Collingwood’s Field of Dreams model fails with Magpies project unable to take flight | Megan Maurice

Without its own unique location or a grassroots connection, the Super Netball expansion club faced challenges from the outset

As the sun set on the ANZ Championship in 2016, the most salient question centred around where three new teams would come from to form a standalone Australian competition. Five Australian teams participated in the trans-Tasman league, all of which had history dating back to the start of the Commonwealth Bank Trophy in 1997 and were owned by their respective state netball associations.

Things moved quickly and with little time to build the kind of following those existing teams had, Netball Australia made it clear the new teams should have the ability to bring in their own fanbases. This resulted in the granting of licences to the Sunshine Coast Lightning (owned by Melbourne Storm), Giants Netball (a partnership between Netball NSW and the GWS Giants) and the Collingwood Magpies.

From the outset, the Lightning enjoyed the benefit of being based in a location with no other professional sports team to call their own. The physical separation from the Storm provided the support and connection without unnecessary interference. The local community developed a sense of pride and belonging and the success of the team – winning the first two premierships of the new competition – only solidified their burgeoning fanbase.

In Sydney, the Giants were able to take advantage of growing western Sydney support for their AFL team, while maintaining a connection to the grassroots through the partnership with Netball NSW. This provided access to local clubs and associations, with regular visits out to suburban netball competitions on weekends to drive fan engagement across codes.

With the news that the Collingwood Magpies are reviewing their netball program, it is clear that things did not go so well for the competition’s third expansion team. Without its own unique location or a connection to grassroots, the challenges were there, but with the might of the Collingwood Football Club behind them, few believed they would fail.

And yet, from an outsider’s perspective there appeared little effort from the start to bring football supporters across, to educate them about netball or to nurture a fanbase. Instead they assembled a team of stars, did not bring in a coach of the calibre to support those stars, and assumed success would follow and with success would come fans. It was the Field of Dreams model of success – if we build it, they will come.

It seems now that little can be done to resurrect the Magpies. If the power of the Collingwood machine was not enough to carry the team when they entered the competition riding on a wave of hype, it is unlikely to now, when the team is languishing at the bottom of the ladder and struggling to bring enough fans through the door.

It is heartbreaking for the players who have done all they can. Many have made their homes in Melbourne, worked to build a team culture, and to connect to fans through social media and at games.

Magpies players line up.
Magpies players line up. Photograph: Graham Denholm/Getty Images

In a statement released on Monday, Netball Australia reiterated its commitment to an eight-team competition – a condition set by the broadcast deal with Fox Sports. This means that should Collingwood exit the league, a new team would need to take its place. The timing here is critical – with no collective player agreement (CPA) in place for 2024, all 80 Super Netball players will come off contract at the end of the current season. The Australian Netball Players’ Association has highlighted the start of the finals series on 24 June as their ideal date to have the new CPA signed to allow teams to begin contracting players. But the possible addition of a new team creates complications – the decisions around ownership and location will need to be made quickly to have staff in place to make contracting decisions.

Tasmania has long been discussed as a location for a new team, but continuing to have a second Victorian team may be preferred. With the tight hold the Vixens have on Melbourne and the 2026 Commonwealth Games being hosted in regional Victoria, now may be the right time for a team to find its home in the regions and build a dedicated fanbase through connection to the local community – much as the Lightning have done for the past seven seasons.

If a new team is to emerge in 2024, there are plenty of lessons to be taken from the demise of the Magpies. Connect to the local community and grassroots sport to nurture and educate new fans of the game. Create a club culture that transcends the playing group and encompasses the community as well. Recognise that fans are not a natural result of success, but a vital part of creating it. Do not build something and assume they will come, rather show them the plans, ask for input and build it together. Then they will not only come, but they will stay.


Megan Maurice

The GuardianTramp

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