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The Meticulous Participation Strategy Behind Netball’s Surge in Popularity

We examine how a root and branch review of England Netball’s participation and coaching development models has sparked an across-the-board participation boom. Development Director Fran Connolly guides Blake Richardson through the whole journey, from inception to fruition

Boom! There has been an explosion in the number of people playing netball over the last decade.

Rather like its cosmological cousin, an explanation for this ‘big bang’ can be traced back to a single point in time – 2008 to be precise, when England Netball’s expansion model was first formed.

A wise owl once said, if opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door. England Netball were astute and brave enough to realise that if they didn’t change, they wouldn’t grow.

So, in shutting the door on their existing participation strategy, they began a major rethink of how to meet the demands of both new, and older generations.

Fran takes up the story: “We set ourselves on a journey around the time of the second Active People Survey [in 2007-08]. It told us there were 118,000 women playing regularly in this country, with a membership base of around 50,000.

“We challenged ourselves to answer the questions: do we know who these people are, and, do we really understand our netball customers, and potential customers? The answer to both questions was “no” we didn’t.

So we went on a journey of a good couple of years, and lots and lots of insight gathering, to really understand the people who were involved in netball; people who weren’t involved; why they weren’t involved; the barriers at play, and started to segment those types of women and girls.”

Rebirth and a long period of growth

The insight phase needed to be exhaustive in view of the governing body’s ambitious objective of nationwide behaviour change across every demographic.

It involved intelligence gathering on a mass scale, followed by an equally methodical period of data dissemination that would ultimately be used to formulate revitalised coach and participation development models.

The next step was drilling down into the players’ and potential players’ motivations, aspirations and needs and to develop with them products and programmes to meet them,” says Fran.

“That was where the journey started really, and we pulled in lots of partner organisations to help us to do that, one of which was UK Coaching.”

To give you an indication of the scale of the initial research phase; it involved digesting 150,000 reported conversations of netballers and potential netballers and accessing more than a million different data quotes collected from a huge variety of sources.

So, for example, with the Active People Survey we went back to them and asked for the coded data that sat behind it,” says Fran. “And we requested all the raw data that sat behind published surveys, and then spent a year analysing it all.”

The governing body discovered from their two years of research that there were in fact 10 different kinds of netballers or potential netballers that may want to be involved in the sport.

The last eight years have been spent designing and implementing products and programmes to meet the diverse needs of each of these ten categories.


Climbing the league table

England Netball have, for some time now, been seeing the fruits of their labour. The numbers don’t lie.

According to Sport England’s Active Lives Survey (May 2016 to May 2017), over a quarter of a million adults in England (286,200) take part in netball at least twice a month.

This makes netball the fourth biggest team sport behind football, cricket and basketball, and by far the biggest team sport for women – 3.4% of the female population in England have played in the last year, compared to 2.8% who have played football and 1.2% who choose hockey.

On a typical weekend, there are more women playing netball than men playing rugby union.

While the figures collated clearly show netball is on the rise across England, some of the percentages reported in the media have been skewed by inadvertently comparing Active People Survey data with Active Lives data – Sport England’s new way of measuring sport and physical activity, which evaluates different participation frequencies.

So while England Netball have distanced themselves from the ‘44% increase in participation at grass-roots level in the last year’ soundbite that has been widely reproduced in the press, they are keen to promote these other stand-out statistics (updated in January, 2018):

  • Approximately 1.4 million women and girls play netball at some point during a typical season.
  • England Netball membership has grown year on year for the last ten years, and in the 2015-16 season smashed the 100,000 barrier for its number of affiliated members.
  • By last season, England Netball had grown to 103,000 members, a 3.42% increase on the previous year.
  • The sport has seen over 30% growth in weekly adult participation in the last 5 years.


Rolling back the years

The governing body’s current portfolio of participation initiatives (which is detailed below) has been instrumental in enticing people back to the sport. Credit should also be attributed to an evolving domestic Superleague competition, the success of the national team (England Roses are ranked third in the world) and the welcome increase in television coverage?

“It is really important to us to have netball available to anyone to watch and we are hugely grateful to the television companies,” says Fran. “Our official broadcast partner is Sky, but the BBC have been showing a lot more interest since they televised netball at the Commonwealth Games.

The success of the national team, the growth of Superleague and the profile of the game itself across the world in the last couple of years has definitely supported what we have been trying to do as well but I don’t think we would have seen the level of growth in participation if we hadn’t have changed our approach to participation programmes within the organisation.”

So, while all the above are inextricably linked to the rising popularity of the sport, there is no escaping the huge impact the proliferation of participation schemes have had and are having.

