World Youth Netball: Putting the sport back on Scotland's map

By Jessica CreightonBBC Sport at the World Youth Netball Championships
World Youth Netball Championships comes to Glasgow

Lynsey Gallagher refuses to describe herself as a sporting star. Yet gigantic images of her in a Scottish netball kit adorn the country's buildings and buses.

"It's been a bit bizarre," Gallagher, 21, admits to BBC Sport. The Scotland Under-21s captain has taken a lead role in promoting the World Youth Netball Championships in Glasgow, the country's first international netball event in more than two decades.

"I thought it would be a few flyers and leaflets but to see yourself on these massive billboards beside David Beckham, it's totally bizarre," she says.

"My uncle was speaking to me and he said: 'I see you everyday when I drive to work.' And friends over social media have been getting in touch saying they've seen me 10 times bigger than I normally am. I'm trying to take it all in my stride."

"There's not too much media coverage for netball in Scotland," Gallagher continues. "However, having this event has given me the opportunity to be the face of these games in the run up to the Commonwealth Games.

And that's exactly what netball in Scotland needs, says the country's governing body. A face. Someone to show the public that it is just as competitive and exciting as other more recognised sports.

"The perception of netball is that it's a schoolgirls' game, and it never grew up to be a big girls' game," explains Netball Scotlandexternal-link CEO Maggie Murray. "Most people will say: 'that's that game where you pivot.' The perception of the game doesn't meet our ambition."

Netball Scotland's ambition - laudable even if grandiose - is to make netball the most popular women's sport in the country. Football might have something to say about that though, as Murray admits.

Lynsey Gallagher: the star of Scottish netball

"Research by Sport Scotland shows that the most popular sports are obviously football and dance. But in third place is netball," Murray said. "You speak to any woman my age and to lots of generations below me and they will say: 'I played netball at school and I loved it.'"

Netball Scotland's recent plan of attack has been targeting school children. They hope that netball-specific learning will encourage the younger generations into the sport, then they can nurture their talent to elite level. Last year they worked with 154 schools. This year 506 schools have been involved.

There's also been an increase in people signing up to netball clubs across the country to 3,214.

"We need to get into the hearts and minds of every girl and every woman to come back into the game like England have done. And they've done it very successfully," Murray says. "We need to light that fire again."

That's where hosting tournaments like the World Youthsexternal-link come in. With the Commonwealth Games under a year away, Netball Scotland are using this event to gauge interest in the sport and hopefully raise its profile ahead of Glasgow 2014 and beyond.

And with an unprecedented number of fans walking through the doors of the new £113m Emirates Arena to watch the world's best young players, the World Youths are being marked as a success.

It's become the most-watched netball event Scotland has ever staged. Netball Scotland haven't just relied on bums on seats viewing figures, they are live streaming every game for free with fans from as far afield as Fiji tuning in to watch their team play.

Gallagher, who balances life as an international netballer with studying for a Sport and Exercise Science degree,external-link has certainly felt the effect on court.

"We've had fantastic crowds here, not just Scotland but for all the teams. To have crowds that are there from the starting whistle is like having that eighth man that pushes you all the way," says the goal attack.

But amongst the cheering school children and their parents in the crowd are Commonwealth Games selectors, studiously marking and grading Lynsey's every pass and pivot. An impressive performance here will secure selection to next summer's main event.

"You always have that in the back of your mind," Gallagher says. "But we have to focus on what it is we're here to do a these championships.

"I'm hoping I've put in enough time and work to be one of those athletes come July 2014, but yes, it all hangs in the balance."

These championships are being used as a dress rehearsal for the Commonwealth Games, which is one of netball's strongest competitions. With many of the top nations like reigning champions New Zealand, Australia, England and Jamaica all taking part, and the sport yet to convince Olympic bosses that it should be included in the Olympic programme, Glasgow 2014 will be an opportunity for the Scottish Thistles to make their mark on the world stage.

Scotland didn't qualify for the last Games in 2010 and will be the lowest-ranked team in the competition at 13th in the world,external-link but it will be about more than just performances when the tournament begins on 24 July.

"This is how we are going to change minds, by showing top level athletes who are just as good as any athlete in any other sport and are superb to watch," says Murray.

"If we can change the minds of mostly our male population, and a great deal of our female population, we can turn that around. We have an aspiration to make netball the most popular sport for girls and women by 2025. I think it's realistic."

Maybe, then, by 2025, imposing adverts of Scottish netball players scattered across Glasgow's city landscape won't be such a "bizarre" sight.

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