England Netball is riding the momentum of the Roses’ historic gold medal win at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast into next year’s home Netball World Cup in Liverpool.
But with government funding for the England team set to end next July, a landmark naming rights deal with Vitality – thought to be the biggest in UK women’s sport – represents a crucial step towards financial sustainability.
In this exclusive interview, England Netball CEO Joanna Adams tells Sport Industry Group that the ‘Vitality Roses’ deal is the first of many set to be announced, with burgeoning interest from ‘global’ brands reflecting the ever-growing commercial appetite for women’s team sport.
What can you tell us about the terms and scale of this new deal?
Well, it’s a three-year deal – a renewal, but actually double the value of the first three years. I do think it is probably the largest female team sport sponsorship in the UK.
Whose idea was the inclusion of naming rights?
It was our suggestion, actually. It’s worked really well in Australia with the Samsung Diamonds. We were just trying to create much more value for Vitality, and that’s where we felt we could do it. They loved it!
How easy was the internal ‘sell’ with your stakeholders in the sport?
Our board obviously looked at it because it is a big thing to give naming rights to your England team, but everyone appreciates that our [government] funding for the Roses finishes next July, so we needed investment to make sure we could keep the girls in the full-time programme.
Most people have been very realistic, understanding that we’ve got to offer value somewhere. Our members will certainly understand that investment in the Roses means success on court and they certainly loved sharing that moment of the England gold [at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.]
Would this deal have happened without that gold medal win?
The broader impact of that win has been huge with other brands, but in this case we’d already agreed the deal before the Commonwealth Games. We started the renewal process in January and we actually completed it in March, so that we had a handshake agreement before the Games. Vitality believed in us regardless of the outcome. Obviously the outcome being gold is fantastic for them as a partner but they already saw the value in our relationship.
Vitality has strongly positioned itself as a supporter of women’s sport – and we’ve seen very strong momentum on the commercial side of women’s sport this year. How do you articulate that commercial proposition to brands?
There are several areas. Obviously it starts with that social responsibility piece, in that we deliver health and social and mental wellbeing to women and girls. But we’re also fortunate that we’ve had a Sky deal now for 12 years, so [partners] do get that [broadcast] exposure. And we’ve worked hard to develop a great international programme that runs over four years, and so offers year-round activation opportunities, not just via standalone events. So it’s a combination and certainly the current growth of women’s sport overall is sensational – it’s the icing on the cake for us. In general, people coming into the women’s sport market now do see this big social responsibility piece.
Who do you feel you are competing with for sponsor spend?
We certainly don’t feel that we compete with women’s sport. As a group, we meet regularly – women’s team sports, in particular – and we want to actively grow the market together. We think that any of us succeeding helps grow the market in general. The sort of money we’re talking about can be comparable to the smaller male sports, so our competition is sport in general. It’s our responsibility to help grow women’s sport as a whole in this country so it has a greater value.
To what extent has the Commonwealth Games win unlocked broader commercial interest?
We’ve had three or four really global brands that before we wouldn’t have been able to have a conversation with, so that’s very exciting. We’ll be announcing another one of those [partnerships] in coming weeks, which I think, again, is going to change the face of netball in this country. I can’t give you names just yet, but what’s important to us is that they are global brands.
The World Cup is also a key factor in giving that longevity to brands, so they know they’re going to get another peak next year. And we’ll also be announcing our World Cup broadcasting deal very shortly.
What do you expect the home World Cup to deliver – both commercially and more broadly?
For a start, we’ve already hit our ticket sales. We’ve done £1.8m already. And we’ll be announcing a title partner for the Netball World Cup in the next few weeks.
The Commonwealth Games was a real moment for us in our international schedule. But to have another moment like we’re going to have with the World Cup just keep us in the forefront of brands’ minds, which is so important. Hopefully, we’ll come out of it with a couple more [NGB] partners. But equally we’ve been able to talk to global brands now and partner in with the World Cup – offering World Cup rights as well as England Netball. That becomes a really strong, compelling proposition.
In effect, Netball World Cup 2019 is a wholly-owned subsidiary of England Netball. We own the Host Broadcast rights and the majority of the marketing rights. Our international federation has the rights to the ‘officials’ and the ball deals, but everything else is the local organisers’. So when we’re talking to partners now, we can talk to them about England Netball, Netball World Cup, Superleague & our grassroots proposition, which is really powerful.
The World Cup is a fantastic event but, as a standalone proposition, it’s quite hard for a brand to be able to activate. Linked in with a continual netball cycle, it’s much easier for them and they get greater longevity.
Why does this cash injection matter? How will it support the development of netball?
The answer is: massively. We’re still 64% funded by government via Sport England, for which we’re enormously grateful. But we want to change that situation to be more financially sustainable.
Also, as I alluded to, at present our Roses funding finishes next July, so this money from Vitality goes a long way to making sure we keep our England girls on full-time contracts. A percentage will also go towards our Superleague, which is crucial for us because we need a strong domestic product. And some of the money will also get ploughed back into things like Walking Netball and Back to Netball. We’ve just seen our 100,000th lady go through Back to Netball, so that programme is really helping to grow our audience, starting from a playing point of view. But they’re people who then will come and buy tickets for the Roses. There are real interdependencies. If we don’t get one piece right, the other bits start to fail. So the cash from Vitality is crucial across those thee elements.
What other revenue streams are available now and in the future for England Netball?
Membership is considerable – around £2m a year. We’re looking to increase ticket revenues so we need a strong Roses team and a good international calendar, which we’ve got. We’ve taken our ticketing operation in-house, so that’s something we control now. We’re also launching a whole new merchandising strategy, which is really important. And we’re building a digital ecosystem, which gives us access to individual netball consumers so we can offer tailored products. That’s a big piece of work.
There are lots of avenues we’re using to make sure we are financially sustainable. We’re not pinning all our hopes on sponsorship. And if we succeed in growing all that, hopefully the icing on the cake would be a broadcast rights deal, which is what everybody is after.
How do you assess that broadcast piece now, in terms of the opportunity for an OTT product, for example?
We’re looking at OTT but a sport like netball needs to weigh up whether it’s about money or reach. The investment that Sky puts in to Netball on the content side is really quite considerable. At the moment, we couldn’t afford to do it.
For us, TV is still really important. But we’ve moved more towards a model around dual broadcasts. Sky is our premium broadcaster but they’ve shared some of our bigger events with the BBC. That, for us, is the perfect combination.
How do you approach the next five-ten years in terms of your overarching strategy for England Netball?
Our strategy is ‘Your game, your way’. We want to create a version of the game for every woman or girl. So we want to grow participation and consequently our audience. Commercialisation is another key focus; we want to switch our funding model from 64% grant funded to 64% self-funded in next two-three years, which is a big ask. And we want to ensure the future of the Roses, which is really important.
How will we measure all that? Well, first, in terms of participation, with at least 10-15,000 new players a year. Second, on that funding matrix. And third, in terms of the medals that we win… or the number of times we beat Australia or New Zealand!