Nothing But Netball

By Steve Yeskulsky
Photos Courtesy Of Sonya Ottaway

Have you ever heard of netball? Although this sport is not perhaps familiar to those on this side of the pond, it is a fast-growing staple elsewhere. According to Business Review Australia, the national netball women’s team—the Diamonds—is ranked higher than the national union rugby team and the national cricket team in terms of success. In contrast, netball barely makes a blip on the screen in the United States. This will soon be changed if grassroots netball teams and organizations around the country have anything to say about it. Recent growth in the sport suggests some in the U.S. are starting to warm to this game that has ties to our past.

While an untrained eye might find similarities between netball and basketball, they are, in fact, quite different. Although each sport is played on a rectangular court with 10-foot goals, and opposing teams attempt to score goals with a ball, the similarities end there. It is interesting to note that the roots of netball can be traced to James Naismith—the founder of America’s basketball game—more than 120 years ago. Rumor has it Naismith sent a letter to a physical-education teacher in New Orleans outlining various zones that players patrolled during a basketball game; these zones were interpreted as being a part of the court and thus restricted players’ movement within them. This became the framework for netball, which governs the following during play:

  • Each team fields seven players per side.
  • After catching a ball, no player can hold on to it for longer than 3 seconds.
  • Contact between players is not permitted.
  • There is no dribbling or continuous movement with the ball. 

Although netball did not catch on like basketball, it flourished in the Commonwealth countries. In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, the rules were standardized, an international federation was formed, and the first world championships were held. Today, it is not uncommon to find lucrative TV deals in countries associated with leagues and teams. Additionally, the game is now recognized as an Olympic sport, although it has yet to be officially played during the games.    

While no one at Netball America—the largest netball agency in the U.S.—has any illusions of replacing basketball’s foothold in North America, members highlight the many positive elements of the game: 

  • Social nature. No one person can dominate netball because the ball must be passed to another player in order to move, and must be touched in each of the three zones of the court, ensuring maximum participation.  
  • Inclusiveness. Netball can be played by females and males of all ages and body types. With a wide range of positions—each with their own specific tasks—players of all skill levels can find a place on the court.  
  • Cost effectiveness. Netball can be played on a variety of surfaces, including grass, parking lots, handball courts, basketball courts, and tennis courts. The playing field is only limited by imagination.  
  • A great sport for girls. While Title IX has helped to encourage female participation in sports, females still lack games to call their own. Additionally, coaches, and teachers struggle to motivate girls to participate in sports, as basketball and other games are considered “too rough.” Netball—while competitive—does not permit accidental or deliberate contact. 

Showing Off
Netball’s strengths and benefits make a compelling argument for the sport in the U.S. So then why is it so unfamiliar to most? Exposure is the first hurdle to overcome; it is rare to see television networks take time to mention activities outside America’s Top 5—football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey, and NASCAR. However, Netball America has begun to make progress with its outreach program. Demos have been given at WNBA/NBA games as well as at rugby contests, United States Australian Football League events, and various teacher conferences. The group also has partnered with the President’s Challenge (part of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign) in which the first graduates completed the program. Netball America has also worked with the New York City Housing Authority, Miami-DadeCountyPublic Schools, and a variety of YMCAs and municipal governments.

However, the lack of a large base of excited and experienced netball enthusiasts has also slowed growth. Qualified netball coaches and officials are needed if the sport is to continue to develop, as they will ensure international standards are followed. According to Sonya Ottaway, President of Netball America, “We rely heavily on the expatriate market to help promote and grow the sport.”

Since the not-for-profit organization relies mostly on volunteers, funding is another area that has inhibited growth. Until recently, sponsors were hard to find. This made it difficult to hold national events to garner media attention and interest. Proper funding also helps supply prospective organizations with the necessary equipment and training.

It is safe to say, however, that netball still has a future in the U.S. Over the past 10 to 30 years, netball was predominately played in Florida and New York, due in large part to the Caribbean migration to those states. Today, 25 other states have teams playing, with more states to follow. In addition to community and social teams, netball now has regional teams as well as a collegiate USA team.

Consider The Sport
It is rare today to find a true team sport in which all players have a stake in the game as well as an opportunity to contribute. The competitive, non-aggressive game builds self-esteem and camaraderie as players work together. Whether you are looking to add a sport to after-school programs, athletic classes, summer camps, or community adult leagues, netball is a good fit. With a game that can be played on nearly any surface and is open to all body types and abilities, netball is clearly poised to fill a void in not only women’s sports but the sports world at large.

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Steve Yeskulsky is a Recreation Systems Coordinator for the City of Santa Monica, Calif. Reach him at