Sports

Obituary: Looking back at Netball’s brief and brilliant ANZ Champs era

Delaney Mes looks back at short but exhilarating history of netball’s ANZ Champs, the end of which was announced this week after nine sweet seasons.

One of the most harrowing things I’ve ever witnessed occurred on a Monday night in July 2013. I was on my parent’s couch, watching the Northern Mystics lose to the Waikato/Bay of Plenty Magic, in the last game of their worst season on record. Goal Shoot Bailey Mes had had a breakout season after finally getting some game time with the Auckland team, and according to Herald sports reporter Dana Johannsen, Mes had “been one of the few bright spots in an awful Mystics season.” We went silent as we watched Mes land awkwardly in the shooting circle, and then fall to the ground.

That player was my little sister, and my parents and I had just watched her rupture her ACL live on television, repeated in slow motion, as the commentators said gravely they think they know what that means. Mum cried. It was horrific.

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Bailey Mes back in action for the Silver Ferns in 2015 (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

As a result of having a sister rise through the ranks of netball in New Zealand, I have become an absolute rabid fan. Like many females in NZ I played all through school, and as an all-round sports lover who doesn’t discriminate her sports watching on the basis of gender, I have watched many games. I have shouted aggressively at the TV, and I’ve sworn in front of children at live games while wearing official merchandise. Netball turns me into a monster. I love it.

There are close and brutal analyses of games between us sisters post match and I’ve followed animatedly as the ANZ Championship started out a brave new world of female sport, and I’ve followed closely over the last few weeks as the competition has been laid to bed. But what does it mean for fans? And players? And those of us who, for five months of the year, plan social engagements around 14 women fighting over a ball?

At its inception in 2008 the ANZ championship was touted as being the revolutionary game-changer that the sport needed. The signing of ANZ as a commercial naming rights sponsor, with a broadcast deal from Sky Sport in New Zealand to broadcast all games live in primetime, meant there was money for players too.

(Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves here though: these incredibly talented and driven women – freakishly fit, high profile, with much the same media, sponsorship and training commitments as their male counterparts – mostly aren’t even paid a full time salary. Especially if they’re not in the national squad).

Along with the advent of the new competition came 10 terrible new team names as borders were squashed and zones were created. In New Zealand, the Southern Sting became the Steel – fine – but the Canterbury Flames became the Tactix. With an x. In Wellington the Capital Shakers became the Central Pulse, their new name implying little more than simply staying alive. Over the ditch we had some classic gender stereotyping with the Melbourne Vixens, and confusingly, two kinds of birds: Thunder and Fire. It didn’t bode well.

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The Northern Mystics and the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Australia were allegedly never happy with the five teams per country set up, but New Zealand always had the upper hand through its broadcast deal with Sky Sport. Female sport doesn’t get the coverage in Australia that it gets in New Zealand, and that really is saying something, since my loose calculations see general sport coverage at about one female story for every 15 male stories over here. And that’s probably not even counting men’s rugby, which gets its own standalone section.

Cramming their depths of talent into just five teams, with international imports too, meant Australia absolutely dominated the competition. The New Zealand teams struggled to be competitive from the beginning. The Central Pulse became famous for losing all 12 games in their inaugural 2008 season, gaining only a solitary point. That came not through valiant effort, but for a draw in a game called off part way through due to a leaking stadium roof. They won two games in the next two years.

Likewise the Northern Mystics, a near perfect example of the cliché that a team of stars does not make a star team. Consistently loaded with internationals, but only once making the Grand Final, they were the sad epitome of a team never living up to its potential. The had moments of brilliance though: who could forget in May 2012 the night of the Harrison Hoist, when a young Jess Moulds lifted the incredibly, bendable and spindly framed Anna Harrison (nee Scarlett) to stop a goal just before it hit the hoop.

The depth of talent Australia surely affected these outcomes, but there were also concerns about finances (the Pulse hemorrhaged money their first few years, leading to a Netball New Zealand bail out), and demands on players to assist with marketing and promotion of games without anything close to reasonable compensation.

And yet watching the games, the scorelines were often so close that the win/loss ratios didn’t fairly indicate just how hard fought the competition was. The ANZ Champs has really seen it all: heartbreak, underdogs, despair, injury. Just last year the Grand Final saw the NSW Swifts ahead of the reigning champion Queensland Firebirds the entire game until the dying minutes. Laura Geitz snagged a crucial defensive intercept, they get the ball down to Gretel Tippet, who does a layup to tie the game, before Queensland’s centre pass sets up a long bomb from Tippet to win. Watching the last two minutes is sick-to-your-stomach sport at its best.

So where to from here?

Both countries are touting the split as a good thing and in the words of sports sports journalist Rikki Swannell, it’s more of a conscious uncoupling than a messy divorce.

Both countries are boasting five-year broadcast deals, which for New Zealand means Sky showing games live. Netball Australia are boasting too but it’s hard to see how their deal will be better for female sport. An argument can be made for things going backwards over there: only two games will be broadcast live (currently Foxtel shows all games live – absolutely crucial for Kiwi netball fans living in Australia). Although it’s on free-to-air, in the age of the internet, delayed games are no fun for anyone. With two delayed at goodness knows what time, and New Zealand games not shown at all, it pretty much sucks for netball fans in Australia.

Sure there is potential for a trans-Tasman element of each competition and that is an exciting prospect if the rumours are true. There will still be challenges with regional development in both countries. Initial concerns of Kiwis going to play in the Aussie league for big bucks are unlikely: to be considered for Silver Ferns selection you have to be based in New Zealand.

There’s also an argument that a domestic competition will allow New Zealand players to consolidate their own style of play: we’ve always played a defence style of marking the space, contrasting with the Aussies’ tight man-on-man. Nothing gets me excited like seeing a solid kiwi zone unleashed in a test match. The last few years has seen us end up playing a mixture of the two and not winning, but the tightness of New Zealand games within the ANZ Champs shows we can be competitive against one another and we can definitely play entertaining netball.

The Sydney Swifts and the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

The Sydney Swifts and the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

The wider appeal of course still lies in the international test series, and it’s highly possible that consolidating our own style of play with a top-level domestic competition and a strong feeder league (already established this year as the Beko league) will only add intrigue and increased competition at international level when we do meet the Aussies again. An element of surprise has got to count for something, right?

We have built ourselves back into a very competitive place internationally and the fact we went three a piece head-to-head with Australia last year is testament to that. That included winning our first game without netball legend Irene van Dyk since 1999, and an inspirational Black Caps-esque World Cup campaign. The greatness of this rivalry will be escalated back to the international stage, and that is great news.

The fanfare coming out of the PR machines in post women’s Big Bash Australia could make you think that the broadcasters and clubs in Australia have woken up in 2016 and realised shit, there might actually be something in this women’s sport thing. I can’t help but despair at the fact this “landmark deal” has taken so long.

You only need to check out the guns on some of these women to know that the game has evolved and elevated significantly from the days of the pleated skirts and there is incredible value in the sport, and the athletes, today. These role models deserve more space and public recognition, and inherent sexism and gender imbalance is still rife. We are getting somewhere but we’ve still got a long way to go. I’m sad to see the end of the Champs but hey, for the sport globally, two strong competitions are hopefully better than one.

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