Yorkshire Jets will play to a packed house at Sheffield’s English Institute of Sport tonight – how many White Rose clubs can say that?
Granted, 850 fans is not a capacity Hillsborough or Headingley, but it is a number that is indicative of one of the fastest growing sports in Britain.
Netball is blossoming. National exposure at last summer’s Commonwealth Games was followed by a lucrative television deal with Sky Sports, in which one Superleague fixture per week is screened live.
A sport that has never known such exposure, suddenly finds itself in the spotlight.
The increased awareness has made the dawn of the 10th Superleague season feel like the start of a brand new era.
That is certainly the feeling for the Yorkshire Jets, who are entering their fourth year in England and Wales’s elite tier, and their third as the Jets, after starting out life in 2005 as Leeds Carnegie, based at Leeds Beckett University.
That remains their spiritual home, but to help grow the sport, they will play their seven home games this Spring across four sites throughout the region; Sheffield’s EIS, Leeds Beckett University, the University of Huddersfield and Hull Sports Arena.
“Commercially it’s good because we get to go out and build interest in the sport around the county,” says Anna Carter, the Jets head coach and Lancastrian by birth, but an adopted Yorkshirewoman, having been with the netball programme in Leeds since its inception.
“For me, there’s always a battle regarding performance where you want a home venue that you play out of week in, week out, which we don’t have.
“But I can see the commercial benefits of going out and connecting with the wider public in Yorkshire.
“Sheffield has been a great supporter – tonight’s opening game is a sell-out, and the games we have at Leeds Beckett are pretty much a sell-out as well.
“Hull normally is a capacity, and Huddersfield was sold out for a friendly with Manchester, so obviously people are getting out there and supporting us, which is exciting.
“Eventually I’d like a home with 5,000 fans in every week, like they do in the premier Australia New Zealand league. But we’ll build up to it slowly.
“We are testing the boundaries of where we sit with the sport and that’s really useful as we assess what the next move for the Jets is.”
Yorkshire finished seventh last year, with their next immediate step being a desire to make that a top-four finish and a place in the semi-finals come April.
“We were disappointed with seventh last season, but we’ve strengthened our squad massively and we can definitely push for the top four and the final,” says Natalie Haythornthwaite, 22, an England A player and Jets vice-captain, who has been under the tutelage of Carter since their days on the other side of the Pennines.
Haythornthwaite and her team-mates are not paid, though the job of a netball player is effectively full-time. Like many of the squad, she combines her role with studies at Leeds Beckett, and because she is good at her day job, also trains regularly with the England development squad in Manchester.
“It does seem like full-time, but we all have to fit an education around it,” says Haythornthwaite, who is studying speech and language therapy.
“There’s some funding in the sport through the England set-up, to cover travel costs and equipment costs, but not enough to live off.”
Carter adds: “Natalie’s day, like some of the girls, starts at 5am when she heads to Manchester and finishes roughly around 10.30 at night.
“They are practically full-time athletes but they can’t class themselves as that because they’ve got their future outside netball to contend with.”
Even the players they recruit from the big league in Australia, where the game is most popular, have to combine netball with their studies.
“It’s massive Down Under,” says Australian player Sally Butters, 24, who has come back to England for a second spell in Superleague, having chosen Leeds because her father is from Shipley.
“Natalie started when she was 10, but in Australia most girls are starting at age six or seven and they get 2,000 kids to the local club each week.
“But you can see it gradually changing in England. It’s seen as more of an acceptable sport with the same attributes as a male-dominated sport.”
Therein lies the opportunity. For as much as the England women’s rugby team, football and cricket teams have made headlines in recent times, they will forever be seen as inferior to their male counterparts. Netball is predominantly a women’s game.
“There’s a massive push on women’s sport at the moment, and for me personally, there should be a women’s team sport to get behind,” says Carter.
“The rugby team have done really well. The footballers have always had the following.
“Women’s sport is gaining in popularity and getting the kudos it deserves. These girls, as much as they’re not professional athletes by name, are professional in their manner; they’re very determined, they know what they want and I’d say to some degree, when I look at other sports and the men involved, they’re more committed than the people in the male- dominated sports.
“The fact that a lot of the footballers’ daughters are playing has added to the interest. The Nevilles, Gareth Southgate’s daughter is in the system and he’s been spotted at games and Paul Scholes’s daughter is a promising young player.
“It’s perfectly acceptable to go to a game now, whether you’re a man or a woman. Ten years ago it was a case of ‘why you going to watch netball?’ But the mindset is changing.”
As the capacity crowd at the EIS tonight will atest.