SA’s great netball gamble

The stakes are high for netball as South Africa waits to learn which city will host the 2023 World Cup. Any day between now and next month the decision will be announced: Auckland or Cape Town.

New Zealand’s decision to join the process was a blow to Africa’s bid to host the event for the first time. Obvious infrastructure advantages aside, the Kiwis have a rich history with the sport and can prove they have not shied away from investing in it.

Incidentally, 2023 will also mark 100 years since the first representative game was played in that country.

Still, the South African camp is confident of securing hosting rights. Officials have been talking it up for months and last week held a briefing to remind the country of its advantages and to urge support. Although they didn’t say it in so many words, the future of the game in South Africa could rely on landing the World Cup.

No league, no hope?

What is undeniable is that a World Cup would bring never-before-seen attention to the game in this country.

“It needs a World Cup to make South Africa aware of how big netball is,” Netball SA (NSA) chief executive Blanche de la Guerre said. “If you look at the growth over the last five to 10 years, it is absolutely evident netball has a place in this country.”

Netball is a weird one in the context of our country’s recreational activities. Tens of thousands play it every year and it is undoubtedly the land’s biggest “female sport”.

The prospects of making a living from it, however, are nil. In a presentation to Parliament last year, the NSA revealed that it is unable to pay even international players. Protea first-team players do receive a R5 000 allowance but that is to cover most of their expenses. There is also a per diem of up to R500 when called up for international duty.

At domestic level, the league has been strictly semiprofessional. Players receive a stipend but nothing substantial. And that was before their major sponsor pulled out.

Brutal Fruit, that is SAB/Inbev, decided to withdraw its sponsorship when its five-year contract ended recently.

Despite the funding running dry, the NSA has remained determined to provide a local offering. “There will be a premier league this year‚” NSA president Cecilia Molokwane said matter-of-factly.

For how long exactly is another question. The association has not been coy about seeking a cash injection from corporate South Africa and will welcome any support beyond the naming rights for the annual provincial competition.

Which is where the World Cup fits in.

Win the hosting rights and all of a sudden netball becomes part of the national conversation — a position it has never occupied.

Whose World Cup is it anyway?

It seems only logical that the 2023 privilege is good news for the sport, but is it a positive for average citizen? It’s a complicated question but the simple answer seems to be yes.

“I’m firmly of the opinion that the impact has to be for the sport and society at large as well,” said the University of Cape Town’s David Maralack.

He has been involved in organising sports events for close to two decades. He has extensive experience with bid attempts and has studied the pitfalls of those that have failed, such as the ill-fated Durban Commonwealth attempt.

Maralack sees no issue with the attempt to bid for the 2023 World Cup as long as the energies are focused in the right direction.

“In Cape Town, we have a long history of netball, particularly in the townships. My gut reaction would be, especially because women’s sport is so undervalued in this country and we saw a huge upsurge in interest in women’s sport around Banyana Banyana, that there’s a major opportunity with a World Cup to put the attention on women’s sport.

“Particularly to regenerate women’s activities in the township. Netball is played across Cape Town but at the moment it’s only played in pockets.”

To what extent the rural areas will benefit is unclear but the other relevant numbers have been confidently estimated.

It will cost R68-million to host the World Cup, according to the NSA and the department of sport. Given that 120 000 visitors are expected, the economy would benefit from an injection of R2.6-billion.

As a rule of thumb, all bids overvalue their effect, said Maralack, without being able to comment on the specifics of this attempt. Still, it would seem taxpayers won’t have to worry about a deficit even if that estimate is only partially correct.

It’s all part of the gamble. Netball stakeholders have seen their shot and they’ve taken it. We’ll know in the next few weeks, perhaps even days, whether it lands successfully. The reality of the World Cup heading to Auckland seems distinctly dim.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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