“I Googled whether Chicago had a netball club,” Lisanne Jenkins, a tall, athletic woman originally from Melbourne, Australia says. “That was actually one of the factors in my decision to move here.”
Jenkins came to the United States in 2013 to do a postdoc in functional neuroimaging at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In Australia, she was club president at the University of Melbourne and leaving behind her friends and family across the world was difficult. But in the Chicago Netball Club, she found “an immediate social network.” That same year, law graduate Stephanie Sumner moved here from her London home, settling on the North Side. The next year Claire Ralphs, from Durban, South Africa, arrived in Chicago to work as an occupational therapist.
These three women arrived in Chicago from member states of the Commonwealth of Nations, once known as the British Commonwealth. In Chicago, they rediscovered their roots in a sport they grew up playing: netball. Chicago is one of few cities in the United States that can lay claim to its own netball club.
Ralphs has been playing netball since primary school. Similar to basketball but played on a slightly bigger court, the sport is traditionally associated with women. Men are on the next fields over, competing in rugby, cricket or Australian rules football.
“It was a nice surprise to come to Chicago and join the club and find it that competitive,” Ralphs, who played for her high school and later in both women’s and co-ed leagues, says.
Chicago Netball Club cofounders Olivia Civinelli and Penelope Parkes, Australian expatriates, set out to create an opportunity for Commonwealth expats to socialize and make friends while playing the game. The nonprofit CNC is co-ed and open to all nationalities, including Americans. Independent of deep-pocketed recreational sports leagues, CNC relies on fundraising events like the Start of the Season Social to pay costs, which include facility rental at the British International School of Chicago in the South Loop.
I attended the club’s Start of the Season Social on a snowy Saturday night in January at Hook and Ladder in Lincoln Park bar. Other area sports teams took part, including the Chicago Swans, Chicago’s Australian rules football club. Hale, towering men—the Aussie rulers—mingled with athletic young women—the netballers—over Shock Top drafts. Accented English rose over the jukebox playing music by The Thrills, an early-aughts Irish rock band. Friends got reacquainted, some after the holidays in their native countries.
“I was excited—and quite frankly surprised, to find the sport I grew up playing in New Zealand here in Chicago,” a young woman from New Zealand, not even two weeks in the United States, says. She learned of the Chicago Netball Club as well as this gathering through Facebook.
“It’s a great way to bridge the gap between being a foreigner and living in the city,” Holly Jenkins, a policy officer at the Australian-Consulate General in Chicago, tells me. Having a netball club in the city is a benefit, allowing Commonwealth nationals to acclimate and connect while playing “the best game ever.”
At the social, a twenty-dollar wristband got you “all you can muster for three hours.” The event was held on Super Bowl weekend, this country’s paean to satiety. Conversations that evening were on the upcoming game between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles. One Aussie-ruler planned to watch at a Philadelphia-themed bar in Lakeview. The next night, more than one-hundred-million viewers worldwide would watch the Super Bowl.
While hardly that popular, the sport of netball is played by as many as twenty-million people in more than eighty countries. The U.S. Open Netball Championships website claims that the 2017 U.S. Open Netball Championships event broke a Facebook record by having the most viewers in the history of Facebook tuned in at any one time to the live feed through the Facebook Live app.
The United States has two national teams (a key distinction depending on who you ask—only one is internationally “recognized”) that compete domestically and abroad. American organizations work to promote the sport on each coast. The game has a sizable presence in larger coastal states like New York, Florida and California, with new clubs recently founded in Las Vegas and Portland. The Chicago Netball Club has been here since 2009 and plays two twelve-to-sixteen-week seasons each year, with the next kicking off in late August.
“When people ask me, ‘What is netball?’ I tell them it’s a mix of ultimate frisbee and basketball,” Stephanie Sumner, current club president (and a former colleague), says. “It’s a very fast-paced and strategic game. It’s not like a sport such as swimming. You don’t have to be fastest if you position yourself well on the court.”
Anson Best, originally from Barbados and one of the men in the Chicago Netball Club, calls the sport “witty.” One of the few Americans to play in the club, Lauren Schwer, says, “It’s like basketball but there’s no backboard.”
Basketball began in the United States in the 1890s. An English teacher traveling in the States saw a women’s version of the game played at Smith College and took it back to England. A few years later the sport known as “netball” began with its first published rules.
The game spread through the British Empire, including Australia and New Zealand at the turn of the century. The appetite for netball is global today, although it’s a part of the staple sports diet only within member states of the Commonwealth of Nations, of which there are fifty-three, mostly former British territories.
