Among the many factors driving the meteoric rise of England Netball, the role of broadcaster Sky Sports cannot be overlooked.
It’s a relationship that dates back more than a decade, but entered a new era two years ago when production of the sport was brought in-house at Sky’s Osterley headquarters.
Giving the Vitality Superleague and international netball “the full Sky treatment” was the centrepiece of a wider Sky commitment to champion coverage of women’s sport.
But for three Sky Sports staffers, who entered the industry together as runners nearly 20 years ago, the move also meant the realisation of a dream born during lunchtime netball training sessions on the courts of West London.
In the years that passed, producer Leanne McClernon (left), reporter Gail Davis (right) and presenter Di Dougherty (centre) made their names and careers working on sports such as golf, darts and rugby – on Lions Tours, Masters tournaments and Rugby World Cups.
Bringing professional netball to new TV audiences has presented a different challenge, but one that the trio has been determined to treat exactly the same as the big men’s showpieces, with hard-hitting reporting, “edgy” presentation and cutting-edge graphics-based analysis of the on-court action.
Two years on, the results can be seen in soaring viewing figures and advertiser interest, buoyed inevitably by the gold medal success of the recently renamed Vitality Roses at last year’s Commonwealth Games.
With the sport now gearing up for a home INF World Cup in Liverpool, Sport Industry Group went behind the scenes at the recent Vitality Quad Series, held at London’s Copper Box Arena, to find out more about Sky Sports’ plans as host broadcaster of the July event.
In this exclusive interview, McClernon, Davis and Dougherty discuss the rise and rise of netball, and explain how Sky plans to work in an unprecedented way with the BBC – including sharing on-screen talent with the rival broadcaster, which will also screen games – as part of a shared vision to maximise the impact of the Liverpool 2019 tournament.
What was the original rationale for Sky’s investment in netball?
Leanne McClernon (LM): The game has been improving continuously. There was a more of an interest around it – and an interest around women’s sport, which was certainly an area we felt we could improve on and invest in further.
Originally, we started with a production team doing it externally and sending an exec in to oversee it. It was going out on Sky and working quite well. Eventually [the Sky management] decided they wanted to spend a bit more time and production money on it so, two years ago, I took on the role to produce netball and set up a production team; have in-house talent like Gail and Di; and bring in a host of new people to give it a real ‘Sky’ feel.
Gail Davis (GD): It’s also the feeling that if you’re going to put it on, you want to showcase the sport to its absolute best and give it the full Sky treatment. We understand how powerful that can be and how it can drive a sport forward. That’s why we’ve set up the production team this way – to try to elevate the status of [netball].
LM: It’s the approach we’ve taken with so many other sports at Sky, be it golf, cricket or rugby. Netball stands out because it’s the only sport that’s played by just women. So it was one that we could really use as a showcase. Sky wanted to get behind women’s sport and really back something, and here we could make a commitment to the Superleague and all the internationals, building towards the Netball World Cup. Obviously we’ve now won the host broadcast rights for that [Liverpool 2019 event.] We’ve built it up by continually getting behind it week by week.
GD: And there’s a trickle-down effect, because if Sky’s showing it, you’re more likely to get netball footage and stories on things like Sky Sports News and even Sky News now, that you wouldn’t have had before. There are so many different platforms, be it Instagram, Twitter, Sky Sports Women, Sky News, that there’s a capacity for it to grow.
What do you think are the other key drivers behind netball’s current momentum?
LM: Obviously, the [Roses’] Commonwealth gold, which has really put them into the spotlight. They’ve then won all these awards off the back of it, which has made a massive difference and put them in the headlines. It’s meant that everyone’s interested in netball. And for all the women who play netball, they’re going to suddenly start thinking about watching it, so it’s grown and grown in momentum, all kick-started by that Commonwealth win.
And now, suddenly, the sponsors have come too. So we’ve now got Nike, Jaffa, Vitality and even at Sky, we have sponsors calling up because they want that association. So we’ve got a list of sponsors for Sky Netball now, whereas before it was just a couple wanting to work with Sky around netball programming. I’ve got probably six at the moment that I’m talking to.
GD: One of the most telling things is when you see 50-60 kids at the Quad Series now queuing for player autographs. You never saw that this time last year. Ama (Agbeze) was doing some work for us here during the Uganda series, and every time she walked from the bathroom to her seat, she was mobbed by so many people wanting their picture taken with her. It’s so great. When I grew up, sport wasn’t a cool thing for girls. There was nobody who was a role model in terms of being as cool and sassy as this bunch. You definitely notice that change, over the last few months especially.
