Opinion Article: - Steven Curr -President QLD Suns Men's & Mixed Netball Association
I saw last week's Men’s State of Origin Series as a significant leap forward for the QLD Suns and another crucial step forward for Men’s Netball. These last two years, I have witnessed a distinct change in the air for Men’s Netball. Until quite recently I have found it difficult to say it aloud. Could it be that Men’s Netball is finally stepping into the light?
What is different this time? Let me explain my position.
QLD first men's netball association (Queensland All Men's Netball Association) or (QAMNA) started in 1994 before branding itself as the QLD Suns. Men's netball in QLD over this time flourished until it folded in 2001. It was not until 2009, thanks to the Victorian Men’s and Mixed Netball Association (VMMNA) that the Queensland Men’s and Mixed Netball Association (QMMNA) emerged before reviving the Suns brand to become the QLD Suns we know today.
In 2008 QMMNA had approximately 26 members and managed to scrape together a two-team squad to compete at the National Championships for the first time in a decade.
The years following saw the infant QLD Suns find its feet and I distinctly remember the membership grappling to find men to play Netball, particularly under the age of 25.
With no grassroots or competition pathways or leagues to identify talent, there was no brand or identity to attract players and traditional netball circles were seemingly closed.
The hard working and committed group of volunteers who were trying to build men's Netball in QLD had to be innovative.
I can recall one strategy as simple and direct; scouting all sporting codes to identifying talented athletes and convince them to give netball a shot.
The sales pitches were many and varied. “Never played before? Don’t worry, you’ll be great!” “Transport issues I hear. No worries, I can do pick up and drop off for training.” “Anything else I can help with?” “Is your brother just as tall as you? Great!!! We’ll see you both there on Sunday”.
We had some success and with word starting to spread the QLD Suns started to take shape and grow over the next 8 years (2008-2015). During this time I couldn't be prouder of the achievements the QLD Suns have accomplished in such a brief period of time. The association representative teams had grown from 2 to 7 and the success started to come with with 3 national titles, 2 held by our Open Men’s (2014/15) and 1 with our our Under 23’s (2010). Later another 3 x national titles would come home to QLD with our Open Mixed Team winning in 2018 & 2019 and the Open Men's winning in 2019.
2016 was the first time I sensed that change in the air. In October the association held it’s annual team selection trial days and I distinctly remember at some point during the day I became conscious of the actual number of people we had signing up to play not to mention the incredibly talented netballers that had turned up seeking selection.
As an involuntary smile on my face widened, it became instantly clear that the years of belief and perseverance had eventually created that undeniable sense of momentum that has continued each year.
From 2017 to present our membership numbers have organically increased each year. Players, coaches and supporter were now seeking us out. We also had become affiliated with Netball Queensland and we started to get a lot of inquiries from boys as young as 12 reaching out wanting to play netball, wanting to play for the Suns and wanting to be the next Junior Levi.
It was truly inconceivable that not too long ago we were crying out for players, and now we had the opposite problem.
Over the past 3 years I have had the privilege to speak at several netball events, conferences etc to educate and discuss Men’s netball.
I always ask the audience to raise their hands if they have heard of the QLD Suns. I am happy to report, with each passing event, I see most of the room with their hands in the air and showing us support.
We now had so much momentum and visibility that it was hard to imagine the QLD Suns not having a place in the QLD netball landscape.
In 2020 the inescapable impacts of COVID-19 have been felt in every aspect in the way Australians live their lives. At QLD Suns, we were determined to create, facilitate and support all opportunities for our members to remain engaged and participate in our sport as much as possible. By working together on what was possible we have successfully had several weekends, filled with team training sessions over multiple locations. But the most unexpected and successful outcome was the recent Men’s State of Origin series, hosted by the QLD Suns last weekend.
Men's Netball NSW (MNNSW) floated the concept and we jumped at it. Initially, the concept was going to be a small-scale event and provide essential match practice in preparation for Nationals. Our State of Origin, while delivering on the initial goals, far exceeded everyone’s expectations and propelled QLD Suns and the games of Men’s netball forward into new and unfamiliar territory.
This propulsion was due, in large part, to the incredible support and expertise provided by Netball Queensland, along with structured plans and their foundation belief in growing the game.
