PERCEPTION is everything.
Take the umpiring set-up of the Hampden league’s A grade netball competition. A home club umpire officiates alongside an independent panel member. The perception among many players, coaches and supporters is that home-club umpires unintentionally make calls that favour their sides. Call them cynical or blinkered, but where there is such an obvious link, you can’t blame them.
As one netball observer put to me this week “we wouldn’t tolerate this in men’s sport and nor should we in women’s sport”.
Imagine if the senior football match was umpired by a home club supplied whistle-blower and an independent and there’s a correct free-kick paid in the dying stages that changes the outcome of the match. The perception, right or wrong, is that the umpire was biased.
It’s unthinkable, absurd, you say in footy. Yet, it’s accepted each week in top-level netball games.
The league says there is a shortage of panel umpires. There are four regulars this season compared with five last season. The league says there are plenty of good club umpires but they aren’t willing to leave their respective clubs and join the panel. You can’t blame them because they feel they are doing their club a service and it’s probably more convenient to umpire just down the road or around the corner every second week than be posted anywhere every week as a panel member.
If there was a shortage of footy umpires, and there is, there are advertising campaigns, visits from elite whistle-blowers to raise the profile and there is also a monetary incentive.
Where’s the netball umpire campaign? Where’s the financial inducements?
Netball panel umpires receive $35 for an A grade game and to make it worthwhile also officiate the preceding A1 game for $30. All up they get $65 for about two-and-a-half hours work plus a travel allowance that may not even cover the rising costs of fuel. Compare that to a senior central football umpire who receives $186 for about two-and-a-half hours work, minus about $46 that goes to his/her association, plus 67 cents per kilometre for travel expenses.
Yes, football umpires have to be fitter to cover a larger playing area but, on average, two umpires would pay about 40 free kicks between them in a match. Netball umpires would make more decisions in a half.
Against a back drop of insufficient numbers of panel umpires, Hampden league clubs want outside officials brought in to ensure truly independent umpires for A and A1 preliminary and grand finals. Ballarat and Geelong umpires could share the duties.
You can’t argue with the thinking. But what message does it send to the panel umpires and the good club umpires whose teams might not be involved in the games? It doesn’t reward those who have kept the games going rain, hail or shine through the regular season. And there is no guarantee the outside umpires will be as good, let alone better than those being overlooked. It could be a slippery slope that ends up hurting rather than helping the situation. The right solution is to appoint the best local independent umpires, panel or otherwise. Only as a last resort should umpires be flown in.
Netball is no longer just an added feature of football leagues, it is a feature in its own right. The standard of play comparatively speaking is higher than that of footballers these days - Hampden is number seven in country football rankings but in netball it is a perennial top-four side in the annual country association championships.
The point? Equality between codes and male and female sports. Netball is the poor sister to football and it has been for more than 25 years. But take a head count today during the A grade match and then the senior footy match and I’m tipping there won’t be a lot of difference in crowds. Netball should be closing the gap in terms of standing with football. It’s a debate football administrators are unlikely to start but there is a perception it is one netball supporters will happily finish.