Netball History: A Short Guide for NZ Fans

Netball is a dynamic ball sport that has similarities to basketball and is played between two teams of seven players on a rectangular court. If you’re interested in learning more about this sport, its history, development, and legendary players and tournaments, you’re in the right place.

Netball is one of the rare sports created primarily for women and was originally derived from early versions of women’s basketball. Historically, it has seen the most popularity in countries of the Commonwealth, including New Zealand, but it is slowly getting more exposure in other parts of the world. Along with this expansion, more and more people are betting on netball, both in NZ and internationally.

Origins of Netball

The history of netball starts with the development of basketball. Only a year after basketball was invented in 1891, the rules of the sport were modified to better fit women and allow them to participate more freely. Multiple variations of women’s basketball circled the United States and England, with different regions adding their own rules and conditions. The rules at the Bergman Österberg physical training college in Dartford changed so much that it became an entirely new sport: netball.

The Early Years of Netball

The first rules of netball were published at the beginning of the 20th century. This allowed netball to spread across the British Empire and become widely accepted as a sport.

As a result, multiple countries formed domestic netball competitions in the early years of the sport’s development during the 1900s. During the 1920s, countries were developing national associations to organise the sport further and help move towards international games. However, organising international games wasn’t a simple task back then due to the differing rules between countries.

Netball’s International Spread and Development

Though it took some time for netball to organise international games and tournaments, as the sport developed, so did its visibility. By the 1960s, netball had a standardised ruleset and an international governing body overseeing the sport globally. This organisation was called the International Netball Federation (INF) at the time but has since changed its name to World Netball, as it is known today.

In the following years, netball became more internationally recognised, which led to the first international competition of the sport, the INF Netball World Cup in 1963.

Today, netball is played by more than 20 million people worldwide. Firstly, the sport spread across the Commonwealth nations, where it is still the most popular. Naturally, these nations dominate most of the international competitions and lead the professional netball scene. However, with the international rise in netball’s popularity, we’ve seen more and more national teams form competitive squads that can hold their own against the pioneers.

Evolution of Netball Rules

Most people wonder about the differences between netball and basketball rules. If you’re one of them, here’s an overview of the most basic netball rules:

  • The team that scores more goals wins
  • You must pass or shoot within three seconds of receiving the ball
  • There is no dribbling
  • No physical contact with other players is allowed
  • The defender must stand 0.9 metres away from the player with the ball and can’t take the ball away until it is in the air

Changes in regulations were introduced to enhance the game’s fairness and competitiveness. The refinement of rules, including the introduction of the three-second rule and restrictions on player movements, reflects netball’s commitment to adapting to the evolving dynamics of modern sports. This dedication to improving and changing the game’s rules ensures that netball remains a relevant and modern sport.

There have also been some attempts to make the sport more exciting, such as shortening the game in the World Series. And, the sport’s advocates are working tirelessly to get netball included in future Olympic Games tournaments.

Major Netball Tournaments and Competitions

Netball has four major competitions. If you wish to be remembered among the greats of the sports, you must win medals at these tournaments:

  • Netball World Cup (formerly World Netball Championships)
  • Netball at the Commonwealth Games
  • Netball Quad Series
  • Fast5 Netball World Series

National squads compete in all of these regularly. Unlike, say, the NBA or the Champions League in football, club competitions in netball aren’t as prestigious as those where players get to represent their country.

Netball World Cup (Formerly Netball World Championships)

The Netball World Cup started in England in 1963, under the organisation of World Netball. The competition occurs every 4 years and has been held without a break since its inaugural tournament. Though the name changed from Netball World Championships to Netball World Cup in 2015, there haven’t been many other changes throughout the history of the competition.

In 1991, we saw the addition of semifinal and final games, which allowed for only one winner to be crowned at the end of the tournament. Previously, while the round-robin system was used, multiple champions were possible. That’s how we got the only champion outside of New Zealand and Australia. In 1979, the host, Trinidad and Tobago, shared the top spot with the favourites, becoming part of netball history.

In recent years, we’ve seen teams like Jamaica, England, and South Africa come close to taking the throne, but the Australian and New Zealand teams always find a way to win. We’ll see if another country can make history in 2027 when the next Netball World Cup will be held in Australia.