But Netball has never come full circle. While it has had a presence in the United States for decades, sustained by expats, it’s unclear if Americans will develop a taste for it. As of April, the top five netball world Rankings were Australia, New Zealand, England, Jamaica and South Africa. The U. S.? Number twenty-nine.
Styles of play differ around the world. Netball in the Caribbean is aerial and unstructured, while play in Australia focuses on intense one-on-one defense. After the 1960s, when the International Netball Federation was established, rules around the globe were standardized. (The Chicago Netball Club adheres to the INF rules of play.) Netball is played seven-to-a-side on a rectangular court.
The objective is for the team in possession of the ball to attack its opponent’s territory and score. In this way, netball, similar to soccer and hockey, is an “invasion game.” But only by passing can players advance the ball, similar to volleyball, up the court. Dribbling or running with it is prohibited. Even routine ball movement can be a thing of beauty, like a textbook fast break—the ball never hits the floor.
As I watched teams attack, I thought of astronomy, especially moons and planets. Due to a three-second player possession rule (the “hot potato” rule), at any given moment players orbit the ball, ready to receive the next pass. It’s dizzying. The game rarely pauses. Claire Ralphs says one of the keys to netball is to “think on your feet.”
But sociology might be the truer analogy. Lisanne Jenkins pointed me to an article where one country, in order to gain an advantage, analyzed shoaling and schooling fish to better understand collective behavior, the collective consciousness, and group movement to predict different on-court scenarios.
Are there then added gameplay challenges in the CNC? This might be the first time South Africans are playing with Jamaicans, Aussies with Israelis, as well as the first time the majority of expats are playing with Americans. Given the different styles of play across the world, and the synergistic element of the sport, could the international character of the local club affect the quality of play? Sumner feels the impact is minimal. She points out those who have played at their university, or even a level higher, already have experience with players from other countries.
Scores in CNC matches, lasting twelve minutes per quarter with a running clock, went as high as the mid-thirties on Saturdays I attended, showing impressive offensive prowess. One shot equals one point. Professional matches have fifteen-minute quarters and scores can range anywhere from the twenties to, in rare instances, upwards of one-hundred.
To score, players shoot the ball through a horizontal rim attached to ten-foot tall (3.05m) goalposts. Only Goal Attack and Goal Shooter are permitted to shoot, and they must do so within the shooting circle. Since there is no safety of a backboard, deadeye skill and steady aim are required.
Scoring positions typically go to taller players. Olivia Civinelli is an exception. She is one of the CNC’s most lethal scorers, and at five-foot-two-inches, one of the shortest. She credits positioning and footwork for her success. Netball being a mostly non-contact sport helps, too. Once a player has positioning, she can hold it. Defenders must stay three feet from the ball, and not interfere with the player shooting: one of the few times the game pauses.
Early at the gym one day, I tried my hand at shooting. Comparisons to basketball are inevitable: next to the suspended-glass setup of basketball’s backboard and rim, the netball goalpost is the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. But what it lacks in elegance, it doubles with difficulty. I hoisted a series of airballs from steps away. With the unforgiving math of a rim minus backboard, despite how easy netballers make it look, it is downright cruel to award only a single point for a successful shot.
In the Midwest’s biggest city, resources and coverage of netball are scant. I couldn’t locate a single book about netball in the Chicago Public Library collection. For major media coverage, I checked the Chicago Tribune archive, finding a mixed bag of mentions and no recent features. One keyword hit led to a cursory appearance in a column by former sports editor Steve Nidetz from the early 1990s, quoting a Chicagoan that netball is “the dumbest thing you’ve ever seen.”
“No one [outside of the expats] had heard of netball,” Civinelli, one of the cofounders of the club, recalled when we spoke about the club’s origins.
There is a netball corner on the website of The Worldwide Leader in Sports, but best of British luck navigating from the site’s homepage. I wondered if it was because of my U. S. IP address. But I located it through Google and found solid coverage of teams with names like the Magpies and Vixens, sourced from wires such as the Australian Associated Press.
In this environment, it’s no surprise Civinelli and Parkes hit roadblocks, both expected and unexpected. A lack of interest, a lack of commitment, a lack of awareness, sure. But a lack of insurance? “We initially had trouble insuring the club. Because none of the insurance agencies were familiar with the sport. Eventually we ended up billing it as a basketball league.” More issues followed, including umpire training and equipment procurement—most netball equipment has to be imported from the U.K.
