Netball emerged from early versions of basketball and evolved into its own sport as the number of women participating in sports increased. Basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith in the United States. The game was initially played indoors between two teams of nine players, using an association football that was thrown into closed-end peach baskets. Naismith’s game spread quickly across the United States and variations of the rules soon emerged. Physical Education instructor Senda Berenson developed modified rules for women in 1892; these eventually gave rise to women’s basketball. Around this time separate intercollegiate rules were developed for men and women. The various basketball rules converged into a universal set in the United States.
Martina Bergman-Österberg introduced a version of basketball in 1893 to her female students at the Physical Training College in Hampstead, London. The rules of the game were modified at the college over several years: the game moved outdoors and was played on grass; the baskets were replaced by rings that had nets; and in 1897 and 1899, rules from women’s basketball in the United States were incorporated. Madame Österberg’s new sport acquired the name “net ball”. The first codified rules of netball were published in 1901 by the Ling Association, later the Physical Education Association of the United Kingdom. From England, netball spread to other countries in the British Empire. Variations of the rules and even names for the sport arose in different areas: “women’s (outdoor) basketball” arrived in Australia around 1900 and in New Zealand from 1906, while “netball” was being played in Jamaican schools by 1909.
Women in England playing netball on a grass court, 1910
A goal is scored at a women’s netball game in New Zealand, circa 1920s.
From the start, it was considered socially appropriate for women to play netball; netball’s restricted movement appealed to contemporary notions of women’s participation in sports, and the sport was distinct from potential rival male sports. Netball became a popular women’s sport in countries where it was introduced and spread rapidly through school systems. School leagues and domestic competitions emerged during the first half of the 20th century, and in 1924 the first national governing body was established in New Zealand. International competition was initially hampered by a lack of funds and varying rules in different countries. Australia hosted New Zealand in the first international game of netball in Melbourne on 20 August 1938; Australia won 40–11. Efforts began in 1957 to standardise netball rules globally: by 1960 international playing rules had been standardised, and the International Federation of Netball and Women’s Basketball, later the International Netball Federation (INF), was formed to administer the sport worldwide.
Representatives from England, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the West Indies were part of a 1960 meeting in Sri Lanka that standardised the rules for the game. The game spread to other African countries in the 1970s. South Africa was prohibited from competing internationally from 1969 to 1994 due to apartheid. In the United States, Netball’s popularity also increased during the 1970s, particularly in the New York area, and the United States of America Netball Association was created in 1992. The game also became popular in the Pacific Island nations of the Cook Islands, Fiji and Samoa during the 1970s. Netball Singapore was created in 1962, and the Malaysian Netball Association was created in 1978.
In Australia, the term women’s basketball was used to refer to both netball and basketball. During the 1950s and 1960s, a movement arose to change the Australian name of the game from women’s basketball to netball in order to avoid confusion between the two sports. The Australian Basketball Union offered to pay the costs involved to alter the name, but the netball organisation rejected the change. In 1970, the Council of the All Australia Netball Association officially changed the name to “netball” in Australia.
In 1963, the first international tournament was held in Eastbourne, England. Originally called the World Tournament, it later became known as the World Netball Championships. Following the first tournament, one of the organisers, Miss R. Harris, declared,
England could learn from the mistakes in the past from the empty stands at Eastbourne. To get the right publicity and the right status desired, the game must emerge from the school playground. Netball should be part of a sports centre where social events could also be held.
The World Netball Championships have been held every four years since, most recently in 2011. The World Youth Netball Championships started in Canberra in 1988, and have been held roughly every four years since. In 1995, the International Olympic Committee designated netball as an Olympic recognised sport. Three years later it debuted at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur. Other international competitions also emerged in the late 20th century, including the Nations Cup and the Asian Netball Championship.