What can you tell us about your audiences for netball, in terms of both the growth but also who’s watching?
LM: For the England games in this Quad series, we’ve seen a 160%+ increase in viewing figures from last January across two channels, including Sky Sports Mix which is one of our channels that goes out to a wider audience, and our Arena channel too. We’re really excited about that. We’re looking at whether it’s game time or just general interest, but we certainly feel as though we’re working towards getting more viewers for international netball.
GD: This is really where it all starts. Once you’ve captured people’s interest, you hope it trickles down to some of the Superleague games as well.
LM: Last season we saw a 40% year-on-year increase in Superleague viewers, which is, again, huge. But we’ve now also started to see English players returning form the Australian and New Zealand leagues, which will have a big effect. So Serena Guthrie coming back, Ama coming back… These are massive players, who are going to penetrate the Superleague, and who fans can actually go and see at London Pulse and Team Bath games, or else watch live on Sky.
GD: We sat down recently with Mark Evans, who helped to transform rugby in the '90s and is now the chairman of the Netball Superleague. He has got some great ideas to work with Sky to see how we can get more people in – looking across everything from times and rules and players and inputs and how to make it more competitive.
We saw it in 2003 after England won the Rugby World Cup: clubs were full and they were ready for it. What’s brilliant is that, already, we have people like Mark who are thinking six months to a year in advance, so that we can really maximise what the World Cup will bring.
As the UK broadcaster that has championed netball for more than a decade, how did you approach those momentous CWG events, as a non-rightsholder?
LM: Really, seeing [the CWG netball victory] on the BBC was brilliant. With England winning the gold, we could cover the story on Sky Sports News and it means that everything we do subsequently is about how they have got to that status, with these incredible players now returning into the Superleague.
GD: There was such a buzz about it. I remember the morning after, I was up at Loughborough doing lives and they replayed the final at the Netball Centre, with champagne and balloons. That’s how we approached it from an editorial standpoint.
LM: And from a Sky point of view, ok, we didn’t have the rights to it, but then we went straight into Netball Superleague just a week later. So actually it was brilliant for Sky, because we have this commitment to showing a game every single week, so we can tell people: you can see these girls on your TV screen every week. And we’re the only broadcaster that is committing at that level, not just to streaming but as our main event, on our biggest channels.
Going into the World Cup, we’re going to be working with the BBC as tightly as we can so that we can really work together to elevate the sport.
Is cross-promotion with other sports part of your strategy with your netball coverage?
LM: Yes, that’s always part of the strategy at Sky Sports. We’re always looking for opportunities for cross-promotion. We’re going to see an example of that today, with Eddie Jones here in attendance and hopefully doing an interview with us looking ahead to the Six Nations.
As another example, we had a live Wasps game the weekend following the Commonwealth final, and there were five of the Roses who came down with their medals. They were swamped by fans, and we were able to build that storytelling into our coverage of the game, including live interviews with all the players.
GD: I’ve spoken to a lot of the England rugby players about it, because, obviously, we’ve just seen that Saracens have taken over the Mavs [benecosMavericks Superleague franchise]; Loughborough Lightning Rugby and Netball all train together. Wasps are brilliant at it – they sell out often and it’s a great atmosphere, especially for the Sky games; it looks great on screen and you see lots of boys and dads there too, because of the family ethos of that club.
It’s a model that is quite common in Australia and New Zealand and I think we’re definitely going that way too. It’s lovely speaking to the Mavs’ coaches. The Sarries deal has given a massive boost to the whole club, and that rubs off. It’s going to make them better players in terms of all the resources they can tap into – the nutrition and the coaching facilities. Their product will be so much better, which will be better for us because it will make for a more competitive league and that will look great on TV.
How different is netball to work on, culturally, based on your experiences in other sports? Looking around, this is a much more female environment that you typically see behind the scenes at a major sports event…
LM: This was one of the main things that I was very concerned about when I started. I came from a big sport like golf. I’ve worked on Masters and Ryder Cups. Gail’s done World Cups and Lions tours with Rugby. It’s the same with all of us – we’ve all come up working on these big male sports, so to get the chance to elevate a female sport was like a dream come true.
