Collingwood hands back its Super Netball Licence: The Now & The Next

Last week, Collingwood FC announced that it would be withdrawing its Super Netball licence, and folding the team after the 2023 season. What happened, and what’s next?

Last week, Collingwood FC announced that it was undertaking a review into its Super Netball Program, and determining whether to continue running a Super Netball team in 2024 and into the future.

Immediately, the netball world was thrown into chaos, as the implications of a potential withdrawal became real, and the first fingers were pointed as a result of this.

Yesterday, the review was handed down, and Collingwood, in a statement, decided not to renew its licence and cease its Super Netball team at the end of the 2023 season, giving the team four matches left.

Immediately, a war of words interrupted, and plans were thrown into action. Chaos ensued, as fans, players, coaches, staff and administrators reckoned with the impact of the decision.

With so much going on, it is a challenge to cut through the spin, and the hysteria and set the table for what happened, and what comes next.

War of Words - the Blame Game

Collingwood's statement that they are withdrawing from the competition had a few barbs, as the club looked to justify the decision.

At its simplest level, the justification for ending the program came down to money.

“As a Club, we are tasked with continuing to deliver growth across all areas of Collingwood and ultimately, the review, which analysed key aspects of the Club’s netball program and that of the governing body, determined that the program is not sustainable."

There have been reports that the program has made losses since its beginning, with some suggestions it was $1m each year, and some suggestions it has been $10m over the course of the seven seasons. Collingwood's financial report doesn't itemise revenue and expenses for the Super Netball program, so the Club is the only body who has knowledge of the actual losses.

But, those losses should be taken with a grain of salt, after Collingwood reportedly received $15m in government grants and $7m in sponsorship from Nike, both in relation to their women's sport and netball programs. That sponsorship money has helped pave the way for Collingwood to massively upgrade their facilities.

How the grants were allocated as they relate to the netball program's expenses is anyone's guess. Edge of the Crowd last week reported on Netball Australia's financials, and noted that Super Netball was given a similar financial reporting treatment.

Whether the Collingwood netball program was losing as much money as reported, or whether it was just not turning a profit, it has been squarely used as the justification here.

The Magpies statement continued, with an acknowledgement of the club's part to play in the circumstance.

“We acknowledge we could have run a better netball program at Collingwood."

It's a pretty self-explanatory comment, and doesn't go any further into how or why that could have been achieved. To acknowledge that things could have been done better, while in the process of handing back the licence and giving up on the team will sting for fans, players and staff.

It seems as if Collingwood has worked out how to do it better, but now the team is a lost cause anyway. Despite having understood that it could be better, there aren't any plans to try and do better, but rather to throw hands in the air and surrender.

And then the statement continued, and the blame game started.

“Throughout this process, we met with Netball Australia and SSN on multiple occasions to explore potential solutions. The challenges Netball Australia has experienced and continues to experience in terms of profitability combined with the current impasse in regard to finalising the TPA and CPA, played a key role in our decision-making." 

The first hit out by Collingwood at Netball Australia, arguing that Netball Australia's governance, and the delays in finalising the Team Participation Agreements (between clubs and NA) and the Collective Playing Agreement (between clubs, NA and the Australian Netball Players Association) played a key role in the decision making.

And the war of words kicked off.

The first half of the statement talked about the netball program being unsustainable, and that Collingwood could have done better in their netball program over the years. It's been accepted by the club, the players, and former coaches that there have been hiccups along the way that have slowed the progress of the team.

There was a report late last week from The Age that Collingwood posted an operating profit of $51,000 for the netball program last year. While most Super Netball teams don’t seperate out their financials from their association financials, that appears to be a relatively strong position compared to other teams. Operating profit is taken before depreciation and amortisation, which reduce profitability, but it’s still a position of relative strength.

Most teams are reporting significant losses, as the sport battles the residual financial effects of COVID-19, small capacity stadiums for crowds, and a participation base of more than a million that doesn't necessarily engage with the elite level.

The second half of Collingwood's statement said the the program is ending because NA faces challenges with profitability and hasn't signed the TPA and CPA soon enough. The two justifications somewhat cross lines, as the ability of the national body to make a profit shouldn't flow down to an independent entity's financials sustainability.

It also calls on a typical argument against female sports - that they aren’t profitable so they should be subsidised or make losses. Many fledgling competitions, like the AFLW, the A-League Women and NRLW aren’t profitable yet - but those are recognised as leagues with futures where the investment will pay off as the profile of the sport grows.

Super Netball is weeks away from its seventh season. Collingwood will complete a seventh season before calling it quits. Hardly the long-run investment opportunity like in the AFLW program or the NRLW for other clubs.

The inherent contradiction of Collingwood’s justification is also blaring, given that AFLW preseason starts today, and that league has no CBA for a competition starting in September, not March next year.

The AFLW has had a longer run negotiation for its CBA, and appears nowhere close to finalising a deal. Despite that, Collingwood aren’t considering withdrawing from AFLW. In fact, the statement reiterated the club's strong support for the AFLW and VFLW programs.

