On the prime sponsorship real estate that is front and centre on the navy dress of the most-watched team in Suncorp Super Netball is an enduring theme among traditionalists that has been given a contemporary new treatment.
The high-profile campaign is also being featured on t-shirts and billboards and in full-page print media advertisements. A collaboration between the ladder-leading Melbourne Vixens and global sportswear giant Puma is sending an important message that reaches beyond one club or competition.
See it for yourself.
“Netball is a tough sport. It’s hard and it’s rough and you certainly don’t come off the court without a few bruises and scratches, but I know that’s not always the perception in the wider community,’’ says Vixens’ midcourter and Puma ambassador, Tayla Honey.
“So I think it is really great that we are encouraging people to just challenge their thoughts and give us a go and see what our game’s all about, and also women's sport in general.
“Netball gets heavily compared to basketball, and some people may even think it’s a bit of a princess sport, but that’s certainly not the case.’’
The hashtag’s genesis can be traced back to 16 unfortunate words published in a 2.5-star TV preview in the entertainment and lifestyle supplement of a major Melbourne newspaper on July 26, ahead of Suncorp Super Netball’s (SSN) delayed opening weekend.
You might remember. Certainly, the ensuing uproar was hard to forget.
Above a deep-etched photo of Magpie Geva Mentor at full stretch, this; “Once just for schoolgirls and workplace bonding, this is now a full glamour sport for many.’’
No. Just, no. Fortunately, the - well - rehashing of an outdated and ill-judged perception that struck a chord here and abroad was acknowledged and remedied.
Better still, it provided an opening through which champion wing attack Lizzy Watson could happily rocket a metaphorical shoulder pass to a teammate under the post.
“It did provide us a wonderful opportunity to elevate the conversation,’’ says Netball Victoria CEO, Rosie King, noting the synergy between Netball Victoria and Puma’s super-swift response.
“It’s been a very organic process, which I think talks to the strength of our relationship with Puma, and the fact we’re both on the same page.
“We worked together to come up with the initial response which was the 'No Glamour Here’ [video]. And as a result of that the conversations really emerged around the lack of understanding of the athleticism and fearlessness of netball’s elite athletes.
“It’s frustrating that we simply don’t get the recognition and airtime that we really should, and so Puma just basically stood up to it and said ‘look, we want to drive a campaign that’s bigger than just the Vixens and netball’.
“This is about equality and recognition of female athletes, and there was a really quick turnaround of the #WitnessFearless campaign.’’
The multi-faceted strategy was unveiled last Sunday, happily coinciding with the Vixens’ fifth win from the opening six rounds.
What King describes as a 'call to action' to attract more commercial partners has the powerful backing of an international brand that has a long association with netball and intimate understanding of the local market.
Clearly, it is one in which the sport’s Victorian heartland has been more savagely affected by COVID-19 than elsewhere in Australia, and a new premier partner for 2021 is being actively sought. What is about getting more eyes onto the Vixens' is also about driving investment in the sport.
“We’ve worked really hard in the last four years to try to change around the imagery of netball at the Melbourne Vixens, in terms of being more accessible to modern Australia and really trying to change that misconception of, dare, I say it, the ‘schoolgirls’, and the ‘workplace bonding’,’’ says King.
“That’s passe now, and we want to show the girls for the terrific role models that they really are. I absolutely love this #WitnessFearless campaign. It’s modern, it’s contemporary, it’s got a real edge to it.’’
King was a keen netballer herself growing up in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, and still laughs when she recalls being asked at her interview for the top job at Netball Victoria in 2016 what position she had played. These things matter in personality profiling, you see. Answer: wing attack. Hmmm.
Yet when she arrived for SSN’s inaugural season, the former football administrator admits she had viewed netball through a largely community-based lens, and thus perhaps underestimated the skills and powers of the 'elite performance athlete, and also the professional sporting team aspect of it.'
Now, having endorsed the #WitnessFearless message, King looks beyond the obvious optics of ruthlessness, flying bodies and on-court aggression to courage, in all its many forms.
Exhibit A: Vixens shooter Mwai Kumwenda, who moved from her remote village in Malawi, playing barefoot with balls made from melted plastic bags tied with string, to pursue her netball career in a big city and strange faraway land.
“That courage and conviction and fearlessness is so typical of netballers; they really have to back themselves,’’ says King. “And the beauty of the Vixens/Netball Victoria partnership with Puma is that they’ve also backed us.’’
Written by Linda Pearce