Netball is a ball sport played between two teams of seven players. Its development, derived from early versions of basketball, began in England in the 1890s. By 1960, international playing rules had been standardised for the game, and the International Federation of Netball and Women’s Basketball (later renamed the International Federation of Netball Associations, IFNA) was formed. As of 2011, IFNA comprises more than 60 national teams organised into five global regions.
Games are played on a rectangular court with raised goal rings at each end. Each team attempts to score goals by passing a ball down the court and shooting it through its goal ring. Players are assigned specific positions, which define their roles within the team and restrict their movement to certain areas of the court.
During general play, a player with the ball can hold onto it for only three seconds before shooting for a goal or passing to another player. The winning team is the one that scores the most goals. Netball games are 60 minutes long. Variations have been developed to increase the game’s pace and appeal to a wider audience.
Netball is most popular in Commonwealth nations, specifically in schools, and is predominantly played by women. According to the IFNA, netball is played by more than 20 million people in more than 80 countries. Major transnational competitions take place, including the Netball Superleague in Great Britain and the ANZ Championship in Australia and New Zealand. Three major competitions take place internationally: the quadrennial World Netball Championships, the Commonwealth Games, and the yearly World Netball Series. In 1995, netball became an International Olympic Committee recognised sport.
The History of Netball
Netball emerged from early versions of basketball and evolved into its own sport as the number of women participating in sports increased. Basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith in the United States. The game was initially played indoors between two teams of nine players, using an association football ball that was thrown into closed-end peach baskets.
Naismith’s game spread quickly across the United States and variations of the rules soon emerged. Physical Education instructor Senda Berenson developed modified rules for women in 1892; these eventually gave rise to women’s basketball. Around this time separate intercollegiate rules were developed for men and women. The various basketball rules converged into a universal set in the United States.
Martina Bergman-Osterberg introduced a version of basketball in 1893 to her female students at the Physical Training College in Hampstead, London. The rules of the game were modified at the college over several years: the game moved outdoors and was played on grass; the baskets were replaced by rings that had nets; and in 1897 and 1899, rules from women’s basketball in the United States were incorporated. Madame Osterberg’s new sport acquired the name “net ball”. The first codified rules of netball were published in 1901 by the Ling Association, later the Physical Education Association of the United Kingdom.
From England, netball spread to other countries in the British Empire. Variations of the rules and even names for the sport arose in different areas: “women’s (outdoor) basketball” arrived in Australia around 1900 and in New Zealand from 1906, while “netball” was being played in Jamaican schools by 1909.
From the start, it was considered socially appropriate for women to play netball; netball’s restricted movement appealed to contemporary notions of women’s participation in sports, and the sport was distinct from potential rival male sports. Netball became a popular women’s sport in countries where it was introduced and spread rapidly through school systems.
School leagues and domestic competitions emerged during the first half of the 20th century, and in 1924 the first national governing body was established in New Zealand. International competition was initially hampered by a lack of funds and varying rules in different countries. Australia hosted New Zealand in the first international game of netball in Melbourne on 20 August 1938; Australia won 40–11.
Efforts began in 1957 to standardise netball rules globally: by 1960 international playing rules had been standardised, and the International Federation of Netball and Women’s Basketball, later the International Federation of Netball Associations (IFNA), was formed to administer the sport worldwide.
Representatives from England, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the West Indies were part of a 1960 meeting in Sri Lanka that standardised the rules for the game. The game spread to other African countries in the 1970s. South Africa was prohibited from competing internationally from 1969 to 1994 due to apartheid.
In the United States, Netball’s popularity also increased during the 1970s, particularly in the New York area, and the United States of America Netball Association was created in 1992. The game also became popular in the Pacific Island nations of the Cook Islands, Fiji and Samoa during the 1970s. Netball Singapore was created in 1962, and the Malaysian Netball Association was created in 1978.
In Australia, the term women’s basketball was used to refer to both netball and basketball. During the 1950s and 1960s, a movement arose to change the Australian name of the game from women’s basketball to netball in order to avoid confusion between the two sports. The Australian Basketball Union offered to pay the costs involved to alter the name, but the netball organisation rejected the change. In 1970, the Council of the All Australia Netball Association officially changed the name to “netball” in Australia.
In 1963, the first international tournament was held in Eastbourne, England. Originally called the World Tournament, it later became known as the World Netball Championships. Following the first tournament, one of the organisers, Miss R. Harris, declared, England could learn from the mistakes in the past from the empty stands at Eastbourne. To get the right publicity and the right status desired, the game must emerge from the school playground. Netball should be part of a sports centre where social events could also be held.
The World Netball Championships have been held every four years since, most recently in 2011. The World Youth Netball Championships started in Canberra in 1988, and have been held roughly every four years since. In 1995, the International Olympic Committee designated netball as an Olympic recognised sport. Three years later it was included at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur. Other international competitions also emerged in the late 20th century, including the Nations Cup and the Asian Netball Championship.
The Rules of Netball
The objective of a game is to score more goals than the opposition. Goals are scored when a team member positioned in the attacking shooting circle shoots the ball through the goal ring. The goal rings are 380 millimetres (15 in) in diameter and sit atop 3.05-metre (10.0 ft)-high goal posts that have no backboards.
