home Netball Has COVID actually saved the Netball Super League?

Has COVID actually saved the Netball Super League?

Among all the limitations the pandemic has presented, creativity in broadcasting the UK’s Netball Super League may be a positive outcome, shares contributor Denise Evans.

Action shot during the Vitality Super League match between Leeds Rhinos and Loughborough Lightning at Studio 001, Wakefield, England on 28th February 2021.
Adapting to the COVID situation has opened new opportunities for the UK’s Netball Super League. Sourced: Netball Super League

It was news to absolutely no-one when it was announced that the coronavirus would scupper any chance of fans attending UK Netball Superleague matches for at least the first half of the season and, once the locations were decided, organisers had to find a way to show games to netball-starved fans.

It is hard to believe that without that push, Sky Sports—the league’s exclusive broadcaster—would have agreed to host all games on a free Youtube stream, alongside its Mix and Arena channels. They’re a paid subscription broadcaster. Committing to season-long streaming is expensive and offers a non-existent financial reward for them. It’s also a huge risk— is there even a hunger for every game?

In February, Sky announced a new multi-year deal with England Netball, extending it’s 17-year relationship with the sport’s governing body. They’ve honoured the deal straight off the bat. Coverage has blossomed from replaying matches ‘as live’ days later to broadcasting the sport on their flagship channel in a primetime timeslot. And for the 2021 season, every single pass, intercept and shot is available to watch live—and replayed—on Youtube (for UK fans) on your phone, tablet, TV or computer.

Drink that in.

Hardcore netball followers have long been calling for streaming of matches, but it’s not as simple as plonking a camera courtside and pressing play. Each of the 11 venues needs a different setup and permissions. It would be labour intensive and expensive to transport equipment and crew for 100+ matches.

Then you toss in the government’s strict coronavirus restrictions—which are different in Scotland, Wales and England—and it’s a logistical quagmire. Getting the season going was the number one priority, and playing it entirely at two venues—Wakefield and London—was the logical, and as it turns out so far, effective solution. The inevitable trade-off was the likelihood that the majority of the season would be played without fans.

Without the scope to host home and away matches, and the lack of ticket and merchandise sales on match days meant franchises would be hit hard financially. However, with social distancing measures and restrictions on crowd attendance set to be lifted in June in the UK, fans could return to the Copper Box for the semi-finals and Grand Final.

Most won’t even have heard of Studio 001 in Wakefield before January.

Studio 001 a facility built for filming music videos, recording music, rehearsing for arena and stadium tours and hosting photoshoots. Perfect for live sport production. The lighting, camera rigs and gantry offer up alternative camera shooting angles. The ventilation can alter the playing environment. There’s movie-standard sound-proofing and space for high-tech editing and production suites. That’s before you mention the on-site accommodation and covid-friendly practices, catering facilities and spacious changing rooms.

The result is a consistently slick, sharp, neon-fresh and professional production, which simply cannot be achieved at an echoey, drafty sports hall with harsh strip lighting and a tinny sound system.

Sky have also introduced a customised studio especially for Superleague broadcasts, for pre, post and in-game analysis by experts. A move which further revolutionises coverage. 

“We needed a proper, professional set-up so it was easier to stream, host post-match interviews [and] produce quality coverage,” says Sky Sports pundit and former England Rose Tamsin Greenway. “That would have been impossible to achieve with more than two venues.”

“Having every game streamed, means we can tell the story better. Following on Twitter means you miss watching and don’t understand the impact of players like young Sophie Kelly coming on for Surrey Storm. You know what the fuss is all about. You can join in the conversation.”

The viewing numbers will vary depending on fixture scheduling, but it is clear there is an audience for elite netball—and it’s not just diehards—if the rolling comments section during games is anything to go by. This is also within the current restraints of geoblocking, meaning matches aren’t currently accessible worldwide.

Across the first three weekends of Superleague action, matches have been viewed more than half a million times on Youtube, with the London Pulse v Surrey Storm match alone reaching 42,461 views and counting. 

To sustain streaming and retain new supporters, would returning to the traditional competition format be a mistake or is there a compromise? The reality is, just a few hundred fans will buy season tickets and attend every single game religiously. The rest are up for grabs. Are the neutrals and the fence-sitting supporters more likely to attend matches at any venue? Amidst the razzmatazz inside an arena, a chance to ‘make a weekend’ of it, explore a new city. 

Venue sharing is also not a new concept. It already happens in rugby, cricket and even netball in Australia. Traditionally, the league has been open to neutral venues hosting all 11 teams, most recently for the opening weekend of the 2020 season, but it has its drawbacks for franchises—shared revenue, travelling and accomodation costs.

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“Netball fans are more fickle than most.”

By that, Greenway means they can chop and change loyalties faster than the UK seems to find a new strain of Covid-19. With every bunch of loyal fans, there’s a set of drifters. Don’t tell me Surrey Storm supporters didn’t follow Greenway when she moved to be player-coach at Wasps Netball.

New outfit Leeds Rhinos have picked up fans left behind when the Yorkshire Jets disbanded in 2016, and have gained a cult following from Australia, in part thanks to their head coach, Melbourne-born Dan Ryan.

“What does the league want to be?” Greenway asks. “They need to have a long hard think about it. There’s a whole group out there that don’t think like diehard fans. Just because we haven’t seen it in football or rugby, doesn’t mean it won’t work for us.”

Has the home and away drudgery format become stale and unworkable? Does the league need to introduce a salary cap? There’s also player welfare to consider. But for now, if this past year has taught us anything, it is time to take any glimmer of joy that comes our way. 

We waited 334 days between Superleague matches and if enjoying free, live, all-access netball dressed in our pyjamas on the sofa the way to do it, we grabbed it like Geva Mentor to a defensive rebound.

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