The unusual birthplace of professional women’s sport in New Zealand
Twenty-four years ago, a group of Southlanders began guiding New Zealand female athletes into the world of professional sport. At the time, this group was considered more mischievous than the pioneers. Logan Savory reports.
Lee Piper can’t think of many more hated people in netball in the late 1990s and early 2000s than himself.
He laughs at the situation now. He also looks back with a sense of pride.
Piper and others in Southland, in part, have helped “break the glass” for female athletes in New Zealand.
The SouthernTeamCo organization was formed to lead the Invercargill-based Southern Sting netball team into the Coca-Cola Cup in 1998.
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The radio director was a board member of SouthernTeamCo. He also acted as a poacher for the Sting.
SouthernTeamCo offered money to attract players to the Sting. Nor did they try to hide it at a time when netball, and women’s sport for that matter, was almost exclusively amateur in New Zealand.
Government grants were available to help New Zealand’s top female athletes, but they were not so rewarded with the commercial dollar.
“The Sting was certainly the first major women’s sports organization [in New Zealand] come out and say we pay the players, and we pay them pretty well,” Piper says.
There was no hesitation as to who they might upset along the way, either.
Included in the list of affected players were players with strong ties to other provinces. The likes of Lesley Nicol and Adine Harper from Otago, Belinda Colling from Canterbury, Tania Dalton from North Harbour, and many more.
Sting’s raid also included Bernice Mene and a Christchurch teenager named Donna Loffhagen.
“I was doing radio interviews in Canterbury, and they were just giving them to me. That stuff didn’t go well,” Piper recalled.
“But Rob [coach Robyn Broughton] decided who she wanted, and we went to get them. We absolutely ruffled the feathers and weren’t liked by anyone [outside Southland].”
Netball New Zealand itself was agitated by Sting’s bold move to pay players when other teams weren’t. With various other antics besides.
In the days leading up to the 1998 final against the Otago Rebels, Piper joined other Southlanders in lining up in Dunedin to buy as many tickets as possible to ensure the venue was filled with Sting supporters.
“It was frowned upon by the authorities,” Piper says.
“I wouldn’t say I was the most hated man, but I got regular calls from Netball New Zealand. They would literally make rules in reaction to what we did. If we did something, it would be considered out of the way, next year you could guarantee the rules would be changed.
While the Sting did not endear themselves to many in New Zealand, the team became the darling of Southland.
At a time when provinces across New Zealand have teamed up with their various men’s sports teams, it was the group of female athletes who inspired the Southlanders and swelled the pride of those in the region.
“We kind of broke the mould,” Piper says of Southland’s fixation on a women’s sports team.
“These girls we brought were amazing. Tania, Adine, Lesley, you could name them all – they basically become Southlanders.
“I think that really helped Southland in those days. It gave us something we were good at, we could compete with Wellington, we could compete with Auckland. Not only were we competing, we were winning.
Southland’s love for its netball team went on until the community came together to build a new stadium for the team to play their home games.
Festive street parades also become the norm as the Southlanders treated their netballers like royalty.
In the Sting’s 10-year history – from 1998 to 2007 – he won seven titles and finished second the other three years.
“A lot of people talk about sports eras and dynasties, and they talk about crusaders. If you consider that netball is still one of New Zealand’s major sports, that [Sting] run from 1998 to 2007, was a major event for a sports team,” says Piper.
It was the Invercargill Licensing Trust that provided the financial backbone of the Sting and put it in a position to pay players.
Piper says it was also a success story that breeds success while investing in women’s sports.
“Once we started, ticket sales were out of this world. We would have sold out crowds again and again.
“What we did back then in Southland was play women’s sport, and in this case netball the talking point. Getting a ticket to a game was difficult. There was almost an underworld ticket exchange in progress.
At the time, the Sting was considered a bit radical, but Piper is proud that paid players are now simply the norm in netball.
During the last years of the Sting Piper, it began to become more difficult to lure players south, as other teams also began offering incentives to lure players.
Although Piper adds that it wasn’t until the start of the trans-Tasman competition in 2008 that pay got to a point where every player was paid.
Piper then joined Netball New Zealand’s board from 2007 to 2015. He wonders how that came about given some clashes during his early days as Sting’s poacher.
He now manages players and has worked with female athletes in other sports over the years, including cycling champion Alison Shanks.
Piper says there have been great strides in bringing women’s sports into the professional era.
But he admits there is still work to be done in women’s sport.
“I have a dozen ANZ Premiership players I look after and at the bottom of the ladder it’s not enough to make a living. If a Silver Fern can add an ANZ contract and a Silver Ferns contract then, yes, that’s not so bad. But a young player who gets by is quite difficult to make ends meet.
He says the reality is that some of New Zealand’s six professional teams are barely struggling to make ends meet, which has been highlighted by the need for Netball New Zealand to help administer some simply because there is not enough money in it.
“From my perspective, I’d like to see more commercial dollars invested, so that players can potentially get a little more money, but more importantly so that some of these franchises can get better resources than they are. currently.”
The shift from other sports to investing in career opportunities for women is a big step forward for female athletes, Piper says.
The latest being New Zealand Rugby’s decision to provide full-time contracts to Black Ferns 15s players.
“But again, when you look at women’s sport as a whole, it’s poorly funded. They’re just starting to make ends meet now, but when you compare it [to males] they still have a long way to go.