Someone asked me this morning what my overall verdict was on the Netball World Cup and when I came to reflect on that question, I realized that it was very hard to sum up in one emotion.
I thought about it for a while and landed upon bittersweet.
There was a lot of ‘sweet’ to celebrate over the past 10 days in Liverpool. A host city which without a doubt went above and beyond to embrace netball. Record-breaking crowds and an atmosphere the organizers could only have dreamed of. South Africa, the hosts of the next Netball World Cup in 2023, finishing in the top four for the first time in 24 years with four African nations finishing in the top eight for the first time ever. A glimpse into the future of the sport as more nations believe they can compete with those that have previously dominated the global game. This particular tournament lasted ten days. Thoughtfully put together so that even the poorest nations could compete at minimum expense. And yes, whilst an England win on home soil would have been magical, there is no denying that the fairy-tale ending for New Zealand’s Silver Ferns was a fitting end to a tournament which has been won by Australia for the past 16 years.
Let’s talk about England, the Commonwealth golden girls, led by the understated Tracey Neville, who in 2018 inspired a nation with a split-second moment that was the difference between agony and ecstasy. They walked out onto the courts in Liverpool under immense pressure, but oh boy did they rise to the challenge. The athleticism, passion and commitment shown by the team was electric to watch and whilst the thrilling semi-final against New Zealand was heart-breaking, England absolutely demonstrated that they are very much here to stay as contenders on the world stage. A whole stadium chanted the names of the relatively unknown England Roses and stayed glued to their seats until the final seconds of the tournament to watch them receive their bronze medals – for domestic netball, that is success enough.
Due to a netball injury (ironic I know!) I was unable to attend the Netball World Cup in person, but fellow netball fan and player at H+K, Clare Coffey, experienced first-hand the buzz in Liverpool:
For those of us who exist in the netball bubble, the last 10 days fill you with immense pride to say you’re part of this sport. But here lies the fundamental problem and what brings me on to the ‘bitter’.
There is so much to celebrate around the Netball World Cup, but the vast majority is being celebrated within the netball bubble. BBC and Sky Sports in fairness tried their best, but publicity for the tournament was primarily targeted at the existing netball audience. Was your average sports fan aware the tournament was happening? No. But did the tournament sell out? Yes. Was the atmosphere amazing? Yes. So why does this matter? Maybe it doesn’t, but everyone’s favorite word during World Cups in all sports is legacy. And arguably building a long-term sustainable legacy relies on you attracting new fans to the sport outside of just the host city or existing players.
Granted, the tournament suffered from some tough scheduling. It’s been an unbelievable summer for sport with a record-breaking Women’s Football World Cup, the longest ever men’s final in Wimbledon history and not forgetting England winning the Men’s Cricket World Cup, which to be honest I think I’m still getting over, and I’m not even a die-hard cricket fan! The competition for attention could not have been higher however it’s hard not to look back and think that brands might have missed an opportunity to engage a ready-made audience falling back in love with English sport.
That’s not to say the tournament organizers didn’t do their bit. Netball courts across the country were open on Monday for people to try netball for free and since the gold medal win at the Commonwealth Games, the sport has come on leaps and bounds here in the UK. England Netball has announced a number of partnerships with top tier brands and the stars of the England Roses are increasingly signing their own commercial deals. But it’s up to more than just the elite to help burst that bubble and netballers everywhere need to feel empowered to become ambassadors for the sport with the help of brands and broadcasters.
So whilst I will always look back at this Netball World Cup with fond memories and pride, there will also be that bittersweet feeling of ‘what if’. What if more had been done to burst the bubble? What if England had reached the final? Would everyone have come to work on Monday sharing stories about where they had watched the netball final like they did the cricket last weekend?
But that’s the problem with what ifs… you’ll never know!