But the biggest heartburn for the club was finding space. The process of adapting netball specifications to existing courts is difficult, including the size in relation to a basketball court and its tripartite court configuration.
The club first went with Windy City Fieldhouse (too expensive), moved to the Fitness Formula Clubs near Union Station (court much too small), then to a Chicago Park District location (don’t ask), and back to Windy City Fieldhouse (still too expensive).
During a match, frustration over venues came up and a player named Lucy Harper volunteered the British School would be a great venue. Civinelli told her she had already reached out, but gotten no reply. “Lucy asked, ‘Have you tried the school’s athletic director?’” Civinelli said she hadn’t. “Motioning to herself, Lucy said, ‘You should ask her.’”
The club finally moved to the British International School in the South Loop, for the 2016 fall season: a dream venue, the right size, the right lines. Civinelli says they are “super-lucky” to have found it.
The club plays on Saturdays in the school’s 9,000-square-foot gymnasium. A majestic row of flags hangs from the rafters, of countries comprising the Commonwealth of Nations. Old Glory and the Union Jack are set apart and featured prominently. The South Loop campus is a good central location, as the CNC is a mix of players coming in from the suburbs and sections of the city. For those who play in both the winter and fall CNC seasons, and there are plenty who do, it’s a commitment—thirty Saturdays or so each calendar year.
The school’s South Loop location is an apt metaphor for the sport of netball in Chicago. Their campus is tucked into a downtown cove accessible only from the north or south; the LaSalle Street Station commuter line forms the eastern border, the river is west. It’s off the beaten path the way the Hideout music club is: a place you’d never end up at unless you meant to.
Sonya Ottaway, president of Netball America, calls the Chicago Netball Club “a well-established club,” with a board of directors, including a president, vice-president, secretary and treasurer, with three members at large.
Stephanie Sumner was elected president in January of 2018. She had been vice president for two years before. As it has for others, the club helped her establish a social base after arriving in the U. S. One of her only regrets for the CNC is that not enough people know about it. “I would love to see [the club] get bigger. Promotion is something I am always trying to advance.” Sumner has pushed for broader social media exposure. This is the CNC’s first year on Instagram and Twitter. Sumner told me eight new players, mainly expats, found the club through social media this past season alone.
With unavoidable turnover following each season, which can approach double digits for reasons ranging from life obligations to expiring work visas, growth potential exists for the CNC, and netball in general through one essential yet still underrepresented group: Americans.
Netball America, led by Sonya Ottaway, an Australian expat based in California and described as “the Queen B of Netball” by an admirer. She was a few minutes late when we talked on the phone because she was making breakfast for the USA University Netball Team at her California home. Ottaway’s passion for netball and developing it further in this country came through across the distance. Netball America’s overall goal is to get the sport into more schools, primarily targeting younger students because of the benefits of the sport, including the “teaming aspect” where because of the three-second rule (that “hot potato” rule), there can be no hogging of the ball. And Ottaway says there is a position on the court for everyone, regardless of height or size.
Netball is also emerging at American universities. At Ohio University, a netball course introduces the rules, history, strategy, skills and general concepts of netball, “to provide an appropriate level of knowledge and skill that allows effective play and understanding of the game.” Ottaway has even flown in to address the class.
Where Netball America is concerned with putting the sport in schools, Matthias Wilkie, vice president of technical operations at USA Netball, the other netball organization in the United States, based in New York, says USAN’s ultimate aim is to build the game in America in order to make it an Olympic sport. The International Olympic Committee officially recognized netball in 1995. A sport must be played by both genders, as well as all over the world to be included in the Olympics. Which may sound promising, until you consider that tug-of-war is, too.
Wilkie has been involved with netball for twenty-five years. He tells me USA Netball is similar to Netball America, but “unfortunately the International Federation of Netball recognizes only one organization.” His. I ask why the two organizations haven’t merged. “There have been several attempts, but we haven’t been able to find a solution that benefits both organizations.” An olive branch had been extended, he says.
USA Netball is based out of New York, Netball America out of California. I sensed tension between the two groups beyond friendly bicoastal rivalry. With strategic positioning in the Midwest, could a big-picture scenario incorporate partnership with the Chicago Netball Club, and become a beachhead in each organization’s quest for influence?
Power-play musing aside, views on American involvement in netball go both ways: one camp feels the sport is unspoiled due to low Yankee interest, while others feel the sport can never take off until the Americans start playing.
