bongiwe Msomi and goal-shooter Lenize Potgieter. Efforts are being made to get more South African players into those leagues
“We need more players to play overseas, because that is good for netball in South Africa, but it is also important that we have a strong league in South Africa,” says Pretorius. “Training is one thing but it’s the time on court that is so important.”
In the Quad series played in January this year the Spar Proteas beat the Commonwealth Games Champions England and had their best result against World Cup silver medallists New Zealand since 1995, when they beat them in the World Cup in Birmingham: they drew the match 45-all, were level at the end of extra time, and the match went into sudden death, where the Silver Ferns had to battle a good five minutes before scoring the winning goal. The Proteas lost to Australia in the opening match, but at half time the world champions were five goals behind them.
No wonder they were given a heroes’ welcome — brass band, balloons, et al — when they returned at the end of January. “This shows that we are right there with the best,” said Molokwane. “The tournament showed that the World Cup is up for grabs. I predict now that we will come back (from Liverpool) with a medal.
“It’s great going into the World Cup knowing we have beaten the Commonwealth Games champions in their own backyard,” added assistant coach Dumisani Chauke. “We beat them right from the start of the match and that was in spite of the crowd, which was very much behind them.
“The Quad Series is so important for the development of our team,” added NSA CEO Blanche de la Guerre. “We have improved every time we have played against those top teams. It is just a pity we have not been able to play Jamaica (world ranking #3).
Interestingly, Malawi is ranked #6, just below South Africa.
The good performances of the Proteas team definitely contributes to the growth of netball at school and club level because they become role models who the younger players aspire to emulate, report the grassroots organisers.
Role models who inspire
“After the latest Quad Series they will be idols in the children’s eyes,” says Elsje van der Merwe of the Northern Cape, whose charges are scholars in senior schools as well as senior players at clubs.
The growth in participation in this foundation phase is so important, emphasises Molokwane, “as this is where the future Spar Proteas will come from.”
Although the participation growth in the Northern Cape over the past five years has been slight (about 10%) it is a positive movement, which can also be attributed to the “decision of NSA to go back to districts at the Spar SA Championships and to give more players at senior level exposure on a higher level.
“All the schools’ programmes by SASN (SA Schools Netball) definitely expose more players to playing on different levels.”
The Northern Cape further has several initiatives to grow the pool of senior players as much as possible, says Van der Merwe. These include conducting clinics and doing marketing using social media. “For example, in 2018 the Frances Baard District, after all their efforts, were able to affiliate five development clubs in their league.”
In Gauteng the good (10-20%) participation growth among the scholars at primary and senior schools can also be attributed to the example of our Proteas team doing so well believes Petro Greeff.
Their international performances also ensure much more media exposure for the sport. For example, Supersport broadcasted the SANZEA Quad series tournament live and, in addition, media and TV exposure for the sport through the Brutal Fruit NPL and DStv broadcasts of Schools Netball create greater awareness of the sport, she points out.
“The broadcasting of the exciting (Spar Proteas) games, as well as NPL games on TV, for sure made an impact,” says Bennie Saayman of the Western Cape.
All five netball districts in Gauteng — Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg, Sedibeng, Tshwane and West Rand — have their own strategic plans to grow the numbers of netball players within the region, says Greeff.
In the Western Cape there has been about 10% growth in new participants in primary schools, where players are usually introduced to the sport, says Saayman, who says it is the region’s priority to grow participation even more in all six netball districts.
But, despite all the efforts to grow the sport, netball shares the problem of many other girls’ sports: the players lose interest after they leave school, all regions report.
And, like most other school and club sports, netball has to contend with the reality of the South African economy in which resources and funding is becoming scarcer.
Growth in netball is therefore hampered in struggling schools and communities that cannot afford netball courts or coaches and are “already struggling to accommodate all sporting needs” says Van der Merwe.
Added to this the players often have limited resources and can’t afford to buy shoes and clothing and teams struggle to fund transport to matches.
Statistics about netball in SA
- There are 2.06-m registered netball players in South Africa — but about 5-m when unregistered players are included.
- About 60% (1.24-m) are adult players and 0.82-m youth players.
- There are close to 5-m netball spectators: 3.3-m adults and 1.9-m youths.
- Netball is the most popular sport amongst South African women, and after soccer the second most popular team sport overall.
- Netball is growing as a sport amongst men at senior club level, with 3% of club players male, but 99% of school players female.
- Following soccer, rugby and cricket, netball is the South African sport that enjoys the 4th highest media coverage annually. In 2017 this was valued at R438-m.
- The Spar Proteas is ranked #5 in the world, after world champions Australia, New Zealand (#2), Jamaica (#3) and England (#4). They are ranked #1 in Africa.