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New data highlights changing face of netball in NZ

New participation data from the country's oldest and largest netball centre has given some insights into who's playing the sport at grassroots level and how that's changing.

Source: Breakfast

By Bridget Tunnicliffe for rnz.co.nz

The Auckland Netball Centre is one of the first centres to move to a new member management system, which Netball New Zealand is trying to implement across Aotearoa.

It means the centre can easily breakdown participation rates, including by ethnicity.

The goal is that Netball New Zealand will have information from centres across the whole country that will allow it to identify trends in participation - a first for the sport.

About 10,500 players are registered with the Auckland Netball Centre for this year's winter competition from year one primary school players up to and including club level.

The centre has kept its own records for more than a decade and the biggest shifts have come under the 'Asian' and 'Other' categories.

Auckland Netball Centre CEO Dianne Lasenby said in 2009 Asian participants were tracking at 3 percent, this year they make up 10.3 percent of players.

In fact there are now more Asian players than Māori by a tiny margin.

Māori participation, which has been pretty static over the years, sits at 10.2 percent this season.

Lasenby said Asian participation had started nudging ahead of Māori in the last couple of years.

"Pasifika has increased a bit - that group used to sit around 15 percent about a decade ago, that's gone up and it's 19.7 percent this year," Lasenby said.

Tactix Kimiora Poi during the ANZ Premiership Netball match between Northern Stars and Mainland Tactix. Source: Photosport

The 'Other' ethnic grouping is where they've had the most growth.

"That used to sit at about 2 percent in 2009, now it's at 12.3 percent. That group includes a lot of new immigrant communities.

"We've seen more African players coming through, more players from Middle Eastern countries. There have been some other European countries as well that you might not expect - the Czech Republic etcetera coming in as well."

This year New Zealand Europeans make up 47.5 percent of players.

Lasenby said it was pleasing to see the numbers increase under 'Other' and 'Asian' because they had worked hard in that area.

The centre had taken initiatives like setting up holiday programmes specifically to try to encourage new Asian participants.

"China for example is very much basketball dominated so netball's new to them so it's an opportunity for young girls to come along to learn some basic netball skills, then they can go back to their schools and join their school teams.

"You can imagine it's sometimes quite daunting for them, if they have no idea how to play netball, to rock up to trials and be put in a school team.

"So the holiday programmes, which are run in small groups, just gives that little bit of confidence for them to go back to their schools, where they'll get put into teams and that's where the growth of the numbers is coming from we think as well."

Lasenby said parents, who didn't know anything about the sport, also wanted to know that netball was professionally run and was a safe environment for their child.

"We quite often find with Asian parents, when they come for the holiday programme, they'll often stay the whole time for the first couple of days, which I think is just them making sure their child is in a good environment and a safe space. Then after a couple of days they are happy to drop them off and pick them up at the end of the day."

Lasenby said they were able to accommodate players, who for cultural and religious reasons wanted to wear hijab for example, which had helped remove barriers for some immigrant populations.

"And that was driven from Netball New Zealand and that's great because at the end of the day it's about them at that level participating, it's not about what they wear. So if that's important to them then we're happy with that so we changed our regulations to accommodate that ...some of them wear long tights and that's fine."

When it comes to gender - male players only make up 3 percent of the intake but Lasenby believes that will increase.

"I think we will see that start moving up across netball in the next couple of years with Netball New Zealand's strategy Poipoia, which is about everyone looking at their own communities and putting together strategies that really fit their own communities.

"This year we had our annual rep tournament and for the first time ever we put in a mixed under 14 and a mixed under 16 grade so I think that's going to be encouraging that male participation."

Across a whole year, the Auckland Netball Centre is actually home to over 27,000 members and participants, which includes mixed indoor and social summer leagues so that's where a lot of male participation comes in.

Northern Mystics Goal Shoot Grace Nweke in action during their round eight ANZ Premiership clash with the Northern Stars at Auckland's Trusts Arena, 6 June 2021. Source: Photosport

Netball New Zealand's head of community netball, Ruth Stanley, said the numbers coming out of the Auckland Netball Centre reflected demographic changes in the population.

But they also showed they had a lot of work to do given that about 28 percent of Auckland's population identify as Asian.

"I think the fascinating thing about rolling out the data management system is that it will give us a better understanding of our opportunities and how we can better meet the needs of those groups as the population evolves.

"A lot of schools are telling us that their Asian students want to integrate into New Zealand society and they see netball as being a bit of a cornerstone for that really.

"The Asian population is definitely an opportunity for all sports around the country with that growing population," Stanley said.

And Netball New Zealand will want to make sure that they pick netball.

While netball remains the most popular sport in our secondary schools, basketball and volleyball have been gaining ground.

Volleyball, especially is one of the fastest growing sports for girls. It's enjoyed a 31 percent jump at secondary schools over the past four years while netball has dropped 14 percent over the same period.

Stanley said the information they are able to glean from the member management system, would really prove its value once they were able to look at trends, which could give them a whole lot of intel about their participants.

"For instance - how well we are retaining members? Do they come in and out of the sport? Are there a lot of participants who are leaving the sport at a certain age?"

Stanley said it would help highlight the different opportunities for growth and where the national body could prioritise its key areas.

Stanley also expects there will be growth in male participation.

"We've got our first meeting for our male participation working group next week. Netball wants to be inclusive and what's the best opportunities for males to participate. We've already got quite a few male competitions starting to develop and mixed competitions."