Netball

As chair of the national Super Netball league, former Bauer Media executive Marina Go couldn’t have faced a more fraught run-up to the 2020 season. Finally, the first pass is set to be thrown. By Linda Pearce.

Super Netball chair Marina Go

The chair of the Suncorp Super Netball Commission, Marina Go, with Sunshine Coast Lightning players Laura Langman (left) and Steph Wood.
Credit: Supplied

Sleep has proved problematic for Marina Go in recent months, even if the ticking clock troubling the inaugural chair of the Suncorp Super Netball Commission was not on her bedside table. This one had been counting down to the August 1 start of a delayed and condensed national competition that, barely a fortnight ago, was still awaiting the formal confirmation of a home base for the majority of 2020. It was not until eight days ago that a revised fixture was released, and on a dramatic Wednesday this week, revised again.

There had been initial talk of a hub in Perth, then a suggestion of Sydney, given that the two Victorian teams – the Vixens and Magpies – were required by the state’s second coronavirus wave to follow their AFL and NRL brethren and hurriedly relocate. Somewhere. To background noise of number-crunching and head-scratching over whether the league could even go ahead, confirmation came on July 18: Queensland would host most games and all finals, with an exemption permitting the two Melbourne rivals to play each other while in the final hours of their quarantine. So it was that, perilously late, a deal was done.

While Super Netball chief executive Chris Symington and his team, overseen by Netball Australia boss Marne Fechner, did most of the heavy lifting, Go – a journalist and editor, many-hatted businesswoman and multiple board chair – has spent many, many hours helping to ensure the season could begin. The Sydneysider had been NA’s first independent director, from 2007 to 2013, before serving as chair of the NRL’s Wests Tigers for almost five years. Having recently collaborated on the launch of a new magazine website for the over-45s, Tonic, Go sits on four commercial boards and chairs the Walkley Foundation and Ovarian Cancer Australia as well as the Super Netball Commission.

“People who work in sport and are part of sport are highly dramatic people, because of the passion involved, so it can consume you,” says Go, who laughs that she “has never been a sporty person” but was lured back to netball last year at Fechner’s request, having been seduced in her first stint and remaining smitten. “This is truly an unusual year, and thankfully I’ve chaired a sports board before, because I think if I hadn’t I probably would have been absolutely shell-shocked by the amount of time it takes.”

No complaints, though; just relief, following an initial postponement from May 1, and understandable concerns in tumultuous recent months that Super Netball might not get under way at all. The entire sports industry is bleeding financially. Netball, so much smaller and poorer than the major football codes, is in the penultimate year of its broadcast deal with Nine, with former Australian Test captain Liz Ellis heading a national “State of the Game” review. The sport is at what Go describes as a “crossroad”, with modest free-to-air broadcast ratings rising only marginally last year – in contrast to a 53 per cent jump in streaming numbers – and an urgent need not just to salvage 2020 but to build what lies ahead.

“In the six years I was away I had hoped that the sport would have achieved greater revenues, because it’s the leading female sport, and Super Netball is a wonderful league,” says Go. “I love strategy and I like growing the top line, and I know it was important to the Netball Australia board that someone who understands netball and its structure and its challenges was the inaugural chair, at least. Netball is the first of the big female sports, it’s still the No. 1 participation sport in the country, and I just feel like it needs people to champion it, and I wanted to be part of that.”

After Go’s low-key reintroduction in mid-2019, controversy arrived with the June 23 announcement of rule changes, headlined by the two-point “super shot” – long resisted by traditionalists but spruiked by broadcasters and those seeking new audiences – for the final five minutes of each quarter. With interest in the idea having been reignited by the bushfire relief fundraiser, the decision came less than six weeks before the end of an already compromised preseason.

Cue outrage and player protests. Lingerie football next? asked Diamonds captain Caitlin Bassett. “Players not being consulted over the biggest rule change netball has seen is terrible,” tweeted Vixens shooter Caitlin Thwaites. “Crapball” was referenced by legend Joyce Brown, who derided the non-consultative handling of the change as “humiliating and dismissive”. Jo Weston, a member of the SSN competition committee, declared on social media “there are only so many bells and whistles on a bike before it becomes a clown car”.

