2013 will be a groundbreaking year for women’s sport in South Africa. This year, for the first time in our nation and in one of very few instances worldwide, a professional women’s sports league will be born.
At the forefront of this historic move is Netball South Africa (NSA) President Mimi Mthethwa, who is fast driving change in the country’s most popular women’s sports code.
Mthethwa has been President of NSA since 2005, but 2012 will be remembered as a defining year for NSA and Mthethwa, one in which the federation took bold steps in making the sport the first women’s pro sports code in SA history.
She told gsport that NSA achieved most of its goals last year, which included scheduling as many international competitions as possible to allow the SPAR Proteas to prepare for the 2015 World Netball Championships, and to have programmes to prepare the U21 national squad for the World Youth Championships in 2013.
Mthethwa related how NSA also engaged with the Department of Sport & Recreation to share its vision, and find ways for them to give more support to netball’s long-term objective of professionalizing the sport.
On the court, efforts bore fruit with the SPAR Proteas beating the world’s fourth-ranked team, Jamaica, for the first time in 28 years. Although the team lost the series 2-1, the 56-49 win spurred them on to win three matches against Northern Ireland in July 2012.
The Proteas also gained invaluable experience playing in the Quad Series against the top three countries in the world in Australia in October last year, and rounded off the year with a bronze medal at the Fast 5 competition in New Zealand in November.
Those in the know recognised these successes as the results of years worth of hard work, and the Diamond Challenge competition – fully funded by SRSA – was one of the first glimmers of the dividends to be reaped. Playing with a fortitude seldom seen before, the Proteas easily qualified for the final, where they overcame long-time African rivals, Malawi.
Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula constantly sought to change the public’s perceptions about women’s sport, and reminded the public, government and business, that netball had to be supported as the most popular among women’s sports codes in SA.
Mbalula a Champion of Netball
Mthethwa is a big admirer of Minister Mbalula, highlighting his unflinching conviction that the time was ripe for netball to go professional with the establishment and launch of the Netball Premier League (NPL), and all that he is doing behind the scenes to ensure that this becomes a reality in 2013.
“Having worked very closely with him since March (2012), when I walked into his office for the meeting, I cannot help but marvel at the person he is,” says Mthethwa. “He is a good leader who listens, and is wise enough not to change things unnecessarily. His predecessor had done a lot in putting netball on the platform in parliament, and naturally he chose to build on what had already been done.
“The project of professionalising netball has far-reaching consequences in the upliftment of women, and government needs to visualize the long-term benefits it would bring for women, and for the economy of the country.
“He might have found it easy to work in sport, because of his experiences working with the youth. He is a man of his word. He does not settle for mediocrity, so whoever works with him is always kept on their toes.”
Along with expanding the NSA offices, hosting workshops to get NSA Directors more involved with their regions, and renewing the contract with SPAR for a further three years, Mthethwa put her head down and relished the opportunity to be a part of history.
“Being able to get started with processes towards the launch of NPL; the road shows done throughout the country for input and buy-in by netball regions; establishment of the private company to run the NPL and the cooperation and support from regions in engaging through all the necessary processes to see the league off.”
Looking to benefit from the experience garnered by associates managing the Australia-New Zealand League, an SA officials delegation headed down under in October 2012, to seek guidance on the organization of a pro netball league.
A Search for Pro League Best Practice
“We wanted to choose the best model to follow,” explains Mthethwa. “We knew how we wanted to run our league, but felt it will not hurt to hear from countries that had done it over at least five years.
“We came back convinced that our model of choice would be the best – not selling franchises at least in the first three years, but giving NSA the ownership and control of the professional league. They concurred with us that selling franchises would have challenges that might kill the league, if control was by private entities that would own the players.”
Mthethwa raises the misconception that full-time netball players are common in Australia and New Zealand. “They are not able to generate income that is enough to provide for players, with all the added benefits.”
Advice taken into consideration included the importance for government funding initially, with continued funding to address development issues, added to the requirement for a Players’ Association for representation in matters that involve them as well, and a code of conduct to regulate the league.
“We have managed to establish the NPL Board,” says Mthethwa, which involves three independent women with business skills, legal experience and governance acumen, to compliment the existing NSA Executive.
“The Board, working with Accelerate Sport and Sport & Recreation South Africa, is working around the clock to get sponsors for the league; we hope by the time we launch we would have good news to report in this area,” says Mthethwa.
And what, exactly, can be expected of the inaugural year of the Netball Pro League?
The Dawn of a New Era
“We are looking at 10 teams for a start,” explains Mthethwa, “With Gauteng featuring two teams because of the quality of players in this province.
“Twelve players (of each team) will be fully contracted, and each province will decide on the pool of players to be contracted as replacements. SPAR Protea players will be contracted for the whole year, since they will move from playing at the NPL and do national duty.
“There will be 10 General Managers, there will be 10 Coaches, 10 Physiotherapists, 10 Biokineticists, and 10 Team Managers all with individually designed contracts.”
“SPAR Protea players will be contracted for the whole year, since they will move between playing at the NPL and national duty,” says Mthethwa.
From February to March NSA will schedule trials, selections and the preparation of teams for the NPL, with matches getting underway in a dedicated season from April to June. Junior and Senior national netball champs follow during July and August, and for the first time, men’s players will have their separate championships.
