Netball Is the Rage in Australia Women's League Lacks Basketball's Big Money, but Offers Team Play and Aggressive Defense

Article excerpt

IT'S a fast break. Keeley Devery gets the rebound and fires the ball to teammate Carissa Dalwood, who whips it to Shelley O'Donnell. Without the ball ever touching the floor, Vicki Wilson sinks the shot.

It may sound like basketball, but it's netball as played in the 8th World Championships on July 13, when Australia squeaked by New Zealand 53-52.

Netball differs from basketball because it lacks dribbling, a backboard, outside shooting, slam dunks, and big money. Instead, it features team play, snappy passes, and aggressive defense.

The International Federation of Netball Associations (IFNA) estimates there are 2 million active netball players in 36 member countries. Twenty nations came to the championships, including the first team to compete in any international competition from newly independent Namibia.

Netball's strong points have helped to make it the most popular female sport in Australia and New Zealand. The All Australia Netball Association estimates that at least 750,000 Aussie women are involved in organized play.

In New Zealand, 150,000 women, or 10 percent of the female population, go for the hoops in organized play. Sheryl Dawson, a member of the Netball New Zealand Executive, says some Kiwi women continue playing netball until past the age of 60. The international games of the national team are broadcast live on New Zealand television. "It has a very high profile," she says.

The attraction to women has not been lost on sponsors. Mobil Oil has made a three-year commitment to a "super league" of the best state teams, at a cost of A$750,000 (US$578,000; later dollar references are for Australian currency). The Mobil series was televised this year by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which does not accept advertising. According to an ABC spokesman, it consistently received "healthy" ratings.

Johnson & Johnson has spent more than $1 million over the past three years on sponsorship; they underwrote the championship series this year. "Most of our target group is netball age," says marketing director Barry Fitzgibbon, who has yet to negotiate a contract on future sponsorship.

Netball's popularity stems from the fact that it is a true team sport, requiring a minimum of athletic ability to enjoy. "You don't have to be any particular size and shape," explains Ms. Devery. There are positions for short girls, for example. "You can be one of those nippy people who bring the ball up, so everyone has got something they bring to the game," says Devery (who is almost six feet tall).

The Australians are working hard to spread the game around the world. IFNA hopes to make netball an Olympic sport some day and needs to get more countries involved. Last year, the Aussies sent a delegation to the Beijing and Nanjing Institutes of Physical Education in China. The Japanese have sent observers to the world championships.

However, getting the sport organized in the United States has been difficult. Dorothy McHugh, general secretary for IFNA, says there are only five or six states where the sport is played. "It's mainly played by the West Indians," she says. So far, IFNA has been unable to get any of the groups to organize a national association. "We're going to make a thrust into the US to try to overcome this - it's one of our highest priorities," she says.

Trying to get Americans interested will take some work. An American who has played the game found it frustrating. …