Diamonds' captain Liz Watson has had to work hard on and off the court this week. Image: Ariana Silver

Netball's deal with Hancock falls over - what's next?

Netball Australia's deal with Hancock Prospecting is dead in the water. What does it mean for the struggling sport?

A week of turmoil and discussion has come to a climax with dramatic scenes and statements on Saturday afternoon. Edge of the Crowd breaks down what it means for the sport, and for all parties involved.

What has happened

On Saturday afternoon, it was announced that Hancock Prospecting would be withdrawing its sponsorship with the Australian Diamonds. Reportedly worth $15 million over four years, the deal will now last just four months, as Hancock Prospecting offers to provide enough time for Netball Australia to assess its options.

The withdrawal comes after a week of public discussion centred around the Diamonds' reported hesitation about wearing the Hancock Prospecting logo on the playing dress.

Noongar woman Donnell Wallam is expected to make her debut for the Diamonds next week against the English Roses, but multiple members of the Diamonds' playing group, including historical figures, expressed concerns about the sponsorship (Wallam has not made any public comment on the matter).

Sharon Finnan-White, one of two indigenous women to have played for the Diamonds to date, and Sharni Norder, who was a former champion for the Diamonds, both expressed concerns about Netball Australia partnering with Hancock Prospecting.

Talk of the sponsorship has been in the news all week, and Diamonds' coach Stacey Marinkovich was quizzed on it after the Diamonds' win over the Silver Ferns in Melbourne on Wednesday night.

"There’s outside noise, nobody can underestimate nor understand the connection that is within our high-performance group," Marinkvocih said.

"We are very proud to represent Netball Australia, we are very proud to be in the uniform. We’re very good at having good, collaborative conversations to shape the direction that we want to continue to take the sport and how we play the game.

"Whilst everyone else has got a lot of noise outside, the unity that’s within."

Diamonds player Kate Moloney agreed on Wednesday night.

"I think there’s been, there is a lot of outside noise, but I think as a playing group, as a Diamonds collective, with our support staff, we’ve been really strong together inside.

"We’ll continue to do that, continue to get to a resolution and hopefully that will be really soon."

How we got here

It's been widely reported that Netball Australia is under significant financial stress, and has already faced a serious bid from a private equity group for funding. That bid was withdrawn after the private equity group felt that Netball Australia didn't properly engage with their bid.

That bid was for $6.5m, with $4.5m paid to take over Netball Australia and its debts, and $1,000,000 invested in the sport each year for the next two years.

The leader of that bid, Matt Berriman, who is the chair of Mental Health Australia, took to Twitter when the deal with Hancock Prospecting was announced to express his frustration.

The termination of this deal leaves Netball Australia's financial position in a precarious spot. The organisation has somewhere in the realm of $4.4m in bank loans owing, due later this year.

It was announced just three and a half weeks ago that Hancock Prospecting would be sponsoring the Diamonds as a "principal partner", with a lucrative long-term deal. The deal was later revealed to be around $15m over four years.

While the Hancock Prospecting sponsorship was specifically and directly for the Australian Diamonds, and not to cover the debt that Netball Australia owes, the last financial statements published by Netball Australia reported that the Diamonds cost $2.1m for that year.

The ability to cover the cost of the Diamonds program makes a huge difference to Netball Australia, especially with the Diamonds' players due to sign a new Collective Bargaining Agreement imminently.

Losing the Hancock Prospecting sponsorship means that that hole is no longer filled, and the money for the Diamonds has to come from somewhere (probably Netball Australia's coffers - what is left in them).

Where to now?

The short answer is - back to the drawing board.

Netball Australia will need to find a way to keep the lights on with their finances because it appears like the other sponsorships currently on board won't cover it. The big bank loans reportedly come due later this year, but there may be scope to have the loans extended to keep Netball Australia from insolvency.

The other alternative is going to be an investment of some kind. Private equity groups have shown some interest (like Matt Berriman's group), and there may be other corporate sponsors who have an interest in supporting netball, but there are going to be some serious questions that have to be answered before that.

Netball Australia has historically had problems getting value for the game. The last broadcast deal (before the current one) injected little value in the game. The Suncorp Super Netball Grand Final was relocated, late in the season, for just a few hundred thousand dollars.

Even the private equity bid essentially valued the sport poorly - paying $4.5m for $4.4m in debt (to cover the debt) leaves very little residual value as the game.

Netball Australia is also in the midst of a governance issue - the Australian Netball Players Association has hardly been supportive of the administration of the sport recently. Jo Weston, President of the Players' Association, has made repeated statements this year that were lukewarm support for administrative decisions at best - such as this statement after the announcement of the SSN Grand Final relocation.

To be clear, Netball Australia's job is not to serve the players of its elite competition - it is responsible for netball at every level of the sport. But to put offside its biggest representatives with repeated decisions this year, that have been reportedly made without consultation has not endeared the administration to the players.

And before any future sponsorship is brought in, this relationship will need to be fixed. The Diamonds are due to sign a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, governing the dynamic of playing for Australia, in the coming months. It will be less than 12 months before the next Super Netball CBA is signed.

What we learned this week

There have been a few big ideas to come out of the discussion about the sponsorship by Hancock Prospecting over the past few days.

Firstly, what Netball Australia learned this week - is the importance of having the players onside. It is not hard to imagine that if relationships between the administration and the players were warmer, any issues raised by the Diamonds in relation to Hancock Prospecting would have been raised internally, dealt with, and we all would have moved on.

Netball fans, followers and administrators learned this week, that sitting at the same table as the "major sports" in Australia (football codes, cricket) comes with complexity like sponsorships that aren't all sparkling and simple.

These issues will only continue as Netball Australia fights for its financial survival, and to grow the sport. Netball is Australia's biggest female participation team sport - and has a growing mixed and men's participation group too.

And everyone is learning that Netball Australia is going to have to find a new sponsor. It won't be easy, with the remnants of the Hancock Prospecting sponsorship still sitting around, but a new sponsor or a financial injection of some kind is needed.

What's next for Netball Australia?

Only Netball Australia knows.