FOR many young Australian girls, netball is a rite of passage into the sporting world.
As the largest female participation sport in Australia, the popularity of netball continues to grow every year.
However, in the USA, netball is a relatively unknown sport, but all that is about to change, thanks to a group of ex-pat Australians who are making it their mission to get netball played in the US.
Growing up in Rockhampton, playing at Jardine Park from when she was eight, Sonya Ottway, quickly moved into umpiring as a teenager and continued playing into adulthood.
In 2001, Sonya moved to the USA and was disheartened to discover there was nowhere for her to play her favourite sport.
“I searched for three years and was unable to find any netball clubs,” Sonya said.
“A friend of mine helped search and found the Thousand Oak Comets, which was about an hour and a half to two-hour drive for me.
“So I started training with them and then came across a club LA Waves, which was training in Santa Monica so only about a 45-minute drive for me.”
From there Sonya started to participate in a variety of tournaments across the USA, but quickly realised there was a real lack of organised competition like in Queensland and the rest of Australia.
“Tournaments weren’t well organised, rules weren’t being applied consistently, quality of umpiring was poor, Americans weren’t playing the sport, nor had they heard of it, netball wasn’t in schools, selections for any representative teams were adhoc and there was no development plan for coaches and players,” she said.
“There were also a lot of clubs that needed help to recruit more players, get a location to play, get equipment, training plans etc and they were not getting any assistance.”
Seeing the opportunity for netball in the USA, Sonya started to talk to some other passionate netballers about putting the game on the map in the US.
“It wasn’t until 2007 that Moreen Logsdon, Jo O’Key, myself and Steve Anderson got the ball rolling and formed Netball America,” she said.
“We realised the huge gap that was here already and that it was going to be real hard work to take something from grass roots in trying to develop a new sport in the US.
“However, we are setting realistic expectations and we don’t expect netball to challenge any of the big American sports – certainly not in the next 20 years.”
From having members in three US states in 2007, the organisation has grown to encompass 23 states in 2010, but the ultimate goal of Netball America is to have netball played in every state.
Sonya, who is the current President of Netball America, said they were doing this by targeting ex-pats and piggy-backing on the popularity of basketball.
“We teamed up with the NBA and WNBA to showcase netball to more than 50,000 basketball fans who have never seen netball before,” Sonya said.
“In talking with the presidents of these WNBA teams, we all have a common goal of getting people more active and they realise basketball is not for everyone, so if they don’t want to play basketball, then netball is a great alternative for them.”
Through this connection, Netball America has been able to play showcase games at Madison Square Garden in New York and the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Other ways Netball America is promoting the sport and helping it grow includes setting up an umpiring development program, a mentor program for new clubs, conferences, media and social media coverage, teaming up with schools and community groups and getting celebrities with an Australian or English background to help promote the sport.
Sonya said Americans were intrigued by netball and there were some key challenges the sport faces, including teaching a sport to someone who has never heard of the sport.
Other challenges include funding, the availability of equipment, competition, volunteers, media and growth.
But the organisation is learning from Australia and Sonya hoped that bond could continue to grow.
“We can learn so much – everything from players, coaches, umpires, membership to the governance of the sport and raising money for the sport,” she said.
“In order to help netball grow in the USA it would be fantastic to have experienced people from Australia share their skills and knowledge with us, by either helping on a committee – skype and conference call is so easy these days or providing help with or reviewing our programs.
“Australia is definitely at the forefront of the sport so we’d like to hear more about best practices, successes, things that don’t work.
“It would be great for netball clubs around Australia to think about doing a netball tour to the USA and we could organise competition for them.
“It would even be possible to showcase these Australian teams at the big arenas that we’ve been playing in.”
They even hope to get netball into the Olympics one day.
But until then, Sonya and the team at Netball America will continue to help set the foundations of what one day may be recognised within American sporting circles.