In conversation with Adam Paton, the student driving the growth of men’s netball.
The tables have turned. At a time when female athletes from traditionally male-dominated sports are escalating in popularity, with a prime example being the dominance of England women’s football and rugby teams, netball has been forced to square up to an awkward reality. For a long time, the sport had prided itself on being a sport for women and girls and its largely female status, which many may view as its unique selling point. Yet, it has also been a bone of contention. But netball is now experiencing a change towards gender equality as the first men-only club in Scotland is helping to alter perceptions about who can play the game. The sport, which was once limited to young women ranging in age from school girls through to pre-married women and described as “a national game for women” by the media in New Zealand in 1929, is now enjoying record levels of participation amongst men and boys across the UK.
The history of men’s netball is closely linked to the history of netball itself. Originally developed in the late-nineteenth century as a variant of basketball for women, it quickly gained popularity in schools and other women’s organisations. The first men’s netball team was formed in Australia in the 1980s, and the sport has since spread to other countries around the world. In 1992, the first men’s netball international match was played between Australia and New Zealand, and the sport has continued to grow and develop in the years since. Despite its increasing popularity down under, in 1997 in England, male participation comprised a mere 0.7% of the total netball-playing population within primary schools. However, the sport started to emerge in the UK a few years later with more and more men becoming interested in netball and consequently seeking ways of participation.
Despite being played by around 20 million people across 76 countries, netball’s lack of gender diversity has continually inhibited its hopes to gain Olympic status. The Commonwealth Games is as good as it gets for netball, but even that is under threat.
“If you can see it, you can be it” is an aphorism synonymous with women’s sport. Men’s netball in the UK is slowly being brought out from behind closed doors, but the growth of the sport has been challenging, facing barriers and difficulties, including a lack of recognition and support from major netball organisations and a social stigma that is still yet to be broken down. Even in Australia, where men’s netball is growing exponentially and constantly increasing in popularity, Australian men are not allowed to wear the coat of arms on their uniforms as international netball remains sanctioned for women only by World Netball. With that said in the UK, there is no doubt that it has continued to gain traction and acceptance in recent years, with more and more mixed netball leagues being created to allow men to join in the sport and participate in competitive play. Today, men’s netball is played by men of all ages and skill levels and is recognised as a legitimate and exciting variation of the sport.
University of Glasgow student Adam Paton is one of the men helping to build the profile of men’s netball within Scotland. Assistant captain of Scotland’s only men’s netball team, Highland Fever, the fourth-year student is passionate about growing the game and raising awareness of the inclusivity and diversity within the sport. “Men’s netball is a fantastic addition to the sport, offering a competitive outlet for male players and bringing a fresh perspective to the game,” he said. “It’s a fun and exciting sport that provides an opportunity for male players to showcase their skills and teamwork.”
Despite the drive for gender equality in all sports, men’s netball has faced criticism, often labelled as a “threat to women’s netball”. Paton, however, who has been involved in the sport since secondary school, believes that men’s netball is a “celebration of the universal appeal and enjoyment of the sport” rather than a threat. He acknowledged that there are clear differences between the two variations, stating that: “Men’s netball is typically played at a higher level of intensity and athleticism compared to women’s netball, as the players are generally larger and stronger.” Overall, he says: “While there are some differences between men’s and women’s netball, both variations of the sport involve teamwork, strategy, and skill, and can be enjoyed by everyone.”
Unfortunately, the biggest struggle, the UofG student admitted, was the social stigma that surrounds men’s netball, with people perceiving it to be “less serious or masculine” than other sports, and facing comments such as “That’s so gay”. Nevertheless, with the introduction of Highland Fever which saw around 50 men wanting to get involved with the team, Paton has seen a shift in attitudes as more people are beginning to recognise the value and enjoyment of the sport.
It’s clear how much the Highland Fever player is excited about the developments that are being made in men’s netball as he encourages more and more boys and men of all ages to get involved in the revolutionised sport. He draws attention to the fact that netball is more than a competition, but is also a sport that promotes physical fitness and teamwork, and places emphasis on communication and building strong relationships.
Recently, the Glasgow-based team that is also Netball Scotland affiliated have begun a partnership with the University of Stirling to develop their mixed league into a team and help continue to grow the sport in Scotland. With games against English-sides, Norfolk and Leeds, both home and away in January and February, as well as National League ties, the team are hopeful that they will pick up momentum towards the one-year anniversary of the team in May.
Netball has progressed enormously from comments such as “the girls on the court were physically a delight to watch… bright, clear-eyed, very alert, with beautifully shaped limbs and figures. That is what every girl or woman should aim at.” Yet, there is still a long way to go. With the BUCS Netball Competition Advisory Group working hard behind the scenes to support a trial competition with the intention of full cups and leagues to follow and eight Scottish universities indicating interest in a men’s netball side, men’s netball is on the rise. There is no doubt that it has an exhilarating future ahead.