Super Netball scheduling clashes avoided as fans’ needs finally acknowledged

The scheduling of Super Netball matches at the same time as grassroots leagues – in the traditional early Saturday afternoon slot – has long been perceived as a handbrake on the growth of the world’s premier netball competition, by restricting rusted-on fans’ ability to attend or watch on TV live.

The issue has finally been addressed after Super Netball revealed the 2022 draw on Thursday and a move away from 3pm starts on Saturdays in favour of matches predominantly at 5pm and 7pm. The grand final will also be played at night next season, the first since 2017.

Super Netball’s executive general manager of events and commercial Adam Richardson said the switch-up was an acknowledgement of the importance of the sport’s traditional fans and advocates at the community level.

He said one of the key criteria in negotiating the fixture – which meets 85% of all specific requests from clubs – was the needs of the tens of thousands of Australians who play netball, an obvious untapped market for the league.

“The new time slots will make Super Netball more accessible to fans across the country, with community players able to attend or watch the netball after their matches during the day,” he said. “We absolutely have heard [fan complaints] and the introduction of 5pm and 7pm time slots is a real testament to that.

“Saturday is still a space we unequivocally want to own and we’re confident we can do that in those prime time slots.”

The later Saturday games – to be broadcast live on Fox Sports through Foxtel and Kayo, two each round for free – will see netball go head-to-head with several other major sporting codes, including the AFL and NRL.

“We are unbelievably proud and overtly confident in our product; that it stands up under any scrutiny,” Richardson said. “It’s the best netball league in the world, with the best players in the world and the pre-eminent watched female sport in this country.

“We should not be at all concerned how we position that in the market. We know where we stand and we’re up for the challenge,” he said.

On the back of several “very well received” midweek games in season 2021, Tuesday and Wednesday fixtures will again feature in 2022, despite league bosses being cognisant the uptick in viewers this year may be a Covid outlier.

Richardson said the midweek fixtures provide a chance to attract a “broader fan base” given the clear air that is available.

The sixth iteration of Super Netball, which marks the start of the league’s new five-year broadcast deal with Foxtel, will begin on Saturday 26 March and conclude with a grand final on Saturday 2 July, just 26 days before the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham – a pinnacle event for the sport internationally.

This is in contrast to the approach the league took in 2019 when the season was split in two to accommodate the Netball World Cup in Liverpool.

Round one will feature a grand final rematch between 2021 premiers the NSW Swifts and state rivals the Giants at what should be a sold-out Ken Rosewall Arena. Briony Akle’s Swifts have three straight games at home in Sydney to begin their title defence.

The other round one matches will see the Adelaide Thunderbirds host Collingwood at home, the Melbourne Vixens travel to Queensland to take on the Firebirds and West Coast Fever playing Sunshine Coast Lightning in Perth.

There will again be themed matches in 2022, including several to honour the 25-year anniversaries of the Swifts, Vixens, Thunderbirds and Firebirds in early April.

The controversy-plagued Indigenous round has been rebranded to First Nations round and will be held across rounds 12 and 13 in late May and early June.

After the success of the last season’s history-making Pride game, between the Queensland Firebirds and Collingwood – a result of Netball Queensland’s commitment to the Pride in Sport Australia program – it will be held again, to further celebrate the LGBTIQA+ community in netball.

Richardson said the league looked at making the round league-wide this season, but ultimately did not. He expects that to happen in the “not too distant future”.

In June, matches between New South Wales and Queensland sides will align with the NRL’s State of Origin and the Victorian derby between the Melbourne Vixens and Collingwood will be played on the Queen’s birthday public holiday.