Together they form an extensive ‘menu’ of opportunities that cater for every sphere of society.

The Back to Netball initiative, for example, has proved particularly persuasive in attracting more women of different ages and abilities back into the game.

This was the first product that England Netball put onto the market under their new framework, and has been their most successful to date.

This year will see the tenth anniversary of the award-winning programme, which has seen women return to the sport in their tens of thousands – more than half of them mums.

Around 15,500 participants went through the programme in the 2016-17 season, and if England Netball can emulate that again this season, which they are on course to do, it will see them surpass the magic 100,000 milestone.

As well as being delighted with the sheer scale of the numbers, England Netball are immensely proud of the impact the scheme has had on women’s physical and mental health.

Research from England Netball has shown:

  • 98% of participants would recommend the programme to others.
  • Nine in ten participants go on to be more active after the programme, with 37% going on to play more netball – such as joining a club or playing competitively.
  • 51% reported improved confidence.
  • 76% said Back to Netball helped them feel good about themselves.
  • 67% said participating in the scheme had helped them to relax.


Offering something for everyone

The Back to Netball programme has proved a great way of attracting women back into the sport who may have left to start a family; and former league players who want to recapture the bug.

But Back to Netball didn’t suit everybody. Some women, explains Fran, could not come regularly to sessions and wanted something they could dip in and dip out of – a kind of pay-and-play model that wasn’t available through the conventional club and league format.

“So we created a product called Netball Now,” she adds, “which we rolled out across the country, and most recently walking netball, which is our fastest-growing product and which we expect to become our most successful yet.

We wanted to create a range of opportunities for people aged five right through to 95. We want people to stay in the game in whatever shape or form works for them throughout their lifetime, and to do this we have to make netball as flexible, comfortable and appealing to every audience.”

Walking netball was launched in September 2016, with 8,000 people having gone through the programme so far.

“It is a really good way of keeping people from all ages and fitness levels involved in the sport. Even if they’ve had serious injuries and are no longer able to play the traditional form of the game, it keeps them active. It supports physical, mental and social well-being across the whole netball family.”

England Netball are certainly not resting on their laurels. They realise that, due to significant cuts in government funding, the challenge in the future will be to continue this growth with less outside finance coming into the organisation.

Hence, they are engaging in more partnership work.

“We are going to be taking the sport to the audience a lot more, rather than expecting people to come to us,” says Fran.

So partnering with organisations like the Women’s Institute (WI) and Age UK, who have ready access to audiences and mass followings nationally, we can work with them to tweak and tailor our products to work for their audience, instead of spending lots of time chasing individuals locally.”

The partnership with the WI only launched in January but already 250 local WI groups have expressed an interest. Initially, England Netball-trained ‘hosts’ (as the coaches are referred to) will deliver the sessions but members will then be trained to become hosts themselves to ensure an abiding legacy.

Gimme Five, fast!

No opportunity has been allowed to slip through the net. Following a merger with the Indoor Netball Association, the indoor version of the game was rebranded as Nets – which is popular with men and women, with mixed teams also featuring in tournaments that are held worldwide.

England women and England Under-18s are the reigning world champions in this format, which is described on the England Netball website as ‘fast, non-stop and very tactical’, as the ball never goes out of play due to being played in an ‘enclosed high tension cage’.

Fast5, meanwhile – which gets its name from the number of players on each side – is a shorter form of the game and has been described as netball’s answer to Twenty20 cricket. Again, England are on top of the world, being crowned World Series champions.

“This is designed really as a televised product, being more appealing to TV and big competitions,” explains Fran. “It is not really a programme we use to get new people into the sport, as it has Fast 5 rules and is something club netballers might do as a one-off tournament, or as a bit of fun at the end of a season, for social or fundraising purposes.”


Coaching philosophy

Of course, it follows that any significant rise in participation demands a proportional rise in the number of coaches.

Fran accepts that before any new programmes are put on the market, an appropriately skilled workforce must be in place to support those programmes and keep up with the extra demand.

Part of our coaching philosophy is we want to create environment-specific coach deliverers who are absolute experts in the programmes they are delivering, rather than a smaller coaching workforce that works across every domain. Because in our experience that just doesn’t work.

“What makes a perfect walking netball host is very different to what makes a great academy or talent pathway coach; very different characteristics, different training required and different people skills.”

While Fran accepts maintaining the coach to participant ratio is a challenge, it is a challenge they are absolutely thrilled to be facing and are eagerly responding to.

And with a home World Cup to look forward to in Liverpool next year, the hope is the year-on-year growth they have been enjoying will continue along the same steep gradient for many years to come yet.

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  • How the Lawn Tennis Association is Capitalising on the Success of British Tennis


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