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Wasps, Saracens, Leeds Rhinos – are rugby tie-ups netball’s future?

Sky Sports spoke to prominent figures at Wasps Netball, Saracens Mavericks and Leeds Rhinos Netball Emma Thurston and Paul Prenderville have been looking at the bonds between netball and rugby and life as part of wider professional sporting entities.

It feels like netball is on the brink in the UK. Certainly with Commonwealth gold, a home World Cup and a core of elite-level players, the window of opportunity has never been as wide – but how does the sport grow to match the levels in Australia and New Zealand?

The links between rugby and netball have long been present and in 2019, at the top level, they are stronger than they have ever been thanks to rugby’s venture to the court from the field.

From shared amateur level competitions across England and Europe to the prominence of both sports within the British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) programme, the relationship is thriving. And could it be key to netball’s future?

Amid the successful university programmes of Loughborough and Bath, the established development pathways of Celtic Dragons and Manchester Thunder, a new breed of club is emerging thanks to tie-ups with long-established sporting names.

It’s shaken things up in a sport that has been used to doing things a certain way for a long time.

Netball and women’s sport have got to get out of bringing a begging bowl. We’ve had none of that with Rhinos – everything has had rationale, a business plan and they’ve supported us in everything we feel we need to be a success.
Anna Carter, Leeds Rhinos Director of Netball

Wasps Netball and Saracens Mavericks became the first tie-up teams to go head to head on court during the 2019 Superleague season and in future there will be more.

Back in 2016, the introduction of three new franchises saw Wasps Rugby take the first steps. Wasps Netball joined Sirens and Severn Stars in shaking up the traditional Superleague surroundings and they have gone on to claim two titles and a runners-up spot since.

Crossing codes, Leeds Rhinos Netball is part of the Leeds Rhinos sporting family which incorporates the men’s, women’s and wheelchair rugby league teams. The outfit’s Superleague ambition was fulfilled in June after being granted a license to join the Vitality Netball Superleague from the 2021 season.

The other partnership between benecosMavericks and Saracens was born in January and the organisation’s Commercial CEO Tim Hunt explained why the netball caught his eye.

“Netball in particular for two reasons really. Specifically around Mavericks, the way in which their development pathways are set, the work they do in the community and the reach that they have into schools and clubs is very aligned to how we’ve had great success with Saracens,” Hunt told Sky Sports.

“We want to do more with Saracens on the rugby side particularly around the community engagement and outreach through schools and education so there were some synergies there.

Family is very important to us and in that, when you look at our audience, I was very conscious that rugby attracts most of the family base. But, if you want the whole family to be engaged with an organisation like Saracens then there are always opportunities to diversify and broaden the scope.
Tim Hunt – Saracens Commercial CEO

“Those are the reasons why we very quickly increased our commitment, support and investment behind the Saracens Women’s rugby team and then added netball to the family as well.”

That relationship is two-fold as Leeds Rhinos Netball’s director of netball, Carter highlighted: “The opportunities to work with another professional club in a professional sport like Leeds Rhinos and mixing with coaches who have been working at the highest level over a number of years.

“The environment those players are in, how they structure a week around athletes, support staff but also the Leeds Rhinos Foundation who are linked right the way through the school programme.

“The schools, the universities and the colleges are already attached the ‘brand’ if you like after years and years of hard work – it opens the door and makes it easier for netball to get in.”

At Wasps, the elements of diversity and audience reach were also drivers when it came to expanding their sporting footprint.

“For any kind of business, whatever business you are in, that question of sustainability becomes really crucial,” said Wasps Netball’s franchise manager Sarah Taylor.

“Certainly in the sports market it’s about diversity and being able to expand your reach, expand that level of provision, extend your brand. I think certainly from a Wasps point of view, in the 150 years that the club had been around it hadn’t done anything other than rugby.

“That natural synergy between rugby and netball was quite apparent and with it came an opportunity to expand the reach out to a female market.

“If you combine that with the fact that the West Midlands had been crying out for Superleague netball for a long time, it was almost like the stars aligned.”

When it comes to the day-to-day working at Wasps Netball and Saracens Mavericks, many may be wondering how the partnerships manifest themselves?

Is there is true crossover between the rugby sides of their businesses and the netball? It’s clear from both Taylor and Hunt that neither organisation is paying lip service to the term ‘partnership’.

“The benefit of the model that we have is to have the learnings we can take from the rugby and visa-versa,” Taylor told Sky Sports.

“We learn so much, if you think about rugby what it takes to fill that stadium with thousands of people. How you engage with that fan base? How you develop a community programme that provides opportunities at grassroots?

At Wasps we have the staff that work across all of it – I will have the same marketing team that work on rugby. The ticketing and operations teams, those work in finance, all work on all aspects.
Sarah Taylor – Wasps Netball Franchise Manager

“As a franchise manager I’m purely netball and there’s a small team that’s also purely netball but the bulk are provided from across the business and it’s really how it succeeds. We don’t stand alone.”

There is no doubt that all three netball entities have created considerable opportunities for themselves as a result of aligning alongside elite rugby organisations.

Across both codes, rugby is more established than netball and that means that lessons can be learned and benefits realised in the short, medium and long term on netball’s side of the fence. These development opportunities will manifest themselves on and off the court.

By the day, the commercial stock of netball continues to rise and the trio of Wasps Netball, Saracens Mavericks and Leeds Rhinos Netball have created golden tickets for themselves through their choice of partners.

Tickets that mean that the doors are opened as Wasps Netball have already highlighted through the mobile technology giants Vodafone becoming the main club partner for both Wasps Rugby and Wasps Netball.

Australia and New Zealand are the benchmark for netball, full-time athletes, sold out arenas and stadiums and established relationships with their rugby brethren.

“We have done quite a bit of research, not just in the UK and that included going over to Australia where the tie-ups are quite prevelant, the Magpies, the GIANTS and most Suncorp teams are in someway connected to different codes,” says Carter.

“Rhinos went to Melbourne last year as part of the World Club Challenge and Gary Hetherington [Rhinos chief executive] spoke to them about how the netball side fits into their structure and how the relationship has grown.

“Rugby league is a good example of a sport that went from amateur to professional and netball is in that area at the moment. One of England Netball’s ambitions is to make the league full-time and I know that will make things difficult for the University models.

“I have worked with two at Superleague levels, I know what they are able and not able to do but with these relationships we don’t know where the ceiling is – for any young girl starting out on that journey there is a sense of where can this go, can we end up with our own Netball World Club Championships?”

It remains to be seen whether more Superleague teams follow the footsteps of Wasps Netball, Saracens Mavericks and Leeds Rhinos, and whether there would ever be a jump that could take us to a Loughborough Tigers and Glasgow Sirens or even a Manchester City Thunder or Chelsea Storm?

Funding and resources make the world go around, and it’s where netball in the UK still trails its southern hemisphere counterparts. So, to see teams establishing positions of strength that should have benefits from the top right the way down to the grassroots can only be positive.

As netball seeks to seize its moment, new investment can only be a good thing and when that new investment has proven sporting pedigree behind it, the game can only be giving itself further opportunity to continue growing.

Watch every match of the 2019 Vitality Netball World Cup live on Sky Sports. Coverage starts on Friday, July 12 plus keep up to date with all of the latest competition news, results and enjoy in-depth features at SkySports.com/netball

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