Financial realities continue as netball faces blackout until 2021

COVID-19's rapid spread in the capital was the key reason why London Pulse argued for the cancellation of the Vitality Netball Superleague, according to CEO Sam Bird.

Monday, 1st June 2020, 2:10 pm
Sam Bird

While the UK celebrates the return of horse racing, snooker and football to our screens, netball is facing a blackout until 2021 with the domestic league terminated last week and the international Quad Series scrapped.

England Netball's decision provoked hand-wringing in the sport with reigning champions Manchester Thunder claiming the call came too early.

London was badly hit by the pandemic, particularly in early April, and Bird feels even relaxed restrictions render a return to training for Pulse impossible.

"We said we'd do anything to play, with the caveat that there had to be a plan for us to train safely," said Bird, who doubles as CEO and head coach of the Stratford-based team.

"In London, we've had a pretty awful reality. We've had a huge number of deaths and a lot of people in the club, including me, have lost family and friends.

"The pandemic is far-reaching for us. We train in public venues and the majority of our players travel to those venues by public transport, unlike some other franchises.

"This looks very different in Worcester than it does in Stratford. There have been very few deaths in the West Country, where Bath and Severn Stars play.

"Our players are from really diverse backgrounds. Some are in highly populated areas of London, with few open spaces and family members who are key workers.

"It's a completely different picture to the idyllic scene of getting in your car to training, knowing your club will be able to protect you and then going home again.

"It was going to be impossible for our players to train safely so we weren't surprised the league was declared null and void."

Pulse play at the Copper Box arena on the Olympic Park and training venues include Brunel University, Queenswood School and other schools and colleges, currently closed.

The franchise looked into options like providing transport for players and even whether some socially distanced fans could be accommodated in the 7,000 capacity Copper Box.

But financial realities continue to bite despite the momentum behind netball on the back of the 2018 Commonwealth Games and 2019 World Cup in Liverpool.

The FA Women's Super League was cancelled despite estimates that it would cost as little as £3 million to complete the campaign.

Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden specifically addressed the need to support women's sport in his Coronavirus briefing on Saturday amid cancelled leagues, sponsor drop-outs and fears of TV invisibility.

Bird feels the impact of COVID-19 cutbacks have fallen disproportionately on women's sport and wants women to start calling out blatant sexism.

"What the last few weeks have shown is that the inequality in our society still exists," she said.

"It's symptomatic of women in the workplace in every profession.

"I played for England a long time ago and there were no major sponsors, no investment and very few people knew about it, so we've made huge strides.

"It's frustrating to see how vulnerable we are just because it's a women's sport.

"Equally, women have got to start supporting women's sport and challenging the negative comments men make. You read some of them and they make your blood boil.

"Like many great women before us, we've just got to work harder and be even more determined to support our sports."