Vitality Netball Superleague's long-term future had to be protected, says Fran Connolly
England Netball's CEO Fran Connolly explains the rationale behind the decision to cancel the 2020 Vitality Netball Superleague season
By Sky Sports Netball
Last Updated: 27/05/20 9:57pm
England Netball CEO Fran Connolly says that protecting the long-term sustainability of the Vitality Netball Superleague had to be done, albeit at a cost to competition in the immediate short-term.
The governing body for netball in England announced on Wednesday morning that the 2020 season had been cancelled. Just three full rounds and two additional matches had been played before the campaign was suspended and now, no further rounds will take place.
Connolly succeeded Joanna Coates as England Netball's CEO in October 2019 and shared her ambition for netball to blaze a trail in women's sport.
However, the impact and realities of coronavirus in the UK mean that the governing body has had to make the decision to prioritise the league's future over its present.
"It's a difficult decision to make and it's certainly not one that we've taken lightly," Connolly said exclusively to Sky Sports.
"We've spent the last 10 weeks in lockdown working with the Vitality Netball Superleague clubs, working through a number of different scenarios to return the 2020 season.
"Ultimately, we've now taken the decision [to cancel the season] in the best interests of the sport, to ensure the welfare of all involved and quite crucially, to protect the long-term sustainability of the league.
"I think that it's important that we give clarity to players, fans and spectators in order to take them out of a state of limbo and allow them to plan and focus, particularly for the clubs, on next season."
All 10 of the Vitality Netball Superleague clubs had commenced the season with real vigour and purpose, and none more so than the defending champions Manchester Thunder. They were unbeaten and the early signs were there that they were going to make a strong charge to defend their title.
Karen Greig, Thunder's head coach and a former international, shared her thoughts about the competition's cancellation on social media soon after the announcement. Her belief is that England Netball has 'gone a bit early' with their decision.
Gutted about this and feel EN have gone a bit early with their decision ... I know we at Thunder were fighting to have some kind of resolve so we could have a result when safe to be in that environment. 😢🖤💛🐝we desperately wanted to defend our title #gutted https://t.co/rDFbrNR9Y6— Karen Greig (@kjgreigy) May 27, 2020
In response, Connolly added more details regarding timings and about the overall rationale behind the choice to call a halt to the 2020 season.
"We waited as long as we felt that we could. We tried to keep all possible options on the table for as long as possible," she said.
"Ultimately the decision came down to three factors. The first was the continued lack of certainty around when social distancing measures would be relaxed so that normal netball training could resume.
"As a Superleague, we have teams from Wales and Scotland, and there was almost less certainty there at this point in time. We know that it takes four to six weeks to condition players ready to get back onto court, so that put us quite a long way back in the window that we had available.
"Secondly, we're a non-asset owning sport and we're hugely reliant on public shared venues. Many of these haven't yet confirmed when they're re-opening and at the earliest, that's likely to be the beginning of July.
"Thirdly, our only option really now, is to return behind closed doors and with so many Superleague clubs being heavily reliant on ticketing revenue, it's just not a financially viable option."
Our decision was made to effectively protect the long-term sustainability of the competition, at the cost of the short-term immediate league.
The CEO also expressed a fervent desire for the Vitality Netball Superleague to return together, as a whole. Financially, netball's situation is different to other sports and the CEO says understanding all of the details around this is paramount.
"I think that it's fair to say that the situation [pandemic] is going to affect the whole of netball to a significant degree, from an England Netball perspective but also from a Superleague club perspective.
Leeds Rhinos Netball's entrance in 2021
Absolutely, we will honour our commitment to Leeds Rhinos. They’ve been involved in many of the discussions over the past weeks and have made great strides to get themselves in the right order to take to the court next season. We’re really excited to see how they progress next year.
"We've been carefully looking at the financial and logistical elements for each of the different scenarios. We're also looking at any other possible routes for revenue generation.
"We want to make sure that the Superleague is retained and it's an absolutely critical pillar in our new 10-year strategy. It is how we intend to professionalise the sport."
What we've been really clear about, is that we will not return the Superleague at the cost of some clubs. We need to protect the long-term financial viability of them and we need to all be able to return together.
A concern raised by many with a vested interest in netball and its progression towards professionalism is whether the sport's position and drive forwards will be harmed due to this enforced absence.
With a sharp focus on maintaining visibility, England Netball is continuing to explore the option of there being a short-form competition later this year.
"We've got to keep the momentum," Connolly noted.
"We're not taking the autumn option off the table. We want to explore all possibilities of some form of short-form competition in that window. Also, we need to fight hard to continue to carve out international competition for our Roses.
"We very much hope that social distancing measures will be relaxed [by then], but if they're not, we won't take any undue risks so it would be behind closed doors.
"The central focus [of a short-form competition] is on the visibility of the sport and the continued momentum building of the league. It's not driven by any other commitments; it's driven by the desire to keep the profile of netball high."
Despite the challenging situation sport finds itself in, Connolly's ambition for netball to trail-blaze remains and she is doing her utmost to ensure netball is part of wider conversations around the fundamental aspect of funding.
"I think that every sport in England right now would put their hand up and say that we need more money. We're certainly doing that loud and clear at the moment.
"There will be more information circulated in the coming weeks, certainly there will be the release of more funding pots from Sport England and we remain confident that we will be part of any decision-making process around potential new investments.
"We can be game-changers as netball and it's imperative that we lead the way as female sport. It would be criminal to lose the momentum that all female sport has seen over the last couple of years."