Netball and Anna Carter’s Leeds Rhinos face dilemma over their future plans

While clubs, leagues and governing bodies formulate, strategise and worry over the length of the coronavirus lockdown that has engulfed sport, Leeds Rhinos Netball find themselves in a unique position.

For they currently do not have a league to play in or any player contracts to worry about.

Leeds Rhinos will not play a game until February 2021, when they take their first pass as a Vitality Netball Superleague franchise.

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They are currently in the planning phase for their first season among the game’s elite, meaning the lockdown brought on Superleague last month that has struck fear into clubs, does not impact them greatly.

However, there could be a residual effect, depending on the length of the suspension.

Anna Carter, the Rhinos’ director of netball and the driving force behind bringing top-flight netball back to Yorkshire is, like many within the game, fearful of what this abeyance could do to the growing reputation of the sport.

“The hardest thing is the sport has grown massively since England’s Commonwealth Games win in 2018 and we have built an amazing spectator base,” begins Carter.

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“The opening day at Birmingham Arena in February was the most successful we’ve ever had; there were 9,000 there for all four games and the biggest income generator our sport has seen.

“So it’s a little bit worrying now to go from that to potentially not having any domestic netball from now until possibly next February. It could be quite damaging for the sport.

“So the dilemma is how do you keep fans engaged, do you do so with a watered-down product, or nothing at all?”

In her prominent role with the Rhinos, one of three new teams elevated to Superleague for 2021, Carter has been allowed a listening brief on league-wide discussions about the current campaign, which traditionally runs from February to July.

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“It doesn’t affect us this year, the only way it would is if they prolong the season beyond next February but that’s not open to discussion,” explains Carter of a season scheduled originally to finish with the Grand Final on July 4. “I just cannot even imagine how difficult it could be. Listening to the teams they are all keeping their cards close to their chest.

“Option one would be the league is abandoned and the start of the 2021 season is the next domestic netball we have.

“Option two would be some form of competition to fall in line with playing contracts that finish in July.”

Like all sports right now, the big issues are playing contracts and how to fit the fixtures in, once sport resumes.

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“It’s difficult in netball because no team owns their own venue,” says Carter, whose Rhinos team next year will play at Leeds Beckett University, Leeds Arena and even the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield.

“A lot of teams rely on university gyms and you don’t know what those gyms are going to be needed for from September onwards.

“Plus there’s the issue of paying players. Players will be out of contract in the summer, so will we be able to renegotiate those contracts?

“Where netball is in a good place is there aren’t wages to live off from playing this sport, you’re not going to pay your mortgage off.

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“There’s still an understanding among the players of what’s important for the game, there’s a bit of goodwill.”

Goodwill could be crucial in the coming months for the sport from players and fans alike. Carter has found that commodity in spades at Leeds Rhinos.

The famous rugby league name threw netball a lifeline in the White Rose county a couple of years ago, after the Yorkshire Jets experiment failed.

Carter, a former player herself, was a prominent figure in that side that lasted just two years as a Superleague franchise before having their licence revoked.

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There was anger and bewilderment at the time but, after a spell working with Loughborough Lightning and now under the professional umbrella of the Rhinos, Carter understands the differences between the two operations this county has tried to launch.

“We did whatever it took to make it happen with the Yorkshire Jets,” recalls Carter.

“We were constantly finding young players who then had to move on with a better governance and structure.

“The game has changed. Players now make decisions about being the best and having a fantastic all-round experience. Governance is key, as are good partnerships. People who are very good at what they do. With the Jets, we were the receptionist, the cook, the cleaner.

“This time it’s people who really drive their areas.

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“The lesson would be not putting yourself in areas of risk. That’s what Leeds Rhinos have shown me; the professionalism. If an audit comes, make sure you’re across everything.”

Rest assured, Leeds Rhinos Netball will be, whenever the sport resumes.

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