Member Insights: Fran Connolly, England Netball’s New CEO, Speaks To iSportconnect
November 20, 2019
Following her appointment as Chief Executive at England Netball last month, iSportconnect spoke to Fran Connolly about her new role, building on the success of recent years, whether the sport needs to be in the Olympics and much more.
Fran has worked with England Netball since the early 2000s and recently took over from departing CEO Joanna Adams, who stepped down in August after England took home the bronze medal as host nation at this summer’s Netball World Cup.
Firstly, congratulations Fran! How excited are you to be taking up the role?
I’m thrilled and I feel incredibly privileged to be taking on the role at this exciting time.
You’ve been involved with England Netball since 2001, do you believe your knowledge acquired in this time gives you a head start going into the job?
I definitely hope so, I’ve covered a quite a few areas of the business since I started. I’ve previously headed up and worked on areas such as coaching, officiating, volunteering, capital investment, competition and events, governance and probably a few others that I’m forgetting. So I think that gives me an ability to understand the business well and to be able to focus on the future of the sport rather than coming in new to it and needing a learning period.
Six million people followed the Vitality Netball World Cup in various different forms including via TV, press, social media or in person
How much do you feel the sport has grown over recent years, what are the most major changes in your opinion?
We’ve been on a huge journey, an incredible journey really, particularly over the last couple of years. It’s been a long time in the planning, we created a plan to get us where we are now about 10 years ago but really in the last two years we’ve seen unprecedented success, from the historic victory at the Gold Coast to the amazing scenes in Liverpool earlier this year. That success has absolutely had an effect on the others parts of the sport as we’ve seen record breaking participation at all levels of the game, and that elite success gives us a great platform to build on.
Obviously the national team has been going through this hugely successful period, winning that Commonwealth gold in 2018 and taking third place at this year’s World Cup, how can the organisation sustain this?
The Vitality Roses performance is key to the success of the whole organisation and that’s an area that we will be focusing on going forward. We need to make sure we continue to give them exposure to compete against the very best teams in the world, ensuring we are consistently in those finals going forward. To do that we have to professionalise the game that sits underneath the Vitality Roses platform, we need to invest more time in the development of our Vitality Netball Superleague, and make sure we have the infrastructure in place to support those franchises who are doing a fantastic job of delivering domestic competition. It’s really important to us and a real focus.
It’s an important chapter we’re going into right now as well, it’s year one of a new performance cycle, we’ve got a new Head Coach in place in Jess Thirlby, and we’ve got a really exciting new crop of players coming through so it’s a good position to be in as an organisation.
The likes of Nike coming on board, as well as Red Bull and seeing continued investment from Vitality has been game changing
How best do you feel England Netball can capitalise on hosting this summer’s 2019 World Cup going forward?
We’ve had a great response from the nation. Netball fever really did sweep the nation after we came back from the Gold Coast and it did the same again after Liverpool this year. Six million people followed the Vitality Netball World Cup in various different forms including via TV, press, social media or in person. That has been converted into 160,000 people wanting to take part in netball or play more netball, so we’ve created great momentum and what we need to do is harness that and the strong voice we now have. We want to use that strong voice to lobby and campaign around the matters we really care about.
We’ve always said we’re a sports business with a heart and we want to use that more, making sure we can help address things like the need to convert inactive people into those that can see the benefits of exercise. We also want to push hard to ensure school sport stays on the curriculum and that the necessary minutes are dedicated to people of all ages becoming active, because if we don’t then we won’t grow the sport. It’s a really exciting time and we’ve got a far stronger voice now and great momentum to take things forward.
What do you see as the biggest challenges for increasing the participation and viewership of netball in this country?
Most of the challenges we face can also be seen as opportunities. For instance our broadcast deal comes to an end next year, so very exciting conversations around broadcast and increasing the visibility of the sport are happening. That’s always a challenge for any governing sport, but we’ve taken great leaps in that area and we want to continue to do that.
We also want to make sure we create more content and push that out across new and exciting platforms to make sure we can reach audiences we haven’t reached. We also want to continue to find brands we can partner with that can take us to those new audiences. The likes of Nike coming on board, as well as Red Bull and seeing continued investment from Vitality has been game changing for us, all of this has meant that we’ve been able to start to reach those new audiences but we still want to do more, we want to reach those audiences we haven’t yet and spread the netball fever further.
The Olympics is fantastic and hugely aspirational for us but I think there’s far more we can do as a sport even if we’re not a part of the Games going forward.
Do you feel the biggest goal for the sport’s overall growth worldwide should be to get into the Olympic Games?
We don’t feel hindered by the fact that we’re not an Olympic sport, we’ve had unprecedented growth over the last few years. The Olympics is fantastic and hugely aspirational for us but I think there’s far more we can do as a sport even if we’re not a part of the Games going forward. I think it will take a big shift for us to be a part of the Games, for one we need more netball nations playing to be considered so it’s probably a way off. It’s always an aspiration, I’d never take it off the table, but I think we can still do great things without being a part of that competition.
What are you most looking forward to with England Netball in 2020?
We’ve got some really exciting new competitions coming up, for instance we’ve created the Vitality Netball Nations Cup which will see four of the top five netball teams in the world taking part in that competition in January 2020. It’s been our fastest ever selling event, so we’re looking forward to welcoming new audiences across the country to it. I’m really excited about that! Also, we’re now going be working on the development of a new strategy, which gives us the chance to reflect, review and come up with some exciting new innovations for the longer term future and consider what netball will look like in 2031.
Finally, what has been the best thing you’ve learnt during your time at England Netball that you will carry with you or try to bring to the role?
Netball can be offered to any woman or girl and can be tailored in a way that appeals to everyone, for instance we have Bee Netball for U11s or Walking Netball for those wanting a slower version of the game – there truly is a place in the game for everyone. Anyone can enjoy netball, whether they want to step on a court, watch it on TV, support via a coaching role of volunteer role, or through other avenues. Netball is appealing to all audiences and we think we can offer something very special and we want to continue to ensure we do that.