Any week now, we should know whether New Zealand has won the right to host the 2023 Netball World Cup.

It would be a vital victory for netball in New Zealand – as the sport battles with pretenders to the crown for the top female code in the country.

It would play a major role in the celebration of 100 years of netball in New Zealand.

And the 10-day tournament in Auckland would also be a chance for Netball New Zealand to resolve its “unfinished business” with the World Cup.

Since it began in England in 1963, the world championship of netball has been played in New Zealand three times – in Auckland in 1975, Christchurch in 1999, and Auckland again in 2007.

It’s a statistic that South Africa – the other nation bidding for this latest World Cup – like to use in their favour. No African nation has ever held netball’s pinnacle event, so they reckon it’s their time.

But Netball NZ could argue that it’s not quite how it is.

In 2007, New Zealand came to the rescue, after the International Netball Federation (INF) took the tournament hosting rights off Fiji. The South Pacific nation, who’d hosted the World Youth Cup in 1992, was in the throes of a political crisis following a military coup.

Netball NZ had just nine months to organise a tournament that is usually four years in the planning.

Netball NZ operational director Kate Agnew says: “We’ve really only won the right to hold the tournament twice. Christchurch in 1999 was the last time we did it properly, as the host nation.

“We took 2007 on to help world netball. We didn’t get the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of hosting a World Cup.

“So we feel we have unfinished business.”

The next few years promise to be colossal for women’s sport in New Zealand. In 2021, the country will host both the Women’s Rugby World Cup and the Women’s Cricket World Cup. The following year, Auckland will hold the International Working Group for Women and Sport conference – the most significant conference on gender equity in sport in the world.

A Netball World Cup would continue the momentum.

“We nearly beat New Zealand on the court, and now we just need to do it off the court.”

– Netball South Africa’s Blanche de Guerre. 

If New Zealand is successful, the tournament will be played in Auckland. Sixteen nations will play 60 matches shared between two venues on opposite sides of the bridge – Spark Arena in the city, and the North Shore Events Centre.

The latter stages of the competition would be played at Spark, the bigger venue, which can hold 8500 (compared to the newly renovated NSEC’s 5000).

Netball New Zealand’s strong track record in delivering international events should be “seen as a positive” in the bidding process, Agnew says.

“If INF want to continue their agenda to grow the game and empower women, they need their pinnacle event to be hugely successful and professional,” she says.

Conversely, South Africa’s pitch has played heavily on not having held the World Cup before.

Netball South Africa have been on the offensive in the past week, publicly pushing their bid for the tournament.

“We nearly beat New Zealand on the court, and now we just need to do it off the court,” NSA chief executive Blanche de Guerre told South Africa’s Star; the Silver Ferns needing double extra-time to shake the Proteas at their last meeting in January.

“We can manage a sport just as well as any other federation, and for that we have to prove to the rest of the world that if you bring the World Cup to us, the legacy would be that we can become a netball nation like Australia and New Zealand.

Even Australian Norma Plummer, the coach of the Proteas – now fifth in the world – has got in on the act: “African netball is rising, there are five African countries ranked in the world’s top 20… It’s time.”

The tournament would be held in Cape Town, which boasts being named the world’s “leading festival and event destination” at the 2018 World Travel Awards.

If South Africa win the hosting rights for the first time, they will become only the second country after England to host World Cups in football, rugby, cricket and netball.

They have a strong case for promoting women’s sport as well. Netball is the second largest sporting code in South Africa, after football and, like New Zealand, it’s the most popular sport among females (over 1.2 million women and 800,000 girls play).

“Hosting such a major event would provide opportunities for the empowerment of women,” a release from NSA declares, promising an all-female committee would run the tournament.

But Netball South Africa hasn’t hosted a tournament of this magnitude before, and they’re going through a rocky period right now, after losing a key sponsor – South African Breweries – for this year’s National Premier League. For the past five years, SAB had sponsored the league, crucial to lifting the profile and the standard of the game in South Africa.

Both nations laid down their case to host the World Cup last November in Singapore. An evaluations bid committee heard the submissions, and their recommendation goes to the INF board, who have the final say.

New Zealand’s bid rests on delivering a world-class event, with “zero financial and reputational risk”; helping to grow the global game through their reach into new markets; and partnering with a country that “leads the movement of empowerment for women”. They also promise safety and equity for teams.

Agnew has her own track record for delivering netball World Cups. She was tournament director in 2007 – “We lifted the event; it was the first time every game was broadcast, and statistics were introduced” – and she helped run the 2011 World Cup in Singapore.

Netball NZ predict a budget of around $15 million would be needed to play host. They say they already have partners on board and have secured revenue – ATEED and the government’s Major Events initiative have both strongly supported the bid.

“All teams still pay their own way in costs. But we’re working to make sure we can alleviate pressure on teams, and create an even playing field,” Agnew says. “We want to ensure everyone has equitable access to accommodation, preparation time in New Zealand, court time and broadcasting.

“There are nations in world netball struggling with different challenges. If we can help teams have a more equitable experience, that will strengthen the outcomes, and the overall growth of the game.”

New Zealand promoted the values of manaakitanga (hospitality, welcoming and sharing), kaitiakitanga (guardianship, protection – running the event sustainably), and kotahitanga (unity and collaboration).

So back to the “unfinished business” – those things New Zealand didn’t get to do in 2007.

Netball NZ want to engage with the rest of country in a World Cup year. Following the lead of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, they want regions to host national teams in the build-up to the event, living and training in their cities and towns.

They want to continue to impact the growth of the game globally, building on connections with netball’s developing areas like the United States and Asia (Hong Kong and Singapore both have Kiwi national coaches), and of course furthering their relationships with Oceania nations.

A global youth programme will give future event managers and administrators the chance to get first-hand experience of running a world tournament.

And they’re well aware of the effect that holding a netball World Cup will have on their own player numbers.

“Even though sports like rugby and cricket are enjoying great growth, netball still has the greatest percentage of female participation in New Zealand. But we know we can’t take that for granted,” Agnew says.

Regardless of whether they win this bid or not, Netball New Zealand will still have plenty to celebrate in 2023 – 100 years after the game was truly recognised as a national sport, in the very first representative game between Canterbury and eventual winners Wellington.

New Zealand will be the first nation to reach that milestone.

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

Leave a comment