Netball's shot at the big time

Forget rugby or cricket - here is a sport in which England are winners. But will couch potatoes be lured by Lycra-clad stars of the netball court?

Almost since its invention, women engaging in the noble sport of netball have endured the ignominy of men sniggering into their pints about pleated skirts and Mallory Towers.

From this Thursday, however, with men's cricket, rugby and football teams languishing firmly in the international doldrums, the most popular sport played by British women will come of age when Sky Sports begins weekly coverage of the 2006-07 Netball Superleague, making it the first women's sport to get a regular television slot.

In keeping with the spirit of the times, there will not be a baggy Airtex shirt or mini kilt in sight, organisers promise.

Instead, leading players such as Tamsin Greenway and Tracey Neville, sister of the Premiership's Neville brothers, will take to the court in "figure-hugging Lycra outfits" that, it is claimed, would not be out of place on the dance floor of a nightclub.

Supporters say the creation of the new league, with eight elite teams boasting some of the finest players in the world, will go hand in hand with the satellite television deal and do for netball what the Sydney Olympics has already done for beach volleyball.

The sport's authorities seem prepared to put up with the inevitable interest generated by the change in the players' uniforms if it helps deliver netball to an audience beyond the one million women that play it in the UK each week.

They say that those who tune in for the first time on Thursday will find the teams' clothing the furthest thing from their minds. "It is a very exciting sport to watch, played at extraordinary speed and with great intensity. Even though it is non-contact there is never any shortage of clashes," said Rona Hunnisett, of England Netball, the game's governing body that signed the deal with Sky.

And for football fans hardened by years of toiling in front of nil-nil midweek draws, the average strike rate of 120 goals an hour should prove somewhat diverting too, she said.

"The idea behind the superleague was to give our elite athletes the opportunity to play the sort of high pressure match each week that will keep us in contention at the very highest levels. The visibility that television coverage will give us will hopefully begin to attract more advertising and sponsorship into the game," she said.

The Sky deal will give netball a previously undreamed-of reach, not just through live television coverage and regular round-ups, but via the broadcaster's website, its sports news channel and magazine, which claims eight million readers. The game is growing rapidly in popularity in India, Africa and the United States, generating a vast potential new army of fans beyond the existing 53 countries that currently play it.

"There is a perception that we are just about football, cricket and rugby," said a Sky spokesman. "But we know that netball has an audience out there, not just among people who play it, but others who will watch it and like it," he said.

The channel believes it has a good track record of taking minority sports and giving them broader appeal - poker for example - which profited greatly as a viewing experience from Sky's use of on-screen heart rate monitors and under-table cameras. Without giving too much away, producers said they will bring the "Sky touch" to the sport, though fans will have to wait until the first televised match between reigning champions TeamBath and arch rivals Loughborough Lightning to know exactly what this means.

Women's sport continues to suffer a wildly unequal relationship with men's games - even though Britain's women often match or surpass the performance of their male counterparts on the international stage. England's netball team, for example, collected bronze at the last Commonwealth Games and is currently ranked fourth in the world behind New Zealand, Australia and Jamaica.

Yet according to research from the Women's Sports Foundation (WSF), only 2 per cent of newspaper sports coverage is devoted to female athletes and their achievements, while television schedules limits it to less than 6 per cent. Coverage has crept up just 1.5 per cent in the past three years - excruciatingly slowly, say campaigners.

According, to Chris Lillistone, WSF research co-ordinator, one of the biggest problems is the sheer dominance of football, which crowds out other sports desperate for attention. She said Britain was well behind Scandinavian countries and Australia, where there is a vibrant culture of respect and interest in women's sport.

The recent outburst by Luton boss Mike Newell over women referees was a case in point, although his comments had created an unprecedented interest among women in taking up refereeing, she said. "Women's sport might not be as powerful as the men's, but technically we are playing a different game which is just as skilled. It's not about men versus women - each is as valid as the other," she said.

The failure of women's sport to punch through on to our screens and newspapers is one of the main reasons why girls continue to turn their back on sport as they achieve maturity, it is claimed. The few female role models that do exist provide little succour to teenagers insecure about their body image and battling a pervading culture where women are not valued as athletes or, more damagingly, run the risk of being labelled unfeminine or even gay if they persist with sport.

In the meantime, England Netball, which owns the Superleague, is urging all fans to make it a date on Thursday. Staff at its headquarters, Netball House, in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, will be taking over the local pub for a celebration to mark the occasion. The task now is persuading non-fans to flip channels and see what they have been missing.

A beginner's guide to netball

* It is considered a non-contact sport.

* There are seven players to each team.

* It is played in two halves.

* There are two nets to shoot in, one at either end.

* A player's position determines which area they can move to on court.

* Play starts in the centre circle of the court and resumes every time a goal is scored.

* Any number of goals can be scored.

* A goal can only be scored in the area known as the 'D' by the goal shooter or goal attack.

* A player is considered offside if any part of their body touches the ground in an area where they are not permitted to play.

* A player must not move their feet once in possession.

* The ball can only be thrown between players not kicked.

* A defending player must be a step away (0.9m) from the player who is holding the ball.

* Once a player has caught the ball they have to pass it on within three seconds.

* A penalty pass or shot is awarded to an attacker if a foul takes place within the goal circle.

* There are two umpires throughout the game.

The joy of netball? Meera Syal, WRITER AND ACTRESS

Used to play at county level and yesterday was on her way to play in a charity match: "It's great and it's about time the profile of the game was raised. Netball has been a mainstream sport shown on TV in Australia for years.

"It's a hard and fast-paced game and I think it's about time the girly stigma attached to it was removed."

Anne Atkins, NOVELIST

Played as a teenager at the Perse School for girls in Cambridge: "I have tried to erase it from my memory - it was not as bad as hockey, but it was still pretty ghastly. I remember those awful gym slips. It's not a practical life skill, is it, really? Why not watch people trying to do mathematics or trying to write an essay in French instead."

Jilly Cooper, AUTHOR

Played at primary school in Yorkshire: "I was so bad at games, I was quite small so I didn't get picked for the team an awful lot. It's such a sweet game ... actually no - it used to be tough on the playground. I would watch it though. It's a wonderful game."

Victoria Coren. AUTHOR, JOURNALIST AND POKER PLAYER

Was wing attack at school: "My ambition to be on the netball team was fuelled by what I had heard about tea after the matches, so I guess you could say that I wasn't an athlete. I'm not so interested now as I don't watch sport on TV."

Jennie Bond, BROADCASTER AND JOURNALIST

Part of the team at St Francis' College, Letchworth, Hertfordshire: "I didn't totally disgrace myself when I played but I can't remember ever scoring. I didn't hate it, but I wasn't particularly good at it. I was quite unco-ordinated. I'm only 5ft 4in and it was always the taller girls who were better."

Marcelle D'Argy Smith, FORMER EDITOR OF 'COSMOPOLITAN' MAGAZINE

Did not play: "Frankly, I'm top heavy. I was put off when I was 11 by the ill-fitting bras and the blue Airtex shirts. We had to choose between hockey and netball and I was definitely a hockey girl. I like sports with a great big open pitch."

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