The history of netball can be traced to the early development of basketball. A year after basketball was invented in 1891, the sport was modified for women to accommodate social conventions regarding their participation in sport, giving rise to women’s basketball. Variations of women’s basketball arose across the United States and in England. At the Bergman Österberg physical training college in Dartford, England, the rules of women’s basketball were modified over several years to form an entirely new sport: “net ball”. The first codified rules of netball were published at the start of the twentieth century, and from there the new sport spread throughout the British Empire.
From the beginning, netball was widely accepted as a sport suitable for women. Domestic netball competitions arose in several countries during the first half of the 20th century. Starting from the 1920s, national associations were formed to organise the sport in netball-playing nations. International matches were played sporadically in the early 20th century, but were hampered by varying rules in different countries.
By 1960, the rules of netball were standardised internationally. An international governing body was formed to oversee the sport globally, now called the International Netball Federation (INF). The second half of the 20th century saw international competition expand, with the sport’s premier international competition, the INF Netball World Cup, starting in 1963. Netball has also been contested at the Commonwealth Games since 1998.
Today, netball is popular in Commonwealth nations, and is reportedly played by over 20 million people worldwide. It remains primarily a women’s sport, although male participation is increasing in some countries. Further developments to the sport are being trialled, including a shortened version of the game played in a World Series format; netball is also being advocated for possible inclusion in the Olympic Games.
Netball traces its roots to basketball. Basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith, a Canadian physical education instructor working in the United States, who was trying to develop an indoor sport for his students at the YMCA Training School (now Springfield College) in Springfield, Massachusetts. His game was first played in the campus gymnasium on a court roughly half the size of a regulation NBA court today, between two teams of nine players. It was played with a soccer ball that was shot into closed-bottom peach baskets that were nailed to the gymnasium wall.
Women teachers became interested in Naismith’s game soon afterwards. Senda Berenson, a physical education instructor at nearby Smith College, read an article on Naismith’s game, and in 1892 adapted his game for her female students. Berenson devised rules that maintained feminine decorum and slowed down potentially “strenuous” play. She divided the playing court into thirds, each containing three players per team that could not leave their assigned zone. Players also could not hold the ball for more than three seconds, dribble it more than three times, or snatch the ball from another player. The first game of women’s basketball was played in 1892 at Smith College. By 1895, women’s basketball had spread across the United States, with variations of the rules emerging in different areas.
Published rules for women’s basketball first appeared in 1895, written by Clara Gregory Baer, who was working as a physical education instructor at Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans during the 1890s. Baer introduced women’s basketball to her female students at Sophie Newcomb College as early as 1893. According to the International Netball Federation, Baer received a copy of the basketball rules from Naismith, but she misinterpreted his unclear drawings marking the zones that players could best control, believing that they were restrictions on player movement. Naismith noted that Baer’s game was substantially different from his version and recommended that she give her sport a different name. In 1895, Baer published the rules of her game under the name “basquette”; these were the first published rules for women’s basketball. The rules of this game were substantially different from Berenson’s, although similarly adapted for women’s participation. Each player was assigned a zone on court to which they were confined, and so a game with seven players per team was played on a court with seven zones. She also forbade dribbling of the ball and guarding, introduced alternating offensive/defensive roles after each goal was scored, and developed rules to maintain elegant posture among players.
Eventually, the first unified rules of women’s basketball were published in the Spalding Athletic Library Rules for Women’s Basket Ball in 1901, with Berenson as editor and with some rules adopted from Baer’s game. Starting from 1918, the rules of women’s basketball were gradually rewritten to more closely resemble men’s basketball, and today basketball is played under the same rules by men and women. However, a different sport emerged when basketball arrived in England.