Netball: The men's teams growing in a 'girls' sport'

Knights take on a women's team
Knights have faced many Superleague sides, including Manchester Thunder

"We can't harp on about equality and then not make netball accessible to men."

Ama Agbeze captained England to a historic Commonwealth Games gold in 2018 and netball fever again swept the nation this summer as Liverpool hosted the World Cup.

It is not just girls and women falling in love with the sport, with mixed leagues thriving and one prominent men's club breaking through the glass ceiling.

Yet the men's game is not recognised by the International Netball Federation (INF), and there is no England national seven-a-side team.

BBC Sport has spoken to male players with an ambition of starting a league of their own, but wanting to stay in the shadows of their female counterparts.

Knights in shining armour?

While men have played in mixed netball teams for some time, in April 2018 an ambitious all-male team formed to put it on the map.

Lewis Keeling got into the sport through his sister-in-law and founded London-based Knights, who play regular training games against top-level women's sides.

In the first nine months of their existence Knights had faced eight of the 10 Superleague teams, as well as taking on Northern Ireland, Scotland and Barbados to help them prepare for the World Cup.

"I never thought we would be at this stage so quickly," Keeling told BBC Sport.

"I had basic goals at the start of what I wanted to achieve, but I never expected that this year."

Knights have gained exposure from these matches and now have about 50 players across three squads, but what is in it for the more established women's teams?

"Our version of the game is unstructured and uncoached and things happen that you don't expect," Keeling said.

"The common feedback is it makes the opposition think because they can't just do what they think is going to happen in a structured game."

Saracens Mavericks are one of the sides to have taken them on and director of netball Kathryn Ratnapala thinks men have attributes that can help her squad.

"Some of them will have come from other invasion sports and there are transferrable skills from that, and they bring their own elements to the game to try to match," she said.

"Players like Mary Chalok (Uganda and Loughborough Lightning shooter who is 6ft 7in) are difficult to replicate, with that strength and stature, so you can try to replicate it against men's teams."

Knights players pose with former England head coach Tracey Neville
England netball head coach Tracey Neville has been a supporter of Knights

'It's a girls' sport'

In England, netball is offered as a mixed game up until the age of 11.

Declan Kohl has this year formed Northern Titans - a new men's team pooling players between Leeds and Manchester - and believes that needs to change.

"That's where you lose men's netball. At 11, boys are told it's a girls' sport.

"We've definitely had things on Instagram and Twitter where people say 'it's a girls' sport' - we're trying to change that bias.

"Attitudes in big cities have changed a lot in recent years. In Leeds and Manchester you do have that intercity, cosmopolitan feeling."

England Netball do not have male participation figures in the country as their funding focuses on women and girls playing netball from a grassroots to an elite level.

In London, Keeling says people tend to be open-minded about men in netball, but thinks we can learn from other countries.

"It's seen to be a girls' sport through schooling but it isn't - you only have to look as far as Australia and South Africa to see it's not and they're loving it over there," added Keeling.

"The reaction seems to vary. Sometimes people have a look of shock but in London there's a lot of positivity.

"Once you've said you've been able to represent your country, play in front of a packed arena and against some of the best players, they immediately get it."

The other World Cup this summer

The Netball World Cup may have been and gone but a version of the sport with a modern twist still has its flagship event to come.

NETS - previously known as indoor netball - is a faster version of the game played inside netted courts and crucially, England will be taking a mixed side to South Africa for the World Cup next month, alongside a women's team.

For Keeling, his first taste of playing international sport came in 2016 at the NETS World Cup.

"NETS is seen as the pinnacle of the men's game at the moment, because that is where the opportunity for England representation is."

But not many people know about the sport.

Jen Walsh is captain of the mixed squad and got involved in the form of the game having played netball at school and university.

"There were Superleague netballers who didn't know about it, there's quite low awareness," she said.

"Mixed players need to be more physical. Sometimes people jump to the conclusion that the men might be more dangerous but they're experienced in playing, they know the rules.

"The timing of this World Cup, following on from the Netball World Cup, is good."

'We want recognition, not funding'

The New Zealand women's team take on the national men's side
New Zealand have a recognised men's side, who faced the Silver Ferns before the World Cup

However, male netball players still await the opportunity to compete for their country.

At the 2018 Commonwealth Games it was the only sport not to offer categories for both sexes, but men's club bosses Keeling and Kohl both stress it is not about detracting from the women's game.

"It's sort of going against the grain - we're bringing a sport to add a male side to it, which is sort of going against the promotion of female sport," acknowledges Titans co-founder Kohl.

"Netball needs to be celebrated as a female sport first and foremost, we're just trying to say this sport is for all and be inclusive."

Giving men an equal footing in the game could also aid netball's chance of one day becoming an Olympic sport, but Knights chief Keeling feels the priority should be to ensure female players are financially supported.

"Our women's teams don't get paid half as much as they should do and so if we're going to focus on funding it should absolutely be for them.

"We're just looking for recognition of the game, that it's a worthwhile thing and people enjoy it.

"We're a small organisation trying to help netball in a small way which hopefully could have a big impact in the future."

BBC Sport has launched #ChangeTheGame this summer to showcase female athletes in a way they never have been before. Through more live women's sport available to watch across the BBC this summer, complemented by our journalism, we are aiming to turn up the volume on women's sport and alter perceptions. Find out more here.

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