The History of Netball

By Michael Kachitsa

Netball is a relatively old sport which has grown from humble roots to become a major sport throughout the world. It was developed in England in the late 1890’s, following the introduction of basketball a few years earlier. The sport quickly grabbed hold, with women throughout the British empire participating as a way to socialise and stay healthy. Male and mixed netball competitions have begun to develop in recent times, and are becoming more and more popular every year. Netball has traditionally been dominated by both Australia (11 titles and 3 second place finishes) and New Zealand (4 titles and 8 second place finishes), with Australia the current world champions. The only other country to win a world cup is Trinidad and Tobago, who won in 1979.

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In 1891, an American schoolteacher by the name of James Naismith invented what has become one of the most popular sports in the world: basketball. However, the accepted dress of 19th century women prevented them from participating in basketball in the same way men could. They had trouble with movements such as dribbling and jumping. This led to female teachers putting their heads together and adapting the game to allow women to participate. The rules of netball (originally known as women’s basketball) can be traced back to this time.

From here, the sport quickly spread throughout the world. A match at Madame Ostenburg’s College in 1895 was the first time the game was played in England. From here, colonists rapidly dispersed the sport throughout the British empire, where it often became the most popular female sport.

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However, the rules of netball weren’t officially developed until six years later. It is thought that an American gym teacher called Clara Baer began to create official rules in 1898 when she asked Naismith for a copy of the rules of basketball. Using this copy, she identified the areas where ‘female basketball’ differed and modified the rules. This document formed the basis for the official rules as we know them today. In 1901, these rules were published and netball became an official competitive sport.

As netball spread to the British colonies, it began to develop independently in different places. Rules changed according to location, and team sizes ranged from five to nine players on court at any one time. The rules were not standardised until almost 60 years later, when the International Federation of Women’s Basketball and Netball Associations was developed. The rules were officially standardised in 1960 at a conference in Sri Lanka which was attended by representatives from Australia, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, South Africa, The West Indies, and England.

From humble beginnings, netball has gone from strength to strength to become one of the most popular sports in countries across the world. Over 20 million people from at least 80 different countries play netball today. Australia has been the world’s best at netball since the sport made its way to the country. They have won the majority of world titles and major tournaments over history, with 11 of 16 world cups and 3 of 5 Commonwealth Games gold medals.