A 4.9-metre (16 ft)-radius semi-circular “shooting circle” is an area at each end of the court. The goal posts are located within the shooting circle. Each team defends one shooting circle and attacks the other. The netball court is 30.5 metres (100 ft) long, 15.25 metres (50.0 ft) wide, and divided lengthwise into thirds. The ball is usually made of leather or rubber, measures 680 to 710 millimetres (27 to 28 in) in circumference, and weighs 397 to 454 grams (14.0 to 16.0 oz). A normal game consists of four 15-minute quarters and can be played outdoors or in a covered stadium.
Each team is allowed seven players on the court. Each player is assigned a specific position, which limits their movement to a certain area of the court. A “bib” worn by each player contains a two letter abbreviation of indicating this position. Only two positions are permitted in the attacking shooting circle, and can therefore shoot for a goal. Similarly, only two positions are permitted in the defensive shooting circle; they try to prevent the opposition from shooting goals. Other players are restricted to two thirds of the court, with the exception of the Centre, who may move anywhere on the court except for a shooting circle.
At the beginning of every quarter and after a goal has been scored, play starts with a player in the centre position passing the ball from the centre of the court. These “centre passes” alternate between the teams, regardless of which team scored the last goal. When the umpire blows the whistle to restart play, four players from each team can move into the centre third to receive the pass.
The centre pass must be caught or touched in the centre third. The ball is then moved up and down the court through passing and must be touched by a player in each adjacent third of the court. Players can hold the ball for only three seconds at any time. It must be released before the foot they were standing on when they caught it touches the ground again.
Contact between players is only permitted if it does not impede an opponent or the general play. When defending a pass or shot players must be at least 90 centimetres (35 in) away from the player with the ball. If illegal contact is made, the player who contacted cannot participate in play until the player taking the penalty has passed or shot the ball. If the ball is held in two hands and either dropped or a shot at goal is missed, the same player cannot be the first to touch it unless it first rebounds off the goal.
International Netball Competitions
Netball is a popular participant sport in countries of the Commonwealth of Nations. Non-Commonwealth entities with full IFNA membership include Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Argentina, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and the United States, along with former Commonwealth members Zimbabwe, Ireland and Hong Kong. According to the IFNA, over 20 million people play netball in more than 80 countries.
International tournaments are held among countries in each of the five IFNA regions, either annually or every four years. School leagues and national club competitions have been organised in England, Australia, New Zealand and Jamaica since the early 20th century. Franchise-based netball leagues did not emerge until the late 1990s. These competitions sought to increase the profile of the sport in their respective countries. Despite widespread local interest, participation was largely amateur.
Netball was one of three new sports included in the 1998 Commonwealth Games and has been a fixture ever since. Twelve teams competed there in 2010. Australia and New Zealand have won two golds and two silvers each, while England has three bronzes and Jamaica one bronze.
The major international tournament in Africa is organised by the Confederation of Southern African Netball Associations, which invites teams from Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and the Seychelles to take part. The tournament is hosted by a country within the region; senior and under 21 teams compete. The tournament has served as a qualifier for the World Championships.
South Africa launched a new domestic competition in 2011 called Netball Grand Series. It features eight regional teams from South Africa and is aimed at increasing the amount of playing time for players. It runs for 17 weeks and replaces the National Netball League, which was played over only two weeks. According to Proteas captain Elsje Jordaan, it was hoped that the competition would create an opportunity for players to become professional.
The American Federation of Netball Associations (AFNA) hosts two tournaments each year: the Caribbean Netball Association (CNA) Under 16 Championship and the AFNA Senior Championship. The CNA championship involves two divisions of teams from the Caribbean islands. In 2010 five teams competed in two rounds of round robin matches in the Championship Division, while four teams competed in the Developmental Division. Jamaica, which has lost only once in the tournament, decided not to play the 2011 tournament.
The AFNA Senior Championship includes Canada and the USA along with the Caribbean nations. The tournament serves as a qualifier for the World Championship. Jamaica, with its high ranking, does not have to qualify; this leaves two spots to the other teams in the tournament.
The Asian Netball Championship is held every four years. The seventh Asian games were held in 2009 and featured Singapore, Thailand, Maldives, Taiwan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, India and Pakistan. There is also an Asian Youth Netball Championship for girls under 21 years of age, the seventh of which was held in 2010.
The major netball competition in Europe is the Netball Superleague, which features nine teams from England, Wales and Scotland. The league was created in 2005. Matches are broadcast on Sky Sports.
Netball has been featured at the Pacific Games, a multi-sport event with participation from 22 countries from around the South Pacific. The event is held every four years and has 12 required sports; the host country chooses the other four. Netball is not a required sport and has missed selection, particularly when former French or American territories host the games.
The ANZ Championship is a Trans-Tasman competition that has been broadcast on television in both New Zealand and Australia since 2008. It is contested among ten teams from Australia and New Zealand. It began in April 2008, succeeding Australia’s Commonwealth Bank Trophy and New Zealand’s National Bank Cup as the pre-eminent netball league in those countries.
The competition is held annually between April and July, consisting of 69 matches played over 17 weeks. The ANZ Championship saw netball become a semi-professional sport in both countries, with increased media coverage and player salaries.