As Netball Scotland seeks to broaden its player base, it is actively targeting girls in the final years of primary school to get them into junior clubs, Roddy Mackenzie reports
The usual suspects were at the Scottish Schools Netball Cup finals last week, with the west of Scotland heavily represented at Linwood Sports Centre in Renfrewshire. Taking part in this season's competition were 117 teams from 50 schools, but organised moves are being made to attract more schools in future.
In December, Netball Scotland launched thistle-netball for 9- to 11-year-olds, boys included, and is looking to forge links between primary schools and junior clubs.
Mini-netball is already popular in Scottish primaries but the new programme is designed for those moving up to the full game.
"Mini-netball is drills and skills and aimed at the younger primary age group as an introduction to the sport," explains Andrew Farley, general manager of Netball Scotland, "but this is closer to the fully fledged game."
Netball is more vulnerable than most sports to a drop-off in player numbers between primary and secondary school. About 500 primary schools in Scotland play some form of netball; only 100 secondary schools do.
It is difficult enough encouraging girls aged 13 to 17 to remain involved in sport, but keeping them involved in team sports is doubly difficult. It is generally regarded as easier to involve girls in more informal sports, such as running, golf and swimming.
Having acknowledged the difficulties, Netball Scotland is attempting to build a lasting link between its introductory game and its junior national squads.
"We are setting up 10 centres throughout the country," explains Mr Farley.
"The aim is to get 500 participants this year and to double that number next year, which would give us 1,000 players.
"Thistle-netball is a 10-week extra-curricular programme and participants will be given a ball and a T-shirt. The aim is to take it into local sports halls or church halls and out into the community. We hope that by doing this we will build up our junior clubs.
"Our senior clubs are quite strong but junior clubs are an area of weakness. So the aim is to set up more, whether it's a new club in a local scout hall or part of an established senior club.
"There will be players taking part in primary schools, secondary schools, clubs or districts. It is important to open up different routes, so that there are as many avenues as possible open for girls who want to play."
Netball Scotland has so far concentrated on eight areas - Perth, Aberdeen, Fife, Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, Ayrshire and Edinburgh - but there is activity elsewhere, with teams playing in Oban and Stranraer.
"We would hope to set up junior national leagues at some stage, but the emphasis at the moment is on increasing participation," says Mr Farley.
"Hopefully parents will also become involved and we'll get more volunteers to help coach and provide administration for the clubs."
If the number of players can be increased over the next few years, it will give Scotland a chance of competing more credibly in the international arena.
Scotland's under-17 team finished second to England in the European Netball Championships in Hull in March this year, beating Northern Ireland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. In the under-21 event, where Scotland finished fourth, Northern Ireland came out victorious, ahead of England, which has a much bigger training base. So there are signs that working with a smaller base of players does not mean results cannot be achieved at international level.
The next major event is in July, when Scotland will send a team to Florida for the World Youth Netball Championships.
Netball Scotland is also seeking to raise the media profile of the game to attract people to the sport. The governing body has increased its registered adult playing base from 1,500 to 1,800 over the past three years but it is estimated there are 20,000 people playing regularly throughout the country. In comparison, Australia has about 330,000 active players and boasts some of the best in the world and thus commands media attention.
This gives Netball Scotland something to strive towards.
Although a number of boys play mini-netball, Mr Farley, who was brought up in Melbourne, believes the chances of a men's or even a mixed national league in Scotland are a long way off.
"Although there are mixed leagues in Australia, it's not something that I can see happening here in the next few years," he says. "It's different when you have hundreds of thousands playing the game; then it's inevitable that the partners of women playing would be drawn into it.
"But we'll be concentrating on the traditional female game for the moment."