Players in the Chicago Netball Club are gracious to new players, those showing up out of curiosity, for a shot of cardio or to try their hand at a new sport. Lauren Schwer, an American who became involved with the CNC through a Scottish colleague, tells me about her experiences. “The club is accommodating to beginners who are learning the sport. Having grown up with it, the expats have a certain level of game play [that we Americans do not], but they were forgiving and patient.”
Schwer’s introduction to the game—American learns of netball through expat colleague or friend—is the most common story. The prevailing opinion of those familiar with netball is that it just needs a good publicity blitz. But if more people knew about the sport, would they actually start playing it here? Expats say yes. “People just don’t know about it. But people who play sports, they love it, even if it’s strange at first,” says Lisanne Jenkins.
Anson Best sees for netball the template perfected by soccer, which Netball America is using. “The biggest opportunity is to get it into schools. Because you want to teach it from an early age, then those kids will carry it. Make it a part of their culture. It can’t grow like things are now.”
Schwer, a former Division 1 athlete in volleyball, isn’t sure. She emphasizes an already-crowded American sports landscape, with less time available for recreational sports because of increased specialization. Where kids might once have aspired to be the three-sport athletic hero on campus, they now trade peer envy for the chance at a greater payoff: the possibility of a college scholarship, or even the chance to turn professional in a league like the WNBA. “When I was growing up, I would never have had time to play netball. I stopped playing other sports to play for a rigorous volleyball program that required all of my time and energy.”
Does that mean the future of netball in America is bleak?
Schwer laughs. “If Quidditch can catch on on college campuses, then netball can succeed.”
If not yet right for this place, maybe netball is right for this time? Netball, as a female-dominated sport, would seem to be precisely the right or wrong sport to be elevating. There are views for and against this traditional segregation of the sport. A selective sampling of positive articles and threads online include, “Feminist? Three reasons why netball should be on your to-do list,” and “Is netball a feminist triumph?”
The critiques, those that focus on the feminine aspect of the sport, just flipped. One suggests that the sport’s “zonal” permissions for players are designed to minimize running and restrict movement. Put differently: Keep ‘em on a leash. Another critique singles out the sport’s rules, making it a prim, watered-down version of the games men play (“sissy basketball”). A columnist for The Telegraph blamed netball for making your daughter fat.
What’s undeniable is the rising popularity of co-ed clubs. Netball America promotes the game as a co-ed sport. They’re popping up in San Francisco, Seattle and Atlanta. In the Commonwealth countries where netball is common, such as New Zealand, Australia and England, there are now men-only teams.
Of the thirty-two roster players spread over the Chicago Netball Club’s four teams, Anson Best is one of only two men. He’s conscious of his position, and acknowledges that netball is still very much a female sport, but he prefers it to, say, Aussie rules. “I like my knees a little bit too much for that.”
He grew up in Barbados playing other sports, including volleyball, tennis, table tennis and track and field. His involvement with netball was by chance. “At my high school we had a very good netball team. The netball coach was also the track and field coach, so some of the guys on the track team were recruited [to match up] who were taller, could jump higher, and could make the netball team compete harder.”
He pressed the need to grow the sport with men, believing their involvement makes it better. It’s generally acknowledged that male players speed up the game. Best is a fearsome defender, patrolling his zone with a center fielder’s range, stabbing into passing lanes aiming for the intercept—though he’s wary of being too aggressive. He’s apologetic if he runs into the female players. But he also plays at full speed and this seems right: to go any other speed but all out would be unfair to competition.
Physical attributes, like in most sports, lend advantages in netball, but it’s as much about the strategy as anything else. Lisanne Jenkins echoes Civinelli: “Netball rewards players who know where to run and where to expect the ball. It’s a game of positioning.”
Tracy Ann Smith, of Jamaica and herself an elite defender, says, “The key to success in netball is to know where to be, know where to run.”
For the players I spoke to, they agree in the end all that matters is a good game, no matter how you get there. Best, one of the longest tenured players, marvels at how the CNC has gotten through, through esprit de corps.
“I’m so proud of how far we’ve come, from the community parks we played on, how the club has grown, how it has evolved,” Smith says. “There is a core of people who like the sport and continue to play.” She has made close friends in the club, as have others, including Sumner, Ralphs and Best. Civinelli will soon travel to London to stand in the wedding of a friend whom she met in the club. Lisanne Jenkins invited players from the club to her own wedding in San Diego. About half of her friends in the United States came through the Chicago Netball Club. She plans to continue playing in CNC well into the future. “I love it. I wish there were more clubs, more teams, more training. I’d love to play even more games.”