VNSL Cancelled: What will it mean for the future of UK netball?

DUE to the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic, England Netball has announced that the 2020 Vitality Netball Superleague (VNSL) season, which has been suspended since March, will not resume. The reaction from players and clubs is generally sympathetic, acknowledging the challenges involved in restarting the league as well as the need to prioritise personal health and safety. However, some clubs have expressed frustration that the VNSL could not reach a more positive outcome. Whilst the suggestion of a potential Autumn tournament has presented a glimmer of hope for fans, the situation remains uncertain. Both the Suncorp Super Netball (SSN) and ANZ Premiership have announced that their seasons are going ahead, making the news even more disappointing for Superleague players and fans.

Why was the VNSL cancelled?

Netball in the UK is semi-professional and depends heavily on ticket sales. Travel restrictions are still in place, and large crowds remain out of the question. The UK is still a long way behind Australia and New Zealand when it comes to TV revenue and sponsorship deals. This means the cost of putting on Superleague games without fans is not financially viable for franchises. Clubs rely on public venues (such as sports centres and universities) for training and matches; there is still a big question mark around when these will open again. Player contracts are due to end in July, and clubs would struggle to pay players all year round. Also, resuming matches so late would have a knock-on effect on the scheduled start of the 2021 season in February. England Netball was facing mounting pressure to make a decision, and after weighing up the options, chose to cancel. 

What is the impact?

The main issue facing England Netball now is how to avoid losing the momentum gained after the Netball World Cup in 2019. The challenge they face is maintaining public interest in domestic netball, which will be absent for almost a full year. It’s an undeniable step away from the aim of professionalising the sport in the UK.

Although England Netball says the decision was taken to “protect the long term future of all VNSL teams”, there is a real chance that some clubs may not make it. For franchises, the financial impact of a cancelled season is already beginning to show. Saracens Mavericks have started a fundraising page to raise £50,000 (around A$90,000) to keep the club afloat, while Manchester Thunder has also put out a call-to-action to donate ticket refunds to the club.

Youngsters like Sigi Burger who were hoping to stand out this season and be picked up in the future by the ANZ/SSN will now have to patiently wait another few years. Players who were considering retirement will have to decide if they want to carry on for another season or call it a day without their last dance. The news will be especially disheartening for teams such as London Pulse, Manchester Thunder, and Team Bath who started the season looking extremely strong, and will be left wondering what might have been. Leeds Rhinos are due to enter the Superleague for the 2021 season, however, they won’t be able to sign new players based on recent performance. This could leave the brand new team at a disadvantage before they even get out of the gate.

Hope on the horizon?

England Netball has offered a glimmer of hope for an Autumn competition of some kind, but it’s still too far away to know what that will look like. The top eight teams from the league are usually eligible for the British Fast5 All-Stars tournament each October. Could an option be to expand a Fast5 style tournament for all ten teams later on in the year? This would at least give players some court time, especially with the Quad Series cancelled and other international fixtures unlikely to take place soon.

Fans, players and support staff will, of course, be disappointed that the Superleague will not be taking place, but the health and wellbeing of all involved should always be the top priority. In any case, it is a relief to be released from the limbo of the past two months. Franchises have been using this opportunity to get creative with their social media engagement, with Loughborough Lightning even putting out a free 4-week Performance Analysis course on their website. Superleague clubs are proving they are innovative, flexible, and dedicated to promoting netball whatever the weather. It’s also a chance for athletes who picked up injuries, such as Jodie Gibson and Nat Panagarry, to have an extended rehab period without missing out on game time. UK fans will still be able to watch the ANZ and SSN seasons play out. The VNSL can use this time to learn from the examples set by these professional leagues, and make the most of this opportunity to rebuild and strategise for the future of UK netball.

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