Netball World Cup caps off a 'women's year in sport' in South Africa

CAPE TOWN -- In a year of exponential growth for women's sport, netball has now joined the statistics worth celebrating. Never before has a Netball World Cup had a bigger broadcast reach than the 2023 edition. And while that milestone will reflect in the financial gains that World Netball are expecting from this landmark event, they're also hinting that never before has a Netball World Cup been more fun.

"Every World Cup has its own spirit. For this one, the energy, the joy, the colour and the support from Africa has been amazing," Dame Liz Nicholl, World Netball President said at a press conference on the eve of the final.

Apart from the passionate home fans, who included some of the country's highest-profile sportspeople such as Springboks rugby captain Siya Kolisi and OIympians Caster Semenya and Khotso Mokoena, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Ugandan were well supported through the tournament. All three countries have significant diaspora populations in South Africa and they jumped at the opportunity to enjoy a connection to home and cheer on their countrywomen. But that may be where the high points peaked as not all traveling supporters had a purely pleasant experience.

Fans from Australia and England, who had bought tour packages including flights, accommodation and tickets, landed in the country and checked into their hotels just fine but finding their place in the arena proved problematic. Their tickets were issued without specific seat numbers and on arrival at the venue, they were often ushered into the wrong section and moved several times during games. Some gold section ticket holders for the Australia-Jamaica semifinal ended up in the bronze section seats - further away from the court and higher up than they would have liked to be.

There were also those who traveled with the aim of buying tickets on arrival and had difficulties making their purchases through ticketing service provider Plankton. Several fans reported receiving messages that games were sold out, only to see empty seats when they tuned in to watch on television. A group of young women from Oldham Netball club in the UK experienced this and also found they were unable to watch the matches of their choice at some local pubs.

The ticketing crisis was largely caused by the back-end system at Plankton, who have never handled a major sporting event before. They could not sell tickets for groups of more than six people at a time, and instead asked larger parties to email them or the contact person from the Local Organising Committee. These emails then largely went unanswered. ESPN understands that Plankton won a tender process to work on the Netball World Cup ahead of eight other companies, including Ticketpros, South Africa's largest ticketing firm, which usually does major sport. Ticketpros were deemed too expensive for this tournament, which was relying on ticket sales for 58% of its revenue.

In the end, less than half the tickets available for the whole event -- around 120,000 -- were sold and group matches not involving South Africa were played to fairly empty arenas. The slow sales were also a reflection of high prices. The cheapest ticket was set at R700 for adults (A$57) and the most expensive cost A$200. Towards the middle of the tournament, organisers began donating the tickets to school groups but it was seen as too little too late.

Although ticket prices were ultimately decided by South Africa's Local Organising Committee, they did so in consultation with World Netball who admitted, things have been difficult and could could have been run better.

"World Netball has had to intervene more than we have in the past but this is the most challenging venue we've had for a World Cup. It is not fixed seating and there are challenges that come with that. I can only apologise if any of the fans have had a less than perfect experience," Claire Briegal, World Netball CEO said. "For the group matches, we probably could have been a bit more sophisticated about the marketing."

And that applies to more than just the attendance. Although the broadcast has been bigger than ever before, the tournament has still flown under the radar among most participating nations, especially the top four, because their countries are also involved in the FIFA Women's World Cup. Australia and New Zealand are co-hosts and in an awkward time zone for an event in South Africa, England are football favourites and Jamaica were surprise round of 16 qualifiers, which has captured the attention of all those nations. World Netball recognised the clash was not ideal, but felt they were not to blame.

"We were out ahead of FIFA with the dates. It would have been nice if they had approached us to consider (different dates)," Nicholl said. "But yes, it was an opportunity that has been missed in some way."

What has not been wasted is the chance to make a difference in the host nation, where the specially-fitted wooden courts will be removed from this venue and used to create one new netball court in each of South Africa's nine provinces as well as one in each of three other African countries participating. In addition to that, the non-profit organisation Sporting Chance, set up a street netball project in the Western Cape in February, in which 800 schoolgirls participated in weekly matches. The winning teams played in exhibition matches outside the World Cup venue, and received tickets to some of the non-Africa games.

Those girls now know that it is possible to play netball professionally and that there are role models for them to follow. In a country with some of the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world, to see female athletes celebrated in this way is a metaphorical fighting back against oppression and a case of feminism in action, and it has been the theme of 2023.

In February, South Africa hosted the T20 Cricket World Cup, where the team became the first senior side to reach a World Cup final, Earlier this week, the national women's football team reached the round of 16 at that World Cup - the best result in the country's history for any football team, male or female. On Wednesday, South Africans celebrate Women's Day, a commemoration of the brave women who marched to parliament in protest against Apartheid-era laws. This year, it will celebrated as women's year; women's year in sport.