Why don’t more men play netball?

Mixed netball college league. Regulations. Only one boy allowed on the court per team at any one time. Boys are only permitted to play in three positions: wing defence, centre and wing attack.

“I sconce anyone who is a boy in the girls’ netball team”, a rugby player, male, once scoffed controversially to a mixed netball team with two boys in its cohort, dividing the room. What is there against boys playing netball, huh?

Then again, our rugby player can be forgiven, because netball isn’t a sport you would typically associate with men. There was no gold medal awarded for men’s netball during the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. There are only world rankings for women’s netball. Netball equals woman’s sport.

I play netball. In this sport, as I see it, there is little evidence to justify netball’s status as a niche sport for men. Take the level of sportsmanship on show during the final of that Commonwealth Games, which saw England netting a dramatic last second penalty to storm the match 52-51 against Australia. The competition, especially in the final quarter of the match, was fierce as hell. There were at least three women flinging their bodies to intercept or receive each ball; precise, powerful passing flung the ball in a blur from one end of the court to the other; physical clashes, bruises and bashes; a goal at one end and then a before-I-know-it attack at the other.

In this sport, as I see it, there is little evidence to justify netball’s status as a niche sport for men.

So why doesn’t netball appeal to men? Many sports that were once traditionally male dominated have witnessed an upsurge in female participation. Take football. For the first time, the semi-finals of the 2018 Women’s FA Cup were broadcast on the BBC. Take Cricket. After victory in the women’s world cup in 2017,  three out of the five named Wisden English cricketers of the year were women, prompting former captain Charlotte Edwards to say that there has never been a better time for women in her sport.

Yet men’s netball, representing the opposite – male participation in a traditionally female sport – seems to resist similar innovations. While there are international men’s netball tournaments, known as ‘nets’, World Indoor Mixed Netball championships and mixed netball leagues in the UK in regions such as London and Manchester, the men’s game undoubtedly suffers from a low profile, being restricted to the major netball-playing nations: South Africa, England, Australia, New Zealand. Indeed, there are no places for men in Varsity netball.

An explanation to this may lie in the history of the sport. Uniquely, netball was conceived as a sport exclusively for women. Developed initially in Massachusetts as a off-shoot of basketball in the early 1890s,  it travelled to England where it was taken up by Swedish philanthropist Madame Bergmann Osterberg, who popularised the game at her pioneering institute for women’s physical education in Dartford, Kent and gave the sport its name (it was first, ‘women’s basketball’). Netball then spread to other Commonwealth countries in the early 20th century where it has since established itself globally as a woman’s sport.

Yet, history and tradition aside, which has seen netball emerge as the definitive female team sport, the social conceptions of gender in the late 19th century, where women play sport in dresses and are seen in some way as incapable of matching the physical exertions of men, have undoubtedly changed.  The standard netball hits today at professional level achieves a physical and mental intensity to suit any competitive sportsperson.

As Steinbeck once said, “There’s just stuff people do” , then maybe boys just don’t play netball because they  were seen as  the rougher, tougher sex that was built for getting ‘stuck-in’ and running with a ball in their hands. There was no reason to believe that then, I see no reason to believe that now.