Words: Isobel Irvine Pictures: Jeff Holmes
If you went down to the University of West of Scotland library in Paisley you were in for a BIG surprise. The regular ‘ssh’ was replaced by a ‘swoosh!’ and it was nets and balls instead of books and pens as UWS Sirens launched their second season of the franchise in the Vitality Netball Superleague.
Swathes of local schoolchildren descended on the building to meet their role models as the players – some recent signings and others embracing a further year in the black and red – and their new coach, took them on in the shooting circle and generally pumped up the pre-season volume.
After a groundbreaking inaugural season Claire Nelson (CEO of UWS Sirens and Netball Scotland) outlined her plans for the club for 2018.
“We want to build and grow on our successes of last year – we certainly made an impact!” she beams. “We had some impressive off-court successes, we had the second and fourth highest TV-viewing audiences, the third-highest live spectator figure, huge media coverage, great investment and did some fantastic work under our Changing the Game campaign banner, particularly with our Sirens for Success programme. And we want to keep building our UWS Sirens platform, whether it’s to develop our athletes, accelerate the growth of our sport or challenge some of the inequalities facing women’s sport.
“Ultimately, however, we’re a sports’ team in a league. We were very creditable in finishing sixth in the League last year – we went out and beat some of the best teams and proved we’re capable of getting some good results – however we didn’t execute consistently and we recognise that. So what we’ve done is built depth in our team, we’ve brought more experience in and we’re looking to get in that top four this year.
That know-how includes new head coach Tanya Dearns and players of the international calibre of Sara Bayman, grounded by the vastly experienced Scottish captain Claire Brownie, with ongoing financial support from UWS through Professor Craig Mahoney – and more of them all to come!
And more supporters, too, as Claire continues, “The social media engagement was through the roof, which was fantastic, but the best thing for me was that round about 30% of people who came to our live match days, our home games, were new supporters who hadn’t seen the sport before. That’s incredible.
“Netball is pretty synonymous with ‘a women’s sport, just for girls’ and lot of people still think back to what it was like 20 years ago in playgrounds. For them to come out and experience what this sport actually looks like now was incredible. That’s a key target for me, to build our audiences – to bring families in, bring groups of guys and boys in – because it’s a fantastic sport, it’s exciting and we want to be able to share that with as many people as possible.”
So in a season of firsts, news and a host of debuts, could she single out a personal highlight?
“There were loads! There were also lots of challenges; don’t get me wrong, it was difficult, professionally, it was tough for the whole team. But when you see the young kids who look at the athletes like they’re their superhero. When you get the case studies back from the headteachers on the impact they’ve made on their pupils’ lives, or you see the statistics around engagement and audiences you know you’re on the right track.
“However there’s a photo of me at the end of our home game against Surrey Storm – they’d won the league the year before, they had this towering shooter that they’d drafted in and we beat them. It was a moment of ‘OMG, we can actually go all the way here’. That moment when I thought ‘our guys can really do something here.
“So there have been a number of high points – and we’re looking forward to more this season.”
The UWS Sirens, Scotland’s leading women’s sports team and the only one with a Sky Sports TV broadcast deal, will play their home matches, once more, at Glasgow’s spectacular Emirates Arena, aiming to make it to the Final Play-offs in the 2018 Superleague season with an on-court and backroom team that’s stronger, sassier and super-skill-stacked.
Keep checking the Sportswoman web site for in-depth interviews and background stories as the pre-season builds!