This phase will conclude with the second edition of the hugely popular Diamond Challenge, which will go some distance to ensuring the best preparation for the final phase of the year in the SPAR Protea player’s calendar from September to November, when the team’s skills and development will be tested in International competition.
Mthethwa says development is a “crucial element” to having an exciting Netball Professional League.
“NSA now has two wings,” says Mthethwa emphasising that – in addition to the massive effort required to get the eagerly-awaited pro league off the ground, a resolute allocation of resources to the NSA’s development structures and programs are in place, including talent identification, training workshops and courses, from feeder tournaments to the national champs and ultimately the international competitions.
She notes that despite the achievements of NSA’s official programmes, the concept of development is a complex one, which requires further attention.
“Development is seen as a crucial element to having an exciting NPL,” explains Mthethwa, “We need good technical officials as well as good players, so NSA’s tasks will not be neglected.
“For me, the most serious transformation gap that we have failed to close is addressing the social issues that make our players of colour look like they are second-best when it comes to performance, especially in sport that was predominantly ‘white’ sport,” says Mthethwa.
“For any athlete to get to being a world-class athlete nowadays requires a lot of support, scientific sport to be exact. But before one gets to scientific support, there are more pressing issues that most players of colour have to deal with.”
Illustrating the difficulty of the situation, Mthethwa argues; “If we agree that all children have the right to play any sport, excel in it and then choose to live out of it, then we must make sure that each child has a proper home, gets proper food on daily basis, has a conducive family background and unit, has a mentor/coach, and plays and competes regularly.”
Broadcast Deal to Build Support for Netball
One of the most eye-catching developments for the public has been NSA securing a five-year broadcast deal with Supersport for much of the team’s international fixtures.
Mthethwa agrees the broadcast deal was an integral administration focus. “Yes this was a key goal for us. We understand that if we are to turn our fortunes around – as far as building the netball brand goes, we have to have a broadcaster that projects Quality in its production.
“We have to catch viewers’ attention by showing live netball matches. We have declared our interest to contribute in lifting the fortunes of netball in the African continent. SuperSport therefore fits in very well with this vision since they reach more than 28 countries in Africa.
“Already people have noticed netball, and have become more interested in it!”
Mthethwa acknowledges that being NSA President is very challenging, but insists that she appreciates the many exciting opportunities the position draws. “It is exciting for it presents opportunity for me to try new things,” says Mthethwa. “It is also gratifying when a lot of people who are objective enough to acknowledge that I have done well, say so. The support I get from SRSA and other government departments is also very humbling.”
Mthethwa is resolute in her determination that the story of women’s achievement must be told. “We need to come together as women and share in the joys of those who succeed and not be instruments of destruction from jealousy.
“There are many women who are doing a tremendous job in sport but their stories just never seem to be told,” she says. “I think women need to push on and not be discouraged. We need to do triple what men do to prove ourselves. We also need not to be shy to talk about our achievements, no matter how small.”
Mthethwa has admiration for all women who have excelled as sport administrators and athletes, making an impact in raising the profile of women’s sport in South Africa. “I can safely say that women who were at the helm of sport in the transition period are all brave women, who worked hard to pave the way for what we have in sport today.
A Moment to Honour SA Women Sporting Heroines
As for her sporting heroines, she highlights Elize Kotze winning the Coach Award at the 2012 SPAR gsport Awards as a proud moment, and goes on to cite a long list of prominent SA athletes and administrators,
“Natalie Du Toit is a true ambassador and role model. Caster Semenya is the most courageous young woman. All the SPAR Protea players who have, against all odds, managed to put South Africa on the map. Elize Kotze is a very special coach who has brought an entirely new perspective to working with the players.
“Former players who have led the SPAR Protea team and have now joined NSA as technical officials are heroines, because they realize that they have the role to play in helping young players to also get to the top.
“Marcia Marescia and the National Hockey team did us proud at the Olympic Games, and they have put in a lot of effort to improve their performance. Bridgitte Hartley is also a heroine and she still has more to offer, as young girls would now be more interested in the type of sport she does.
“Penny Heyns, Zola Budd and Hestrie Cloete, to mention but a few, also left a legacy for women in sport. The late Rosina Magole is still spoken about in netball circles for her skills. Irene van Dyk is an icon in world netball, and we are still proud of her,” says Mthethwa.
“The William sisters are also my heroines, for the tremendous work they do for charity, and just for their exceptional tennis skills!”
“These are women who in their own right have been seen as ambassadors of the country, and role models to young girls and boys who look at them and feel inspired that they could also make a mark in sport in different ways.”
Honesty a Virtue Beyond Compromise
On the virtue of values, Mthethwa looks to her late father are her role model. “He was a selfless man who lived to serve people, was humble but very frank, and stood firm for what he believed in. He taught me the value of hard work.
“He taught me that true satisfaction and fulfillment is only attained when you know that you have given your best,” she says, “And have done something the way you believe it should be done.
“He had this wonderful gift of finding a way to get along with everyone,” muses Mthethwa, “And would be able to ‘live’ in their world to understand them, and be one of them.
“He taught me that honesty is a virtue that can never be compromised, regardless of the consequences.”