The Giants and the Fever are two of the three teams in a position to potentially win the major semi final, even though it won't mean hosting the Grand Final. Image: Emma Dayan

Netball Australia relocates grand final and reveals more trouble

Netball Australia has announced that the Grand Final will be held in Perth this year, in a decision driven by the dire financial position of the game.

Netball Australia announced today that the 2022 Suncorp Super Netball grand final will be held in Perth, at RAC Arena. On the same day, CEO Kelly Ryan announced that Netball Australia is in dire financial straits and that this decision was part of a commercial strategy to keep the sport afloat.

The announcement appears to have also opened the cracks between the stakeholders for netball, and with money on the line, the spirit of cooperation from the signed CBA less than a year ago appears out the window.

The money (or lack of)

Netball Australia's financial position is in deep trouble. Before COVID-19, the game was not building a rainy day fund, and when COVID-19 hit, it rained and poured.

Netball Australia's 2020 season was a $2.8 million loss for the financial year, and earlier on Wednesday, it announced to key stakeholders, that the 2021 financial year was a $4.4 million loss. On top of the $7.2m loss over two years, Netball Australia has bank debts of approximately $4 million, due and payable at the end of next year.

As a result, Netball Australia's auditors have issued a 'Going Concern' notice regarding Netball Australia, a sign of the disastrous financial position of the sport. This notice means that Netball Australia's auditors are concerned about the ongoing financial position of the organisation, and its ability to meet its financial requirements.

Without a serious financial turnaround, the future of the game is in trouble in Australia. The governing body could possibly be rendered insolvent, which would throw the game's operations at a professional, and grassroots level, to the wind.

Kelly Ryan has been the CEO of Netball Australia for 10 months and continues to be forced to defend cut-throat decisions made to maintain Netball Australia's competition and financials.

She spoke to the media this afternoon about the decision to relocate the Grand Final to Perth.

"When I started almost 10 months ago, at Netball, Australia I realised very quickly just how challenging the financial situation of this sport is in for all sorts of reasons," Ryan explained.

"Those ones which I won't go into, it was really compelling to me that the sport was actually in a lot of trouble. Notwithstanding two years of significant COVID impact, which continued to completely disrupt the sport that has absolutely exacerbated those financial issues that were faced.

"The context as well in 2020, we did provide some financial relief to our member organisations to the tune of $2.4 million, which means they didn't need to make a contribution to Netball Australia.

"As a result of all of the historical financial context, the board absolutely charged me with making the necessary decisions to reverse Netball Australia's financial position, and make sure that we can continue to be an incredibly successful and high profile sport and continue to raise the bar at every opportunity."

Ryan continued, revealing the stark position that Netball Australia now finds itself in.

"Today, we released our financial results for 2021, which highlighted that we have a $4.4 million loss. And as a result of that, we have almost $4 million in loans now owing to financial institutions, that is a significant amount of money hanging over a sport of our size.

Kelly ryan

"We also have now what is called 'Going Concern' Notice which is from our auditors, which highlights just the sensitivities of NA's financial position at this particular moment. So we do not take this lightly. We are incredibly mindful of the ability that Netball Australia needs to be strong in order for netball in Australia to be strong."

The financial results are for the year prior to the latest broadcast deal, and Suncorp's reinvestment of five years of naming rights for the competition, so it's likely that the financials for the coming year are not as poor as the last few, but it is equally likely that this year will not have recouped all of the debt.

And so Netball Australia has taken matters into their own hands to try and protect the financial future of the game.

The season

Netball Australia's season has been characterised by its short timeline. With Commonwealth Games before the usual season end, the 2022 Suncorp Super Netball season was brought forward and condensed.

The season kicked off amid a spike in COVID-19 cases, and the first few rounds were characterised by groups of players missing games in health and safety protocols.

Ryan explained that it was only once that had started to settle, that Netball Australia considered the Grand Final relocation plan.

"The huge focus on the start of the home and away season and we did face a number of challenges. We then had to turn our attention to what was next, what next opportunity did we need to focus on to be able to make sure that we could continue to shore up Netball Australia's finances. 

"So midway through this season, we started engaging in conversations with a number of governments around Australia on the opportunity to potentially relocate the grand final.

"We did inform the teams when we first decided to run down this path. Teams were notified of our intent to explore this as an option.

"As soon as the decision was ratified by Netball Australia’s board, they (teams) were the next conversation that we had, to make them aware of that decision, and that was very late last week."

The Adelaide Thunderbirds and NSW Swifts played off in a midweek match as part of the condensed Super Netball season. Image: Dani Brown

The decision to inform stakeholders from there, once the deal was done, has been a polarising one, as the Netball Player's Association detailed in a statement shortly after the announcement.

"The players are devastated - both by the decision and the way it has been handled," the statement said.

"It was extremely disappointing to learn of such a major decision after the fact, and yet again not to have been consulted in the process."

Earlier in the week, players were reportedly informed that the Grand Final was likely to be relocated to Perth. Less than two days later, the deal was announced by Netball Australia, and the players were not impressed by this rapid change of events.

"But it was even more distressing to then be deliberately misled by Netball Australia, about the status of the decision and the nature of their engagement with us."

Australian Netball Player's Association statement

"It demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of why we play, and what we have sacrificed," the statement continued.

