NETBALL was the only sport in which Scotland did not compete at the last Commonwealth Games, as they failed to qualify by a single world-ranking place.
This time, despite falling in the rankings, the hosts qualify by right, as 12 teams will compete in Glasgow rather than the eight who took part in Delhi four years ago.
But getting into the tournament is only the first step. Maggie Murray, Netball Scotland’s chief executive, has seen a slow decline in participating numbers and playing standards over the past 30 years. She now sees the Commonwealth Games as a golden opportunity – perhaps the last one the sport has – to arrest that decline and begin a steady recovery.
“We have begun planning on what kind of impact we could have out of the Commonwealth Games,” Murray explained. “Because, for us, it’s about survival. It’s a strong word to use, but that’s how I look at it.
“We’re not a medal-winning sport. Our target is to be eighth at the Commonwealth Games, and that’s a significant target – we’re currently 12th. If we reach that target, we have a fighting chance of convincing people that we’re a sport worth investing in.
“We have about 3,500 members, and about 20,000 play the game. Netball has the potential to be a fabulous participation sport for women in general – not just girls and young women, but people my age as well, and I’m in my 50s.
“I think, as a sport, we went to sleep for about 15 years. We were sixth in the world in 1983, then we started to go down from there. Our aim is to get back there. If you get into the top six in the world, you qualify for every competition automatically.”
Murray is sure that netball retains a place in the affections of a significant section of the population. If even a minute percentage of those people turned their affection into active participation or support, generating money would become significantly easier.
“The biggest thing that we can draw from the Commonwealth Games is getting people starting to respect netball as a sport that is beneficial for women and girls,” she added.
“Wherever we go as part of Netball Scotland, we meet women who have happy memories of playing netball. If we can galvanise their enthusiasm through doing well at the Games, we have the opportunity to grow our sport significantly.
“An increase in numbers will in turn give us the opportunity to attract more sponsors. Doubling our numbers would be a significant uplift.
“We also have to work harder to persuade the male half of the population to support netball, particularly in schools, where many PE departments are still male-dominated. Netball is often not chosen over sports like basketball, badminton or football, so we need more PE teachers to learn how to coach netball. It doesn’t take long.”
One PE teacher who is already a keen advocate is Claire Brownie, a key member of the national team for several years. Brownie, who teaches at Hamilton Grammar School, played in last week’s Tests against New Zealand at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow and, although Scotland lost both games heavily, she said they had given the team some valuable experience.
“It was absolutely brilliant for us,” she said after the second Test. “We’ll be playing them in the Commonwealth Games in July, so to play against the best in the world has allowed us to see where we are right now and where we need to go.
“None of us had played New Zealand before. They’re the current Commonwealth champions, ranked second in the world, and we’re 12th. Our aim at the moment is to get into the top ten.
“I really enjoyed playing against them. You’ve got to enjoy it – if you’re not enjoying it then there’s no point in being there. To play against one of the best teams in the world is a great opportunity to learn.”
Brownie got as close as any Scottish player to the last Commonwealth Games tournament, as she was part of the Achieve 2014 programme that took non-participating athletes to India to give them a taste of what being at a major multi-sport event is like.
Brownie added: “It was one of the best experiences of my life so far, I learned so much. There’s a lot happened since then. There’s been a change of personnel with new members coming into the squad, but we’re all working towards the same goals.”
For Brownie and her team-mates, the main goal this year is to get the two wins in the group stages in Glasgow that will give them a top-eight ranking.
Scotland have been drawn in Pool A, along with New Zealand, Malawi, Jamaica, Northern Ireland and St Lucia.
The top two go through to the semi-finals to meet the best pair from Pool B, which consists of Australia, England, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, Wales and Barbados.
Scotland’s first opponents are St Lucia, whom they meet on 25 July. The netball competition, which is being held at the SECC Precinct, begins the previous day and runs right through to the last day of the Games, 3 August. Tickets for every session have already sold out.