Amid the circus, Netball Australia – and Go – have openly acknowledged SSN as the sport’s “entertainment” product. Indeed, it’s fair to ask what’s exciting about so many tall, holding shooters dominating what can be a static, predictable and anti-climactic shooting circle? But also consider that the two-point shot will not be adopted internationally. The GOAT, Sharelle McMahon, said adapting would be difficult but manageable for the Test players, while questioning the “odd timing” at club level, where she is the Vixens’ assistant coach. Still, after years of debating, says McMahon, at least we shall finally see.

Kate Palmer – who was Netball Australia’s chief executive during Go’s first stint, before moving to the top job at the Australian Sports Commission – has been among those watching with interest. Palmer was struck by the energy and “positive vibrancy” the one-time Dolly editor turned magazine executive brought to the board, and praises a “clarity of thinking, drive for success, and the ambition she has for the organisation and the people she works for. She is a good leader of people and she’s not frightened to be bold.” Ah, yes. Bold. Back to the super shot. “I suspect they might do it differently next time,” says Palmer. “But that’s okay, because part of taking risks is it makes people think differently.”

Go says she has personally received more positive than negative feedback, including from the grassroots level, where the dream to wear the GS bib without pushing 200 centimetres may be revived. “The only thing we regret is that we didn’t have the time frame to inform the various stakeholders – particularly the clubs and the players – earlier than we did,” says Go. “The reason we had to bring it forward was because every single day between March and June was changing – for our commercial partners, our broadcast partners and our league. We found ourselves in a situation where we were looking at financials and wondering how on earth we were going to be able to afford to get a league away. So we had to make a few decisions based on trying to retain revenue this year, which was one of the factors in bringing the two-point shot forward, and then also in trying to increase the value this year because we’re heading into a broadcast negotiation at the end of 2020.”

Go makes the distinction between consultation and consensus, however – particularly in a sport she thinks has traditionally valued agreement over agility and is accustomed to happy, polite people ticking every box before moving forward. If at all. Courage, she says, is the most important trait of directors on sports boards, while the greatest learning from Go’s time helming Wests Tigers was that “if you are given the role of leadership you actually have to lead, and that often means difficult decisions”. Made quickly. Sometimes unpopular. The belief that anything less is “caretaking” explains the determination to do more.

The lens through which Go and her commission are operating is the mandate to grow the league commercially for the long term. “We’re kidding ourselves if we think we can continue to exist in a bubble and keep our league exactly as it was, doing exactly the same thing,” she says. The mother of two adult sons attributes netball’s revenue challenges to the outdated view that men’s sport is more valuable, despite women’s leagues being the current growth market. The threats from AFLW et al are substantial in terms of sponsorship, market and athlete share, and hence the importance of the next TV deal.

While agreeing that more viewer eyeballs are needed, Go concedes that limited resources and the wisdom not to spend beyond the sport’s limited means has dictated that marketing dollars have largely been focused on the “narrow lane” of the existing fan base. Money, not vision, has been lacking, and the push for “excitement” has Go insisting that does not mean the old product was boring. “We believe in it because we know that once people watch netball they’re really surprised by how great it is. But we also know that we need to shake things up a bit in order to say to people, ‘You’ve got to come and have a look at this.’ Because we’ve got competition.”

The risk of alienating the loyal rusted-on fan while chasing shiny new viewers is ever present, says Go, although resisting progress is not netball specific. “Fans of all sports that change something about their game always say, ‘We’re not going to watch’, and the fans do watch … And if they don’t, then our league won’t succeed. If we do nothing, if we change nothing, if we don’t innovate, then we won’t be sitting here anyway in three years’ time, because everybody else will have progressed, everybody else will have the broadcast deals and everybody else will have our sponsors.”

Which completes the backstory to a season that almost wasn’t, as the clock counts down the minutes to an opening round that was postponed, threatened, and forced to relocate one more time. After signing off on some last-minute rule tweaks announced on Tuesday and then a frantic dash across the Queensland border by the two NSW teams who had been due to host games in Sydney, perhaps Marina Go can dare to dream that the tick, tick, ticking is over and it’s time to start sleeping soundly again.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 1, 2020 as "Go getter".

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Linda Pearce
is an award-winning freelance sportswriter, based in Melbourne.