Netball Australia was next to issue a statement, immediately suggesting that Collingwood's strategic focus on football was the cause of the withdrawal, and pointing the finger at the club.

“In recent times it had become clear that Collingwood’s priorities had shifted away from netball to focus on its core business of football.  

Kelly Ryan, Netball Australia CEO held a press conference later in the afternoon, and she doubled down on this position.

"As we all know being involved in sport, CPA conversations are a part of every single sport, and I'm generally unclear on how those conversations impact whether you have a licence in the sport or not," Ryan said.

"Yes, the TPAs are up as well, but again they are par for the course, in that those conversations have been in train for the the better part of those conversations, so [I] don't really understand when there's nothing materially changing in either of those agreements, how that changes the direction, midway through a cycle."

Super Netball Team Participation Agreements (TPAs) are currently up for negotiation, but as Ryan pointed out, in the middle of the broadcast cycle, where the parameters are already set out for how the league will run until 2026.

Collingwood players during the 2022 Super Netball season. Image: Nigel Barrie / NBarrie Photography

Collingwood players during the 2022 Super Netball season. Image: Nigel Barrie / NBarrie Photography

Ryan further commented on the negotiations between NA and Collingwood mentioned in the Collingwood press release.

"So obviously we've tried to broker as many proactive conversations as as we can with Collingwood, and play whatever necessary supporting role, that we can in those conversations, but, I think it is clear that they have wanted to prioritise their football programme."

The crossfire

One group, who have felt that they were not given every opportunity was the players. The players at Collingwood Netball, the 10 contracted players, the injury replacements and the training partners, are all now left at a crossroads.

Every player in SSN is off contract at the end of the season, and waiting with bated breath for a CPA to be finalised so that they can start to prepare for their future, but that calculus is different for Collingwood players, who know that they will not be returning to their team in 2024.

The final statement of the day, and the one with the most fingers to point (and rightly so, given the position) came from the Collingwood players. Players who had just been informed that their team would not be continuing next year, and that they would be finding a new netball team to play for after this season.

"As a playing group the decision has been overwhelming. The impact on each athlete has been significant and the prospect of playing out the remaining games, right now, seems inconceivable.

These players, who were pawns in the power struggle between Collingwood and Netball Australia, are the ones in the worst position now. They will play out four games for this club, and then most will turn to finding a new place to continue their elite netball careers.

"We acknowledge the club has been transparent with the commercial realities that led to this decision.
We acknowledge the club has also accepted the program could have been better. We appreciate and respect their candidness.
As athletes we consider ourselves part of the netball program and acknowledge we also had a role to play in the program’s viability. Success on court translates to commercial gain."

The players' acknowledgement of the club was clear, as was their disappointment with the outcome of the decision. The statement continued:

"However, we feel compelled to highlight the role (or lack thereof) Netball Australia played in today’s decision.
We feel like collateral damage in a much larger issue for Netball Australia. There is untenable dysfunction and disharmony between administration and the playing group. There is also no confidence in the strategic direction of Netball Australia."

There was a clear reference to the state of the CPA negotiations, which had reportedly stalled before this, and have been plagued with two parties a long way apart. The statement concluded with a message from the players to the wider netball public.

As a playing group we care deeply about sport at every level. From grassroots to the elite level, we want to see as many people playing, watching and being connected to netball as possible. We want to leave the sport in a better position than we found it. We want the best netball and opportunities within netball for generations to come.
We call on greater governance, transparency, and leadership from Netball Australia."

After the negotiations between Collingwood and Netball Australia soured, as it became clear that neither side was willing or able to contribute more money, the players, coaches and support staff are the ones who are left with the consequences, as they determine how to continue involvement in elite level at a new club in the future.

The Next

The pressure will be on Netball Australia to pick up the pieces and put them back together, because the longer the cracks are open, the harder it will be to patch them up.

The first step for Netball Australia will be announcing the process for the bidding for the eighth license. The Gold Coast Titans and Geelong Netball have both already ruled themselves out.

Netball Tasmania has expressed a strong interest - just weeks after an AFL licence was handed to the state - only for politics to break out, threatening construction of the stadium - a key element of the team.

While the JackJumpers have hit the ground in the NBL, they are one of only two successful case study of a professional sporting franchises succeeding in Tasmania, and only one of those is long term (the Hobart Hurricanes).

Ryan, in a press conference last week, explained that the existing player contracts last until September 30, so that will be the "hard" deadline for a new CPA.

The CPA will span at least one year, but potentially three, to the end of the current broadcast deal. Until then, Netball Australia is locked into an eight team, ten player competition, and there can't be any massive structural changes until after 2026.

Ryan also explained that Netball Australia's "strong preference" is to have the eighth licence in place to sign that CPA, but there are a couple of moving parts for that to happen.

The Eighth Team

A bidding process will need to take place, and then Netball Australia will evaluate the bids and award the license to one of those bids.

Whispers are that it will be a Victorian team, probably Melbourne-based. There are a few clues to this.