Netball at the Commonwealth Games

Since 1998, netball has been an official sport at the Commonwealth Games. Since all of the countries where netball is heavily developed are members of the Commonwealth Nations, this tournament is the leading international competition in the sport, next to the World Cup. Just like in the World Cup, Australia and New Zealand are quite dominant on the podium, mostly sharing gold and silver medals every 4 years. However, in the latest tournament, we saw Jamaica take home the silver. Even more surprisingly, England managed to win the gold medal in 2018 and become only the third national team with that accomplishment.

Netball Quad Series

Unlike the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games, the Netball Quad Series is held annually, and not everyone gets a chance to play. Only Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and England take part in this relatively new annual series, first organised in 2016. The goal of this tournament is for the strongest national netball teams to have regular opportunities to play competitive games and test matches.

Fast5 Netball World Series

In 2008, a new version of netball was introduced under the name “fastnet.” Certain rule changes were implemented to make games faster, more interesting, and TV-friendly. Since 2009, the six national teams ranked best according to the INF World Rankings get to compete in this new format annually.

Did You Know? The four governing bodies discussed creating a competition similar to the QuadSeries in 2012, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the first competition was held.

Notable Players in Netball History

Since netball is mainly a women’s sport, the most notable players in its history are female. Some of the big names you should know about are Irene van Dyk, Maria Folau, and Sharelle McMahon.

Irene van Dyk is among the greatest netball players of all time. Firstly, she is still the most-capped international player of all time. 145 of those came from her time with the Silver Ferns, the New Zealand national team, where she played during her most dominant years. In 2003, she became the New Zealand Sportswoman of the Year.

Maria Folau played for the Silver Ferns during Irene’s time and left an unforgettable mark on all New Zealand netball fans. With five gold and four silver medals representing her country on the biggest stage, it’s hard not to mention her as one of the players who has left an important mark on this sport. She shared the court with van Dyk and the two women created a legacy that won’t soon be forgotten.

Sharelle McMahon is an Athlete Member of the Sport Australia Hall of Fame. That speaks a lot about the influence this woman had on the sport of netball and the appreciation the Australian people have for her achievements. She spent her entire professional career in Melbourne, playing for Phoenix and the Vixens, and represented her country on the international stage for 15 years. During that time, she won four gold and three silver medals while competing in the Commonwealth Games and at the Netball World Championships.

Did You Know? Irene van Dyk represented South Africa 72 times before moving to New Zealand and becoming a member of the New Zealand national team, the Silver Ferns.

Impact of Netball on Women’s Sports

From its very beginnings, netball was a sport created for women. It played a significant role in the development and recognition of women’s sports globally. As a sport adapted and evolved from the early versions of basketball to cater specifically to women, netball has offered a platform for female athletes to showcase their skills, athleticism, and competitiveness. By continuing to foster empowerment, visibility, and a sense of community, netball contributes significantly to the ongoing development and recognition of women’s sports worldwide.

Final Thoughts About Netball History

At its beginnings, netball was simply a variation of basketball rules. Now, it’s a world-recognised sport played by millions of people, and continuing to grow in popularity. The countries outside the Commonwealth are starting to catch up, and we’re seeing more and more high-quality players coming from all over the world. The future of netball is looking bright.

Netball History FAQs

We’ve gone through the history of netball and analysed the most important aspects of the game and its development. If you have any more questions about the sport, check out our FAQ section below:


Is netball an all-girl sport?

No, netball isn’t a girl-only sport, even though women have mostly played netball throughout history. These days there are plenty of male netball players and teams, though the sport on the whole is still largely female-dominated.

How much do netball players get paid?

Netball player salaries vary based on factors such as their level of play, contracts, and endorsements. The top players in New Zealand can earn upwards of $180,000 per season, but the average salary is far lower.

How do you play netball?

Netball is a game similar to basketball but has unique rules such as players not being allowed to dribble the ball.

Is netball worldwide?

Yes, netball is played in 80 countries worldwide.

Where is netball most popular?

Netball is popular in many parts of the world, but its popularity mostly thrives in the countries of the Commonwealth.