I just wanted to have an ethos of: treat it exactly the same as the male sports. Having the top journalists like Gail involved helps to bring that element to it, somebody who’s going to ask the tough questions at difficult times. In terms of our on-screen presence, with presenters like Di [Dougherty] and our guests all having edgy, individual looks was a big thing for me, appealing to lots of different types at home. Making sure that we’re helping to break down the barrier of netball at school. This is not “stuffy netball”; this is cool, this is edgy; the players look great. But it’s also what they’re talking about. These women are passionate; they’re articulate and intelligent. They’re lawyers and doctors. It’s actually quite annoying how they can do everything!
Our approach was about getting that eloquent talent on screen. And behind the scenes, the production team is predominantly women, which is really unusual as well. That’s mainly because women are more knowledgeable about netball, because they’ve played it. You’d look for that with every production.
But the ethos was very clear: be exactly as you would on any other sport. Don’t treat it any differently. At the same time we have added factors that mean we can engage the audience differently. For example, we get better access to the players, because they’re not as high profile. So we’ve pushed lots of new ideas from that side of things. But ultimately it’s about making it look as slick on screen as possible and giving it, as we say, the “Premiership” sort of treatment.
Di Dougherty (DD): For me, it’s not a gender thing at all. Golf, for example, is a slower sport and netball is reactionary and in a much shorter time frame. I always approach it exactly the same: do your prep, do your homework.
What are some examples of the innovations you’ve been able to explore with netball coverage?
LM: It’s things like being able to get into the dressing rooms just before a Superleague final – going in to see Tamsin Greenway, who’s one of our guests quite often.
GD: And speaking to the coaches on the bench. OK, you can do that with Premiership Rugby for example, but, you know, sitting down next to Tracey [Neville] and asking her: “Why have you just taken that player off, when she’s shooting at 100%?” It gives a deeper insight to people watching at home and helps viewers to get a better understanding of the sport and to care a bit more.
LM: We also do interviews with the captains as they’re coming off court, so it’s very raw emotion. Because we’re able to access these players more easily, we can build up better relationships, which means we can get something slightly different out of them than that very media-trained footballer or rugby player or golfer. You’ve got this really raw emotion, which comes across on screen.
GD: And that’s part of the sport that we’re selling, isn’t it? We want people to engage and remember the players and their stories – and to care.
What can you tell us about Sky Sports’ plans for the forthcoming World Cup?
LM: As the host broadcasters, we’ll be showing every single match as Sky. But we’ll also be working closely in partnership with the BBC, for example to share talent, all with a view to help elevate the sport to the highest level we possibly can – with joint broadcasts, but with our Sky presentation team bringing something very polished and experienced. Tamsin Greenway, Pamela Cookey, Caroline Barker and obviously Gail and Di will all be part of that. The core team that do it week in, week out, complemented by as many of the current players as we can get.
Going back to those days when you were young runners, playing netball together in your lunchbreaks, did you ever envisage this day coming?
DD: Honestly, when I joined Sky all those years ago, Netball had no profile. The Commonwealth Games has done so much for the sport. I was listening to the Netball Nation podcast on the way in and they were saying how you just could never have envisaged this even five years ago. It’s the most popular female sport in the UK now so, no, I never expected it.
GD: There’s a story I was telling some of the Roses girls the other day. We used to play this mixed netball tournament, which was the only time you really heard about netball at Sky in those days. Leanne was so keen; she roped in a bunch of Kiwi guys as ringers and we won it four years in a row. I remember her walking into the big, big, big boss’s office. Seriously, no one went in there out of choice back then. And Leanne marched in and said: “Where are you putting the trophy if we win it for the fifth year in a row?” And she bargained that it would go next to the Bafta.
Sure enough, the next morning, she walked in and put the trophy right there. And I remember making a comment at the time: “When are we going to be broadcasting netball anyway?” Well, it’s taken 18, 20 years, but here we are. When I told the Roses that story, everyone cheered.
The key thing is getting people to watch. When people have seen it, they really appreciate the skill, speed and physicality of the sport. That’s the next stage – getting new audiences to watch. And I think that’s where Sky can nail it because of the people who watch us anyway. It’s about getting the production on point and nailing the storylines and telling the stories in a creative way, whether through the TOG [graphics analysis] or interviews or music pieces.
LM: I always hoped it’d happen. Even back then, at 19 years old, I followed it up persistently with all these emails. The [Sky] management at the time didn’t believe that was the way we were going, but eventually it’s married up with two things: the game is good enough now to be televised and to have people want to watch it. So we’re really lucky to have the chance to do it and very excited for the future.
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