We were intrigued to see the news this week that England Netball has announced a partnership with England Men’s and Mixed Netball Association (Emmna) to help grow the men’s game in England.
Fran Connolly, the chief executive at England Netball said: “We recognise the brilliant progress made in growing the male game,” as the organisation revealed that this new partnership will concentrate on creating more participation opportunities.
It will also see an England development squad play two leading men’s sides in Nottingham on 4 and 5 December.
“Supporting Emmna demonstrates an intent from England Netball to take the game to new audiences,” Connolly said, adding that the partnership was a “concrete step” in increasing male participation in the sport and supporting World Netball’s intent for the sport to be included in the Brisbane Olympics in 2032.
Emmna was founded in 2019 by a group of volunteers to develop men’s and mixed netball for all ages in England, with the hope of establishing a pathway for men and boys at grassroots, national and international level and there are now 20 clubs with established men’s and mixed netball teams in England, with almost 20,000 men playing the sport.
Ahead of the news MyLondon tracked down one of the growing number of male netball players in the capital. “I’d never really had the opportunity to play [netball]. As a guy at school, you played football – and I was never particularly good at it,” Stanley Ellerby-English told MyLondon.
But, he said, in 2014, his company set up a mixed netball game at Powerplay’s Liverpool Street venue and he went along to try it out. And, seven years later, he’s still playing at least once a week.
“I think it’s a friendly game to play…It’s a lot more relaxed about learning the rules, getting involved, having a good time. It’s a very welcoming environment – but it’s also good fun.”
“It’s an intensely collaborative sport…There’s no room for individuals to dominate the game – you need the whole team.
“It really does feel like you win or you lose as a team. I think that’s what I really, really love about it.”
There are many other Londoners who share Stanley’s passion for the sport, and that number is growing all the time.
Charlotte Ullathorne, the organisation’s chief customer and marketing officer, revealed that participation in Powerplay’s leagues increased by 233% between April and October this year.
Powerplay now runs 30 netball leagues across the capital, with 2500 players currently on their books. Most players are 18-40 and female – but male participation is increasing fast.
“One of the biggest opportunities for us which makes us excited is that growth in male participation,” Ullathorne told MyLondon.
Kerri Wildego, the organisation’s League Services Executive, added: “I’ve definitely had a lot of mixed teams come through weeks over the last few weeks – [the league at] Liverpool Street is completely full, with waiting lists for mixed netball…It’s constantly growing.”
There are mixed netball leagues and teams appearing all over London and beyond, including London Giants, who won the England Men’s and Mixed Netball Association championships this year.
There is also a men’s-only netball organisation called Knights Men’s Netball, which has been going since 2018.
Their managing director Lewis Keeling told MyLondon that the team started out playing mixed netball, but found that there weren’t the same opportunities for progression for men as there were for their female teammates.
“Our female athletes were playing through the Premier League and the Superleague, but there was nowhere for male athletes to go,” he says.
Knights now have three squads of 16 players and last week, they played against the England national team the Roses.
At the EMMNA National Championships in August, there were eight all-male teams, compared with six mixed teams.
“People call it a girls’ sport, but actually, they wouldn’t call women’s rugby, women’s football or women’s cricket a girl’s sport – they’d call it women’s sport…It diminishes it for no reason,” said Keeling.
“I think previously the taboo and the stereotypes held people back, but now, seeing men’s netball taking off in New Zealand and Australia, as it has done for years…means that guys are feeling more comfortable playing. As they should be – it’s just a sport like any other.”
Both Keeling and Ullathorne agree that the stereotyping over what sports boys and girls play begins at school. According to research conducted by True Education almost half of secondary schools do not offer netball for boys.
In Australia, however, boys are encouraged to play at school so many of the male players who come to Powerplay are Australian.
“If there’s lots of Aussie or Kiwi accents on the opposition, it’s a real sign that it’s going to be a tough game. They’ve just got a much more developed game over there,” says Ellerby-English.
Wildego reckons that the biggest challenge is just getting men on the court in the first place. “I think as soon as they play once, they want to play every week,” says Wildego. “They’re hooked.”
The increasing visibility of netball on a national level is also helping men take an interest. England’s national netball team are currently third in the International Netball Federation World Rankings, and won Commonwealth gold in 2018.
Sky Sports has renewed its deal to show the Netball Superleague and viewing numbers continue to grow. And the British Army also launched its first netball team last week, as Keeling observes. “If you can get the armed services involved —something that can seem quite macho— that also helps to break the stereotype.”