In 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts a 30-year-old Canadian immigrant to the USA, James Naismith, was ordered to invent an indoor game for high-spirited young men at the School for Christian Workers (later the YMCA). Most games tried ended with injury rates of staggering proportions! So Naismith conjured up a game whereby a ball had to be lobbed into a high peach basket (his reasoning being that if a ball had to dropped into the “goal”, it couldn’t be thrown at breakneck speed).
Basketball was born…with the original game featuring nine players – three forwards, three centres and three guards – simply because Naismith had 18 youths to keep amused. Women’s indoor basketball began exactly two days later when female teachers to the gym were captivated by the game but it wasn’t until 1895 that the current game of netball was well and truly shaped.
When Clara Baer, a sports teacher in New Orleans, wrote to Naismith asking for a copy of the rules, the subsequent rules package contained a drawing of the court with lines pencilled across it, simply to show the areas various players could best patrol, but Baer misinterpreted the lines and thought players couldn’t leave those areas! In 1899 her mistake was ratified into the rules of women’s basketball as zones.
Three-bounce dribbling had quickly been extended in the men’s game (which didn’t have no-go zones), but it was seldom used in the women’s version when it reached Britain and the Empire. In fact, there was no pressure to increase that form of ball movement and in the end dribbling simply ceased to exist. Netball was first played in England in 1895 at Madame Ostenburg’s College. In the first half of the 20th century, Netball’s popularity continued to grow, with the game being played in many British Commonwealth countries. There were no standard rules at that time with both nine-a-side and five-a-side versions of the game.
During an Australian tour of England in 1957, discussions took place concerning standardising the rules of the sport and this led to representatives from England, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and The West Indies meeting in Sri Lanka in 1960, to establish The International Federation of Women’s Basketball and Netball. Formal rules were established at this inaugural meeting and it was decided to hold World Championship tournaments every four years, beginning in Eastbourne, England, in 1963.
Since then World Championships have been held in Australia 1967, Jamaica 1971, New Zealand 1975, Trinidad & Tobago 1979, Singapore 1983, Scotland 1987, Australia 1991, England 1995 and New Zealand 1999. Throughout this period, Australia has dominated, winning the event in 1971, 1975, 1979, 1983, 1991, 1995 and 1999.
The 2003 World Netball Championships in Kingston, Jamaica saw New Zealand finally breaking the Australian dominance taking Gold. The 2007 World Netball Championships was due to take place in Fiji but a political coup in the country led to the event being transferred to Auckland, New Zealand. Despite the home advantage, New Zealand were unable to defend their crown and Australia were once more World Champions. Congress voted in 2007 to award the hosting of the next World Championships to Sinagpore in 2011.
As part of the Australian Bicentennary Celebrations in 1988, a Youth Tournament took place in Canberra, for players aged under 21. Its success led to this event being held once every four years. Fiji hosted the 2nd World Youth Netball Championship, Canada the 3rd and the 4th has just taken place in Wales. Australia were winners in 1988, New Zealand in 1992 and Australia again in 1996 and 2000. At the 2005 World Youth Netball Championship, held in Florida New Zealand Won Gold, England Silver and Australia took the Bronze. The next event will take place in the Cook Islands in 2009.
In 1995 Netball became a “recognized” Olympic sport and one of IFNAs objectives is to ensure this status is retained and encourage the International Olympic Committee to include Netball in the Olympic Games Programme in the future. Netball was included in the Commonwealth Games programme, for the first time, in 1998 in Kuala Lumpur, where Australia took the Gold medal, New Zealand Silver and England the Bronze. It was also a programmed sport in 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, where Australia again took the Gold medal, New Zealand Silver and Jamaica edging out England for the Bronze. Netball is now a core sport in the Commonwealth Games.
The IFNA reports that over 20 million people currently play netball in more than 70 countries, with just under 60 national netball associations affiliated with the worldwide governing body. It is the most popular team sport for women in Australia and New Zealand, and remains a popular women’s sport throughout the Commonwealth of Nations, including in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Jamaica. Television coverage has increased the profile of the sport in countries with elite domestic competitions, but in many cases not to the extent of well-established male-dominated sports. Netball has also yet to reach the status of a fully professional sport in any country.
Further developments to the sport are being trialled. A new shortened version of the sport was announced by the IFNA in December 2008, called “fastnet”. Featuring six-minute playing quarters, “power plays” in which goals count for double points, and two-point shots similar to three-point field goals in basketball, the new version of the sport has been likened to cricket’s Twenty20. The format is primarily used in the World Netball Series, which was first contested in October 2009 and is scheduled to be held annually. This new competition will be contested between the top six netballing nations, according to the IFNA World Rankings.
Major international competitions in the immediate future include the 2011 Netball World Championships in Singapore and the third edition of the World Netball Series later that year. Efforts were also started in England in 2008 advocating netball’s inclusion in the Summer Olympic Games programme, either as a demonstration sport or as a fully competitive sport in future Games.