Netball is stronger for social media revolution but it comes at a cost

It is a widely accepted fact in the sports media that while all sports are equal, some are more equal than others. That men’s sport receives greater coverage and attention is completely down to merit, to the demands of the audience. Over the last few years however, the women’s sport revolution has been quietly, yet confidently, breaking down these norms, due in a large part to the rise of social media.

No longer are the morning newspapers and nightly news bulletins the arbiters of what is newsworthy and interesting to sports fans. Social media has created a space where clubs and athletes can tell their own stories, build their own fanbases and prove their value.

For netball in particular, this has been revolutionary. As the only professional sport in Australia that is not tied to an equivalent men’s competition, it has long struggled to carve out a place for itself in the media. Increasingly, netball fans are doing it for them – forming communities and sparking creativity. While official social media channels in netball are improving their engagement rapidly, the inspiration has come from the grass roots of the fandom.

At the forefront is Emma Blair, known as @conciergemaree on social media, who has reached legions of netball fans, players and commentators through her engaging use of TikTok. From light-hearted parodies of Suncorp Super Netball players and coaches through to the trials and tribulations of community netball, Blair has captured the spirit of the game in a way that has long eluded those paid to promote it. She effortlessly straddles the line between professional and grassroots, bringing the two together in a highly captivating manner that has created the perfect blueprint for administrators trying to convert the sport’s huge participation base into TV viewing figures.

But a revolution is never as straightforward as it seems and while fan engagement is improving, with that comes the darker side of increased visibility. Giants captain and England international Jo Harten experienced the drawbacks of social media after her team’s one-goal loss to the West Coast Fever on Monday night. After spending five days in Western Australia, unable to leave their hotel aside from one hour of training each day, Harten and her team played out an extraordinarily exciting game in front of a parochial Perth crowd, with the Fever taking the win from a penalty after the final whistle. Harten returned to her hotel room to discover a series of hateful, abusive messages sent to her on Instagram, urging her to “die” and “rot in hell” and calling her an “ugly bitch”.

Harten posted the messages to her Instagram story with the caption, “Love me or hate me, I compete hard for 60 mins, but no one deserves this.” The abusive messages were immediately condemned by fans across social media and the Giants released a statement on their website.

“Behaviour like this is completely unacceptable and our athletes deserve better,” said general manager Tim Underwood. “Jo is an experienced player who will no doubt move on quickly like the champion she is, but she’s done the right thing by calling this incident out. Not every athlete has the tools to deal with such vitriol and abuse like this can do serious damage to the mental wellbeing of athletes.”

Harten’s decision to reveal the extent of the abuse she was facing was applauded by players and fans, with former Australian Diamonds captain Liz Ellis sharing the abuse she was subjected to after commenting on NRL player Toby Rudolph’s post-match interview in March. An NRL fan who took issue with Ellis’s stance wrote: “Hope your husband flogs you tonight for your comments it’s very much warranted.”

Male athletes have to deal with plenty of online abuse of their own, but there is a particular level of abuse reserved for female athletes, which is often based on appearance, sexuality or the perception that they need to be kept in line by the men in their lives. While online abuse is broadly unacceptable, this gendered element, alongside the compounding factor of female athletes being paid at much lower levels than their male counterparts, is particularly concerning.

In the end it all comes down to this – is it worth it? Is the increased public profile, the engagement with fans and the community spirit of the sport enough to make up for this abuse? That is a question that each individual needs to answer for themselves. Harten took to Instagram again the following day to thank fans for the outpouring of support she received after posting the abuse and Ellis has also been inundated with positive replies from the community known as ‘Netball Twitter’.

As author Madeleine L’Engle once mused, “Maybe you have to know the darkness before you can appreciate the light.” In times of adversity, communities come together and fight. For all its ills, social media has the power to stoke the fires of revolution and with that comes powerful, positive change.