Firstly, Ryan admitted that Foxtel would be a key stakeholder in the decision to award the eighth licence. A different location, that required a new stadium to be rigged up, or a broadcast and commentary team to be moved weekly (or semi-permanently) would be a significant expense for the broadcaster - and not something they forecast when doing the financials on the current deal.

Secondly, Netball Victoria issued a statement last week supporting multiple teams in Melbourne.

"We believe having two Victorian-based SSN teams is important if we are to develop and retain the best netballers in this stage and continue to encourage grassroots participation. Victoria has the depth of players, officials and administrators, as well as the passionate netball fanbase, to enable two SSN teams to compete successfully, on and off the court."

While some netball fans may bristle at Victoria getting another netball team, given the last netball team in Victoria just handed back its licence (in unceremonious circumstances), Netball Victoria's support would make a big difference.

Netball Victoria released a second statement this week, emphasising its desire to have a second team.

“We are ready to take on an additional SSN licence and have proven form to set up and build a successful team,” the statement said.

In the statement, Netball Victoria CEO Andrea Pearman made strong comments about a second SSN team.

“Our state is a netball stronghold, and we are prepared to stand behind our conviction that two Victorian-based teams is the best outcome for the competition and the future of our sport.
Two SSN teams in Victoria are essential to ensuring a strong pathway for our state’s elite players, coaches, umpires and administrators, while inspiring young players and encouraging grassroots participation. The new team would ideally be based in regional Victoria, where netball has a huge grassroots base.”

Netball Victoria is already represented in the SSN by the Melbourne Vixens, one of the competition’s premier teams. The Vixens are performing strongly on and off the court in 2023, achieving record revenues, membership figures and home game attendances.

Access to grassroots, fans and infrastructure that goes with being part of Netball Victoria would help launch a new club - just look at the Giants. As part of Netball NSW, the Giants have had the support to become a competition heavyweight, and a success, on and off the court.

Tasmania looms as the other key location to have publicly expressed interest, but Ryan was adamant in her press conference that there were other viable options.

While the saying may be "location, location, location", that may not apply here. On a short timeframe, the team will have to be set up for the CPA to be signed. It will have to have the people in place to be able to sign the CPA, and attract players to sign contracts to play with the team.

That means, first and foremost, three appointments have to be made, made quickly, and made right. A CEO (to run the club), a GM of netball or head of high performance (to run the team), and a head coach (to manage the team).

With those three key pillars in place, the rest of the pieces will need to come together incredibly quickly, but those pieces can be signed at the same time as the players. That's roles like in teams working on commercial (finance, membership, partnerships), high performance (medical, strength and conditioning, analysis), engagement (media, matchday, operations).

And at the same time, the team has to come up with a name, a logo and a brand. But all of those things can come together after the first three key people in place.

The Players

And all that comes with the stage set for a bitter dispute for the next CPA. Ryan has lost the relationship with the players. Multiple players have, behind closed doors, echoed frustration that the current Netball Australia administration has repeatedly promised to consult with the players on key issues, only not to act on that promise.

The divide between the administration and the players, pointed out by the Collingwood statement, will be a challenge for Ryan to bridge. To get the CPA signed, it will take a monumental effort.

While the players are aware of the financial state of Netball Australia, also are looking for a pay rise, after their wages have not kept up with inflation, or the explosion of growth in women's sport.

So the question will be - how do they find a compromise? The players shouldn't have to take a pay cut in real terms, falling behind other Australian sports, but the league can't afford to pay them a significant pay rise.

And the relationship is in a dire state, after the resignation last week of the Chair of the Players' Association, Geoff Parmenter. While not an operational role, the significance of the departure is a reflection of the lack of goodwill between the two sides, and that even high-level relationships are strained.

While the players may be able to discuss futures with their existing teams, and potentially Collingwood players, there are ripple effects to any proposal that stops players at the seven continuing teams looking at their futures with other teams.

If you’re a player at a continuing club, and your club commits to signing a Collingwood player at your position, that puts you at risk. It opens the door to the United Kingdom, and New Zealand, and puts the pressure on the current player. But to allow clubs to make agreements with their current players leaves Collingwood out in the cold until the new team is finalised.

The point is, there is no great solution, which is why an eighth team, and a CPA are matters of urgency. They have to be the lead priorities for Netball Australia.

The Lynchpin

Kelly Ryan would be forgiven for wanting to take a breath, after seemingly going from crisis to crisis since taking on the role (2021 hub season, 2021 CPA, 2022 financial struggles, Hancock saga, and now this). Despite all that, this may prove to be her biggest challenge.

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For this to work, she will have to pull together a new team, in just a few short weeks, and make them a competitive side in just a few short months. She will have to thaw relationships that have gone so cold that you could put them in a cone and sprinkle them with chocolate. She will have to do it all on a shoestring budget, and in doing so, she will face the biggest challenge of all - restoring confidence in her administration and the strategic direction of the sport.

It's going to be a monumental effort, and even a monumental effort may not be enough. Ryan will do her absolute best. Whether it's enough, and whether it works, only time will tell.