The deal

Netball Australia, as a result of its financial position, have announced a plan to take its flagship match, the grand final on the road.

"We are the first board in Australia to commit to a rotating Grand Final for all future years to come, which is something that no other sport in Australia does," Ryan said.

Netball Australia has agreed to host the 2022 Suncorp Super Netball Grand Final in Perth, on Sunday 3 July, at 5 pm local time (7 pm AEST). The move pits the marquee match against a Fremantle Dockers AFL home game, and against the major television networks in a major prime time slot.

It has beenreportedthat the deal is worth $300,000 in cash, and up to $650,000 in total benefits.

The deal has been announced on the eve of Round 13 of the 2022 Super Netball season, throwing the balance of the competition into chaos. The Melbourne Vixens are currently on top of the ladder and are in the box seat to have a home semi-final, and by extension, are favourites to win that at home.

In previous years, winning that home semi-final secured a home grand final. But not this year, and at the late notice, as the West Coast Fever will have a home grand final if they make it, and otherwise it will be at the neutral RAC Arena in Perth.

Ryan acknowledged the effect of the decision on the Melbourne Vixens.

"I do appreciate the sensitivities about this decision for [the Vixens]. We don’t take that lightly, and we will continue to work with them and we want to work with them to understand the harsh realities of why decisions like this have absolutely been made so late in the season, and we don’t take these decisions lightly by any stretch of the imagination."

Netball Australia will give $100,000 prize money to the winning club, and $25,000 to the grand final loser today.

Jo Harten played a starring role for the Giants in last year's Grand Final, and has them in position to qualify again. Image: Emma Dayan

Kelly Ryan indicated that the prize money will be split, with half of the amount to be allocated to the players, and half of it to be allocated to the clubs for their discretion.

This grand final will also be the first time that players and clubs receive a prize for winning it. It raises a number of questions about the deal, and about the financial state.

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The fallout

Netball Australia has crushing debts, as Ryan detailed. It has a cash inflow coming from this deal, and by the reported sum, almost half of that amount will flow immediately out from Netball Australia to the grand finals.

And the payment to the players and associations has not smoothed the issue over, as the scathing statement by the Player's Association suggests.

"The professional Netball Players in Suncorp Super Netball have called for a change in culture in Netball Australia, in the wake of the organisation's unilateral, rushed, late-season, and fundamental change of the competition playing arrangements, and the manner in which the players have been treated before and after the decision."

"The players commit our heart and soul to our sport, and its promotion and development - commercial and community. Netball Australia tells us that we are the "Game's most important asset", and a priority "partner". And yet they treat us as the lowest priority.

Australian Netball Player's Association statement

"Either the behaviours must change, or the people must change. we want to work with a netball Australia that understands that if they want to grow the game, and they want the players to be valuable partners in that venture, then they need to change the way they engage with us.

"What netball Australia does not seem to understand is that one of the best things about playing netball is that the sport attracts and develops strong, smart, independent thinking women. We want Netball Australia to recognise the great talent - on and off the court - that we have in our playing group and be treated with respect and trust."

And so, there is a question about where to now?

Netball Australia is in a tough financial spot. The Diamonds are under pressure to win back Commonwealth Games gold. Netball Australia has put the Players' Association offside, and now it's just 12 months before the CBA ends, and a new CBA will have to be signed.

The organisation will now have to work on building the relationships back with the Players' Association to go forward. It won't be as simple as reaching into the pocket and offering more money. That much is already clear.

It will require Netball Australia to make a change in the way that governance and decision making works. There should be a player's voice brought into the board discussion, brought inside the circle of commercial-in-confidence as part of these negotiations.

These decisions obviously cannot be public among all players, but an advocate for the players, and their point of view, is a key step for Netball Australia to continue to build the sport's future.

This isn't the first time that Netball Australia has made a major seismic decision at the last minute, without consulting the players. Few will have forgotten the introduction of the Super Shot in the weeks leading into the 2020 Super Netball season.

And again now, just weeks before the decision takes effect, it appears that the players have been kept out of the loop.

Netball has transparency issues up and down, from the major board decisions shaping the future of the sport, to the weekly ins and outs of the squads, based on injuries.

At some point, for the sport to progress, it needs to fix the transparency issues. Players need to be kept in the loop, as the biggest driver of revenue, and the actual essence of the game.

Fans, while not the first priority in terms of transparency, deserve to be treated with respect, given that they are the ones with the wallets that open to keep the game alive. And right now, that contribution is as important as its ever been.

Kelly Ryan set out how dire Netball Australia's financial problems are today. When asked about the potential for the organisation to become insolvent, and administrators appointed, Ryan vehemently denied that reality.

"Not if we keep working the way that we do," she said. If we keep working incredibly proactively and we continue to find ways to reinvigorate our sport and our business and be bold, then there is no concern.

"We will work our way through this, and it just means that we sometimes have to make decisions that may not be the most popular decisions, but we stand by the decisions that we make, and we just hope that our fans can back us in to keep doing what we need to do to ensure that netball is successful, and not just surviving."

Even in that statement, Ryan acknowledges the need to have fans and players on board, and yet sometimes, actions speak louder than words. That problem stares Netball Australia squarely in the face.

How will the organisation respond?