Normally when people think of netball, they think of the female sport.
But that is far from the case, with many young boys and men taking up the sport, from juniors to social both mixed netball and a stand-alone men’s league netball all the way to the international stage.
International men’s netball has burst onto the scene of late, with the first prime-time match taking place between the Silver Ferns and the NZ men’s team before the Silver Ferns’ successful World Cup campaign in 2019.
More recently in the Cadbury Series, against both the Silver Ferns and the Ferns B squad.
England’s first professionally run male netball club, Knights Men’s Netball, has taken off, raising the profile for men’s netball across the UK.
The Inner Sanctum sat down with Lewis Keeling, current General Manager and co-founder of the club.
Knights came about due to a lack of pathway for the men’s game over in England and after playing mixed netball for many years, there was no way forward for the male players to progress their game.
After many years of watching their female counterparts following the pathway to the Super League, they decided to forge their own pathway.
“We thought we could try, and push men’s netball forward a little bit more and see how that went,” Mr Keeling told The Inner Sanctum.
“There were seven of us keen to form a team who had played international indoor netball level and we thought this would be a good starting point. So, we launched the club and started to promote our initial trial.”
The trial was even more of a success then they could have imagined, especially with the lack of social media coverage that the Knights had received, being such a new club.
Which proved that there was place for men’s netball in the UK.
“We hoped to get 14 players along to the trial, so we’d at least get enough for a game,” he said.
“When we got 36 guys down to the first trial from all over the country, we were pretty happy with that.
“We managed to get enough for our first squad and enough for a start to a secondary squad as well.
“From there the games started immediately and through our friends in many female clubs we were able to keep this progression going and keep building our brand and the interest in our club.”
Within the first few months of the Knights existence, they were on an upwards trajectory to something truly special.
“We were progressing well on that front, then came our big breakthrough moment.
“There’s the women’s Super League tournament every year called their British Fast5 All Star Championships, we got in touch with the organisers to see whether there might be a space between the matches for a short men’s exhibition game.
“We had had only had one exhibition before that, against a regional side (New Cambell Regional), and we had done pretty well in that one.
“About three weeks beforehand, they said yes, we’ve got a space in between the semi-final and the final.
That’s when the crowds got to capacity (7000 people) and people are going to see us, and men’s netball is going to get some real exposure.” Lewis Said.
The response from the game was amazing, with the England Netball community welcoming them with open arms.
“We were really well looked after by the netball community, which is just awesome,” Lewis said.
After the Fast5 game, a number of Super League teams came knocking, and Knights came up against some really tough opposition.
“Following the Fast5 tournament we were invited to travel up to Manchester to take on Manchester Thunder in a pre-season exhibition game,” Lewis said.
“This was pre-season for the 2019 season and they obviously went on to win it that year. “With that in mind and given that that was our first ever Super League sevens game in front of a big crowd we thought we did alright; I think we lost by 12 overall.
“After the Thunder game the invitations started rolling in and that first season, we went on to play every single Super League club apart from Sirens, and many of them more than once, for example, London Pulse we played eight times, Team Bath three times, so on.
“This was all within our first year as a club and we couldn’t believe the way it had progressed so quickly.”
The New Zealand men’s side have lobbied for the inclusion in the ANZ championship, but for Knights, that’s not a road they want to go down.
“The idea for us is not to encroach the current women’s game; the idea is to set up and celebrate the men’s game and netball as a whole,” Lewis said.
“I think the next step for us would be a national men’s league, there’s no reason why that couldn’t sit alongside the Super League, as two separate entities contributing to netball’s progression.”
The pre-season games between Super League teams and the Knights have been nothing short of awesome for the game of netball, but for Lewis and the Knights, the Super League is simply too good to be changed.
“In my opinion, we have no right to be playing those teams in full competition,” Lewis said.
“They are incredible teams and they’ve given us every opportunity to train and play against them in pre-season and exhibitions and I believe that’s more than enough.
“I don’t see why you would change a format which is, in my opinion, so good already in the Super League and why you wouldn’t just create a men’s league that could run alongside it and have more opportunity to contribute to netball as a whole.”
With many nations raising the profile of men’s netball on an international scale, it hopefully won’t be too long until we see some of the world’s best male netballers face off in the Commonwealth Games.
The Men’s Netball World Cup was due to be played in Perth this year, but was called off due to COVID-19.
“I can only speak on what we saw in the run up to the World Cup that was supposed to happen this year (if not for COVID-19),” Lewis said.
“There were a lot of nations who were looking to bring teams to that.
“I won’t name names, because it’s not public knowledge but it was certainly in double figures and a lot of them were Commonwealth countries.
“If that continues to be the case, I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t be introduced.”
Despite the recent emergence of men’s netball, it still hasn’t grown to its full potential, and Lewis said there’s ways to do it.
“For me the key is the people who are passionate about the game, building it,” he said.
“I look at what we’ve managed to do in the last two years, and I think it was hard work and it took a lot of time but the engagement from the netball community has been fantastic throughout it.
“It’s definitely achievable, the players are out there, people are keen to play.
“All you need is one person who’s not going to just sit there and complain about not having the structure already set up for them and just go out there and actually do it themselves. “That’s exactly what we’ve done and what anyone else can do too.”
It won’t be too long until we see men’s netball become the norm especially on an international scale.