Netball's ability to survive on little will see them through COVID-19 uncertainty

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Tennis from the rooftops is a perfect social distancing activity (0:22)

These two tennis players show you don't need a court to practice as they hit a ball back and forth from neighboring rooftops. (0:22)

As netball finally appeared to reach the peak of the mountain, COVID-19 has become the avalanche that has the potential to wipe it out completely.

Community netball has been halted, the national professional competition has no start date and the international season may not take place. Still, after years of surviving on little, Netball Australia [NA] CEO Marne Fechner says her sport will survive and thrive again.

"The one thing I would say about netball, they're used to not having a lot of resource," Fechner told ESPN. "As a sport we've always managed to do a lot with a little and we've become a lot more resourceful when we're under pressure. What we're starting to see emerge is some great innovation, some great partnerships across the sport and netball will survive.

"Sport will survive this. It will be very difficult; it will be very challenging for our people as we move through this process. But I think internationally netball will continue to survive.

"We do know we have to be resourceful and creative to pull through this. We're all doing it tough, we all have our own unique challenges and there's a lot of pressure on everyone to create some certainty in a time where there's very little certainty. Netball will continue to find ways to innovate and suppose cut our costs to ensure we can still be relevant and still exist and be ready to support our community of fans and participants when the restrictions lift."

After decades of building in the shadows, netball finally became fully professional in 2017. Players received a fulltime wage, Super Netball [SN] developed one of the top maternity leave policies in Australian sport and a new broadcast deal had live netball returning to free-to-air television. A year later, players received a pay rise, broadcast numbers were climbing and community participation numbers were building.

While COVID-19 poses a threat to all sporting codes in Australia, for women's sport, netball in particular, it risks destroying all the momentum NA and SN had built over several years. Although some sponsorship dollars are still trickling in, it's not close to the millions NA and SN rely on to keep the sport afloat in Australia.

NA's Annual Reports from 2016, 2017 (the launch of SN) and 2018 (2019's report is yet to be released), reveal substantial growth in the game's revenue split including a marked growth in sponsorship dollars since the launch of SN.

In 2018, NA recorded its first surplus in four years. In 2016, NA received just over $3.9 million in sponsorship, but in 12 months that amount had tripled to over $12 million and grew by eight percent by 2018 with $13.1 million received.

In 2018 the sponsorship money accounted for 44 percent of the national body's revenue with the code enjoying a $86,000 surplus. But with no professional netball having taken place so far in 2020, and the threat of either no games or a reduced number played across SN and international netball for the remainder of the year, NA faces a sponsorship hole.

"At the moment we're working really closely with a fabulous group of sponsors who are really committed in helping the sport get through this," Fechner said.

"But if we're unable to deliver a Suncorp Super Netball season or our international window it will become really challenging to maintain the value around those partnerships and that's a significant part of our revenue stream year-on-year and a growing part [too].

"It is of concern that we are hopeful we'll be able to make adjustments to our programming and work with our broadcasters really closely from a Super Netball and an international Test perspective to reemerge from this in the back half of the year when restrictions hopefully are lifted."

Super Netball CEO Chris Symington says the threat of lost sponsorship money is at the forefront of the code's worries, but he believes creative thinking will help the sporting body survive the COVID-19 crisis.

"I think every business is having sleepless nights over the potential commercial implications of not being able to deliver their product," Symington told ESPN.

"I guess all that we can say from our point of view is that all of our discussions with our commercial partners have been really positive, we've even tried to change direction with a few of them in terms with the type of content we're delivering over this postponement period to create additional value that didn't exist there before.

"It's about thinking creatively, about delivering on those commercial partnerships and mitigating any potential loss and that's where a lot of the energy's going at the moment to make sure that we can keep working well with our partners and delivering on those agreements."

Alongside sponsorship revenue, much of the growth of SN in 2017 was based on Netball Australia's signing of a landmark five-year broadcast deal with the Nine Network and Telstra.

It has, to date, proved mutually beneficial.

Netball Australia has received increased earnings, the sport's popularity and profile surged, while ratings were so impressive in 2017 that two broadcast games a round moved to Nine's main channel.

As netball enters the penultimate year of the broadcast deal, however, the sport's shutdown has the potential to put a dent in NA's and SN's future negotiations. But navigating the COVID-19 crisis is what Fechner is focused on, rather than a new broadcast deal.

"Firstly, Telstra and Nine have been fabulous broadcast partners, with us it is very much a partnership and with the way we approached our broadcast or media rights deal in this period of five years was unique and it was different," Fechner told ESPN.

"We're excited about where the product in Suncorp Super Netball and our partnership has seen driving the sport from a fan perspective at match and in broadcast, I think that all bodes well."

Symington agrees.

"I think our main focus at the moment is figuring out a way to get the season run, to get it on TV, to get it on Telstra, and still cover our obligations not to just our commercial partners and broadcasters through that relationship, but to our fans as well," Symington said.

"That's our number one priority at the moment, we still believe in the quality of the product as well, so whilst we've been disrupted at the moment the actual quality of the product and the relationship we have with our broadcasters is good, so I feel confident when we head into future negotiations we'll be just fine."

The sport's athletes and administrators have already taken a huge financial hit since the virus outbreak with SN and the Australian Netball Players Association agreeing to a 70 percent pay cut for at least five weeks, including a forced two-week leave.

While the introduction of JobKeeper by the Federal government in early April provides NA and SN a helping hand, there remains genuine worries the pay cuts may need to continue if a competition date can't be determined by May 31.

"The biggest development since we announced those reductions was the introduction of JobKeeper, so that's given us a good frame of reference to go back to the table with the players and with the clubs to talk about, first of all two deadlines for us," Symington told ESPN.

"May 31 is an important deadline for us in terms of making a decision on what the season might look like, that's the time frame we've been given at the moment. But then also their existing contract period, which is to the end of September."

Several sports are investigating extreme measures -- NRL previously considered relocating the whole competition to Queensland with a 'quarantine hub' for players based off the mainland before discussions turned to creating a hub in Sydney -- to get their competitions started and SN is no different with officials exploring a World Cup format.

But with the potential of competitions pushed further back into the year, a backlog of content may be created, leaving netball in a vulnerable position as they try to find space in an ever diminishing market.

"It's a bit of a crystal ball issue just in terms of the amount of sporting content that will potentially be requiring air time and exposure at the end of the year," Symington said. "Some of the unknowns are potentially around some of those global events, whether they're able to go forward or not, so that's a bit uncertain at the moment.

"We already operate in the winter space anyway, with rugby and footy and those codes, so we're used to that, we do it anyway it would just be more around those codes that then exist in the summer space. In particular, with Nine at that stage of the year, there should be room for netball content I would think."

While there's little certainty in these uncertain times, Symington is sure of one thing: netball will survive.

"We're the best netball competition in the world, our product out on court is world class, our fan base is loyal and avid and I have no doubt we can come out the other side of this."

When self-isolation ends and netballers can again take to the courts, NA and SN will no doubt count a heavy cost, but it won't stop them from dusting themselves off and resuming the climb to the peak of the mountain.