In Nike’s brilliant Nothing Beats a Londoner advert, a female footballer scores a goal in front of a crowd of one. Before April, that felt uncomfortably similar to being a netball player. As a sport we went unnoticed by the media; occasional lifestyle articles would express surprise at the popularity of this ‘school game’ but no mention of netball ever graced the back pages. Despite more people playing netball than rugby each week in England, none of the big sports companies had any sponsorship deals with England Netball.
Fast forward to this week and it finally feels like an exciting time to be a netball fan: the BBC will broadcast the Netball World Cup; Nike have signed on as kit sponsor; we can read about Tracey Neville’s coaching philosophy rather than just her responses to questions about Gary and Phil.
Why the sudden interest? The gold medal has helped, of course, but so have the team themselves. Their reaction to winning first the Commonwealth Games semi-final and then the final are easily the best moments of any sport highlight montage this year; the England football team copied their celebrations in their first group stage win. Like Southgate’s boys, their Instagram accounts have shown us how much fun they are having playing sport with their mates. They share the same jokes as any Monday night netball team, have press up challenges and halfway-line shooting contests, take the piss out of themselves and each other.
Behind all the banter, though, they also show us the value of hard work. We have followed Helen Housby’s journey from young Bambi teenager to international superstar, not in a matter of weeks but through years of grafting. We have seen Serena Guthrie learn to play a new position; seen her failures and mistakes, watched her stick with it and become the best. We have seen Geva Mentor’s emotion after winning a Commonwealth Games gold not on her first or second attempt, but on her fifth. We have watched Tracey Neville’s four years of dedication, tough decisions and self-belief pay off on the world stage.
There is a huge amount of change left to come for the sport – for better pay, Olympic recognition, more TV analysis – but it all now seems possible if the Roses have anything to do with it.