Without Netball Queensland and the role they played, we would not have even come close to the 1,500 that attended the games or reaching the approximate 39,000 spectators that tuned in for the live stream games from all over globe. Our QLD Suns social media platform followers increased by over 1000 followers and in the two weeks leading up to and including the event saw 71,000 visits to the QLD Suns Facebook page.
A big thank you must also go to MNNSW for making this event possible.
We have momentum. So, what comes next?
Storyboard Productions have been filming and interviewing players for a documentary on Men's netball to be released later this year. The opportunity to participate had me reflecting on my own journey in netball, which started with my sisters in the backyard when I was 6. This brutally ended when I was 12 and it was not until the QLD Suns started back in 2007 that the opportunity to play netball reopened for me at the age of 27.
I am so grateful for the QLD Suns and the opportunities it has provided me and all the other players over the years. I would like to say a big thank you to the many people who continually gave up their time to ensure the QLD Suns thrived. There have been many contributors, but without question Caroline Sweet and Karen Newman need to be mentioned. Their years of contribution and sacrifice have shaped the association in important ways that often go unnoticed. To everyone who has contributed, it is because of you that the QLD Suns are in the position they are today.
I hesitate to say that it seems men playing netball is no longer uncommon or even unusual. So, while we can see the extraordinary ‘Phoenix from the ashes’ journey of the QLD Suns and we know our mission is to keep shining a light on Men’s Netball, what comes next? How do we accommodate that gap from Boy’s to Men’s teams?
As I mentioned before, I was devastated when at 12 years of age I was told I could no longer play the sport I so dearly loved.
I tried every other sport imaginable. But, as all netball players know, you will not find another team sport to challenge you both physically and mentally at such a lightning fast pace.
But it was also a greater loss than that. I also mourned the loss of opportunity, belonging, and community. This hit home to me last week when a simple Facebook post from the QLD Firebirds supporting the State of Origin event referred to the QLD Suns as “our” men's team. Our. That one word said it all.
We still have a long way to go. We are far from where we need to be, and I realise one event does not mean we are a mainstream men’s sport. However, we need to leverage our exposure and create more netball opportunities for boys to play netball to ensure QLD Suns have longevity. We need to continue to be visible and demonstrate that netball is a sport for everyone. Mostly we need to be conscious of the message we are sending to the community. A message that sporting opportunities are no longer limited by your gender.
Grabbing a hold of that momentum we introduced the Rising Suns Program, specifically designed for boys aged 12-16, which featured in the Courier Mail. This program was built to ensure that those young boys who start out playing netball can continue to be a part of the netball community, at any age.
It is not lost on me that I am a man agitating for recognition and equal opportunity for men's netball in one of the only sports that has given females a platform to be recognised and celebrated as athletes. It is obvious to me women have been leading the way in the fight for equality and recognition in all sports, therefore, we owe so much to those women who have lead the way in changing community binary attitudes toward gender and sport and continually remind us that equality is indivisible. Thank you for showing us it can be done.
It has also been women in a large part that have championed men's netball, lead many initiatives and opened many doors. These women understood the importance of inclusion and believed netball couldn't reach it's full potential in the public eye with 50% of the population relegated to the sidelines. This sentiment is now a reality in traditional male dominating sports codes like, Rugby League, AFL and cricket with the emergence of female competitions in past 4 years.
So yes, from my perspective, the response for the State of Origin Series is a leap forward for the QLD Suns and Men's Netball, priming us to emerge from the sporting shadows. Whats changed? We have. The momentum that we currently have much like one the QLD Suns had in 90's is now positioned at a time where community attitudes have evolved and ready to embrace athletes in all sporting codes irrespective of gender.
I now look to the young boys coming through the ranks. Jack Jordan, Jordan Webb and Nash Hosking to name a few who at only 17 are showing immense talent. In 10 years, these boys will be 27. The same age I was when the QLD Suns took its first steps and gave me my netball opportunities. I cannot wait to see where our sport will be in 10 years. The opportunities it will provide these boys and how they will contribute to its legacy. The future looks bright.
I recommend if you get some time this week to sit back and reflect on how far we have come. And just like me, I am sure you will be amazed and excited for our future netballing generations.
The Australian Men's & Mixed Netball Championship kick off on July 4 in Adelaide. Select games will be live steamed so stay tuned of more QLD Suns netball action.