Kasey Symons catches up with Liz Ellis for a discussion on Netball’s core principles and its commitment to creating positive change in the community.
When I call Liz Ellis—the most capped player in Australian netball history—on Thursday afternoon, she’s driving from her northern New South Wales home to pick up fellow former Diamond, and current broadcaster, Cath Cox. They are making their way to Brisbane to call the rescheduled Round 8 Melbourne Vixens and West Coast Fever clash. While the rest of the Super Netball competition scurried to get to Queensland to keep the competition alive amidst more pandemic complications last week, Ellis is grateful she was at least able to stay at home and still be within the border bubble, a small blessing during an incredibly trying time.
“I’m not the worst off! All I have to do every time I leave is pack my bag and for a month, and hopefully, I don’t have to take it out of the car!”
It’s been an incredibly trying Super Netball season and the league released its re-jigged fixture on the weekend to ensure the 2021 season could be completed. Ellis can’t praise the players and support staff enough for all they’ve done to keep the season alive.
“I think the fact that the players, and the support staff, and the coaches and the umpires have just been so agile and there’s been no whinging—or publicly at least—everyone’s just got on with the job. Everyone’s desperate to get this season finished. And I think the really interesting thing is, is that yes, it’s difficult, and yes, players are away from their support systems, their family and friends. And some of the support staff have brought their kids with them. It’s really hard work. But the thing that I keep hearing is that they all realise their privileged position.”
“They understand that they’re in a position to bring joy to people at the moment who really need it. People who are in lockdown, people who are doing it tough and who are netball fans. There’s a real sense of, you know, they’re doing it for something bigger than them. And I think that’s a real sign of maturity.”
Ellis herself is no stranger to the hard work and sacrifice of elite sport, and a pandemic isn’t hindering her drive to do what she can for the greater good of the game. While she’s navigating between her disrupted broadcast responsibilities, and looking forward to netball’s potential role in Brisbane 2032, she’s also just become an ambassador for a new grant scheme for community netball, Woolworth’s Pick Fresh, Play Fresh Grants.
“The Pick Fresh, Play Fresh Grants really spoke to me because I’ve got two little kids and I know how difficult it is to get that message through to them about picking the right fruit and vegetables.”
“We know only 4% of Australian kids get enough vegetables in their diet. If we can use and leverage the involvement that kids have with sport and the sporting community to maybe increase that, that’d be really good. And what I like is that these grants are geared towards grassroots netball.”
With the pandemic severely affecting community sporting clubs over the past 18 months, grants like these allow community sport access to initiatives and ideas that are not front of mind while they look to survive and recover from the impacts of COVID-19.
“The simple fact of the matter is that all sporting organisations are looking to save money. And if you’re a local sporting club, upgrading your canteen, or providing fresh fruit and veg for your players, or bringing in a nutritionist to talk to them, is probably a bit lower down on your list of priorities. And [these grants] give sporting clubs a bit of money and a bit of breathing space to be able to focus on that.”
“Netball clubs are run by volunteers, they’re stretched really thin. So even if there are volunteers who want to give a different offering in their canteen or upgrade their facilities so that they can give kids fresh fruit options or provide fresh fruit free to their players as snacks—that all costs money. So what I like about these grants is that they take the financial worry out of it, and just allow grassroots volunteers to get on doing what they do best, which is providing terrific competition on a Saturday, but also providing the almost-village that raises a child. And I think that’s what netball does really well.”
Ellis is thrilled to see more corporate initiatives connect with netball, and particularly grassroots and community netball. For her, it’s a no-brainer considering the sport’s vast connection points at the elite and community level, strong role models, and reputational value. Ellis senses a changing tide when it comes to sponsorship in the sport.
“The corporate world has been waking up over the last few years about what great value netball is. I was the Chair of the State of the Game Review Panel last year and it was really fascinating that the most consistent feedback that we got from our corporate partners was that they feel like they get great value for money with netball. They also go to sleep on a Saturday night knowing their phone’s not going to ring about some salacious story about a netballer in the news—the players are good role models, they do the right thing. They’re not worried about reputational brand damage, and that’s becoming increasingly valuable.”
Things are happening in netball and at Netball Australia. After two ‘seasons like no other’, there’s a lot of recovery to get through, but Ellis is also seeing work occur beyond that that she’s excited about.
“I feel like there’s real change in the air. And, you know, just seeing how the sport implemented the governance changes that we recommended in the State of the Game report, changing your Board like that. I thought it would take years to get through [but] the sport actually did it really quickly in a matter of months. I think that bodes well for the sport as it faces the other challenges that it’s going to face over the next couple of years, as it transitions to a new broadcaster, as it goes into a new negotiating period for the collective player’s agreement. I feel like the sport’s in a really good place, a lot of hard work is being done, and [Netball] can capitalise on that.”
Looking forward is hard not only in the middle of a pandemic but in the rush to finish the 2021 Super Netball season as safely as possible. Ellis has a few things on her mind when thinking about the things she’d like the sport to put its attention towards—sooner rather than later.
“There are probably two things that stand out to me. One is that netball really needs to get its act together in the digital space. We’re under intense competition from other sports like AFL, cricket and rugby league who are really good at running a digital registration, running digital competition systems, and using the databases to communicate what’s going on at the elite level. And I think that netball hasn’t quite gotten there yet. So to me, that’s a huge business risk that needs to be addressed.”
“And the other thing is in the light of the Olympics announcement for Brisbane, I’d love to see netball get really bolshie and punchy about demanding space in the Olympic program. And, you know, we’ve jumped through all the hoops. The only thing we’re really missing is that gender equality piece.”
“The Olympics, one of the pieces of feedback that they’ve given netball is that they’re not admitting single-sex sports to the Olympics. So you know, for netball, it’s about having a really good look at, okay, well, how do we address this in a short time frame and make a place in the sport for boys and men, without taking away from the fact that netball is a place for women and girls to shine? To me, that would make business sense as well. You know, you’re expanding your revenue base, and you’re also creating an opportunity to perhaps have your sport represented at the Olympics. So that to me, that’s a real opportunity.”