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Joanna Coates

Chief Executive, UK Athletics

We recently sat down with the brilliant UK Athletics Chief Executive, Jo Adams, to talk all things Netball World Cup related, including the legacy the tournament hopes to create, before she departed for UK Athletics.

Over the past 10 years, nine and a half of those under Jo's tenure, English netball has been completely transformed with international, commercial and grassroots success. Before she departed to take an exciting new role as Chief Executive at UK Athletics we spoke with Jo about the impact of Vitality’s partnership with England Netball, whether or not English players going overseas is in the sport’s best interest, a grassroots revolution and plenty more.

"We ran an extra 500 sessions in just that first week after the World Cup, and all of those sessions were full"

As a woman whose tenure at England Netball has facilitated its greatest ever transformation, it was always Jo’s aim to boost participation in a sport that has always gone a little under the radar. International success in its two biggest tournaments in the past 18 months has fast-tracked growth – the Vitality Roses won their first ever Commonwealth Games gold in 2018, breaking the duopoly that Australia and New Zealand had on the competition, before finishing third at the recent World Cup on home soil – but it’s all part of a longer-term strategy.

“After the Commonwealth Games, we saw about a 2000 per cent increase in the number of people using our online session finder”

It’s yet to be a month since the end of the Netball World Cup in Liverpool, but the impact is already being felt – a further jump of 1000 per cent on initial participation levels proves that.

The past two years have been a pivotal time for English netball, but its current trajectory is one that was outlined while Jo was still in her previous role of Commercial Director. A decade-long plan was put in place to grow participation, build a functional development programme and establish commercial sustainability.England’s international success has overtaken the organisation’s quest for domestic improvements. The aim, Jo outlined earlier this year in a BBC feature, is to create a Netball league that rivals its southern hemisphere counterparts – currently, Australia and New Zealand boast the world’s only two professional leagues, something that Jo wants to change.

As a result, English players have historically ventured to the other side of the world in search of a full-time career. Jo poses the question: “Do we always want to keep our girls playing netball in the UK?,” before answering assertively. “I’m not sure we do. In our performance environment we talk about best versus best, so if the best players are in the Australian league, that’s where we’d want them playing.

“We want to establish a professional league...”

“We want to establish a professional league, but we wouldn’t want it to be full of English athletes who, despite being paid a full-time salary while playing in the UK, go out on the international stage and continually lose. A domestic league that benefits the international side would have to feature the best athletes in our sport, wherever they’re from, so we have to get to a point where it is an attractive prospect for everyone. That’s part of the long-term plan – none of this just happens by accident.”

Riding the wave of international success is merely part of the journey – a welcome one, admittedly, but now that it has been achieved the organisation can ill afford to rest on its laurels. Additional infrastructure has to be put in place, as well as funding, which Jo admits has been the  biggest sticking point in her attempts to turn England Netball around.

“They’re truly magnificent partners who deserve a lot of gratitude”

In a search for funding, Jo came across a number of organisations who, despite appearing to champion women’s sport from a corporate social responsibility point of view, simply wouldn’t put their hands in their pockets. That all changed when discussions with insurance firm Vitality opened up.

Looking back, the importance of Vitality’s initial deal can’t be underestimated. Their funding allowed the national team to embark on a full-time programme that would go on to lead to Commonwealth gold and open up an array of other opportunities. “Four years ago, no one was partnering with women’s sport.

“They’re truly magnificent partners who deserve a lot of gratitude for the time, effort and money they’ve put in. Not only is it the funding, it’s the activation and awareness they’re raised for our sport. For it to grow successfully, we need to put the infrastructure in place and Vitality are allowing us to do that.”

Perhaps most impressively, part of Vitality’s World Cup sponsorship saw them fund a total of 114 coaching courses – they wanted to be part of the legacy, rather than just have their name out there. “It doesn’t matter how many people want to play netball if you don’t have the coaches and the officials. Without those you can’t facilitate the game, so Vitality’s commitment to developing the sport has been invaluable.”

“If we’re not getting more people playing the sport, what’s the point?”

It was announced this week that Jo will be stepping down  from her role at England Netball to become Chief Operating Officer at the London Legacy Development Corporation, where she will be tasked with turning around the fortunes of the Olympic Park. But first, she’s got a legacy of her own to leave behind, one that she admits has been “a labour of love”.

We’re eight years in to England Netball’s initial 10-year plan, and the strides forward that have been made under Jo’s leadership, as well as that of outgoing Head Coach Tracey Neville, have been monumental. Participation in the UK was boosted by 130,000 following the 2018 Commonwealth Games, and with improved funding secured for the next three years, the only way is up.

“When we plan for the big events and big tournaments, everything we do is geared towards the legacy we can leave behind. Fans have a fantastic time attending, and athletes are playing at the top of their game on the biggest stage, but if we’re not getting more people playing the sport, what’s the point?

“Having the home World Cup made a huge difference, too. We made use of the whole piece around women’s sport, coming off the back of a successful Women’s Football World Cup, and it was at a good time in the calendar because we were only up against the Golf. All those factors came into play to make it a really successful tournament, and one that will help us achieve our goals in the years to come.”

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