How the Sunshine Coast Lightning struck twice in two years

The Sunshine Coast Lightning claimed their second Suncorp Super Netball crown last weekend, recording back-to-back titles in only their second season. Chief executive Danielle Smith explains how this unique venture became an overnight success.

How the Sunshine Coast Lightning struck twice in two years

Some say it takes 20 years to become an overnight success - not the Sunshine Coast Lightning. Just two years into their existence, the fledgling professional netball team have already won back-to-back national titles, their second coming last Sunday when they beat West Coast Fever in the Suncorp Super Netball Grand Final before a record crowd of 13,722 in Perth.

Such a feat would be remarkable for any team in any sport. Yet the Lightning’s story is all the more staggering given the team sprang to life in just a few short months, cobbled together under conditions that would hardly appear conducive to winning national championships from the get-go.

The origin of the Lightning’s formation stems back to Netball Australia’s decision to dissolve the old ANZ Championship, which incorporated ten teams split equally across Australia and New Zealand, and create a newly rebranded league now known as Suncorp Super Netball. Launched in the summer of 2016, the new competition would feature eight teams spanning the breadth of Australia only, meaning licenses would be granted to three new expansion clubs.

The bid to bring professional netball to the Sunshine Coast, a regional hub comprising a cluster of oceanside towns situated around 100km north of Brisbane, was spearheaded by the Sunshine Coast Council. Keen to have representation in a national sport, and an elite team to anchor an indoor community sports facility at the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC), the council approached the National Rugby League (NRL) club Melbourne Storm about partnering to acquire a Super Netball license.

“They approached us and, to be honest, it wasn’t something we were thinking about at that time,” recalls Danielle Smith, the Storm’s chief operating officer. “The more we heard about it we thought ‘hey, this could be a really good fit’. It was our secondary market and it was a great opportunity to diversify into women’s sport.”

As Smith explains, the Storm already had strong ties to the Sunshine Coast, primarily through their development system - the club’s under-20 team was based locally, as was one of their feeder teams, the Sunshine Coast Falcons. Over the years, too, several high-profile players had also made their way south to the Storm from the rugby league heartland of Queensland, including such NRL greats as Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater.

“Sunshine Coast was a really great fit because it was already very strong netball-wise in terms of participation - it’s one of the areas with the highest number of netball clubs and associations,” adds Smith, who now holds the position of chief executive of the Lightning alongside her role with the Storm. “It was crying out for a team to follow and there’s a lot of infrastructure projects going on around the region. It’s a growing economy, so there’s a lot of things that stacked up.”

Yet fashioning a team from scratch was no cakewalk. Somewhat unusually, the Lightning came into existence - and even began training - before Netball Australia had officially granted them their licence. With the Storm-led consortium operating under ‘preferred bidder’ status while terms were still being hashed out with the league, the Lightning did not formally receive their license until December of 2016, just two months before the start of the inaugural season the following February.

“You’ve got nothing - you don’t have a venue, you don’t have a coach, you don’t have a team, you don’t have staff, you don’t have an office, you don’t have anything,” recalls Smith. “But we couldn’t wait for the certainty so we had to start planning.”

One of the first pieces to fall into place was the signing of a head coach. Working with Storm chief executive Dave Donaghy and Bart Campbell, the club’s chairman and a co-founder of TLA Worldwide, the international sports marketing agency, Smith set about identifying a shortlist of candidates. After consulting with senior figures within the game, including Lisa Alexander, the head coach of the Australian Diamonds, the trio settled on Noeline Taurua, an experienced Kiwi with a proven track record of success as both a player and a coach.

“We sought some really good help and advice because we were all very forthright that we didn’t know anything about netball,” admits Smith, speaking in July inside the Lightning’s administrative office on the campus of USC. “We appointed Noeline, which was a big move for her too because she had to relocate from New Zealand.”

With Taurua (left) on board, the next step in the process was to hire a playing roster capable of contending for championships. To that end, Smith says the recruitment strategy was pulled straight from the Storm's playbook of signing marquee names to form “the spine of the team” and then building around those key positions. “With the Storm, the spine has been the key focus for over ten years and then other players have come and gone,” she says, pointing specifically to Smith, Cronk and Slater. “We used a bit of that philosophy with the netball team, even though we didn’t know much about netball. We talked to the coach about it and she actually liked it.”

Out of their top ten targets, Smith’s team would end up securing the signatures of all bar one. English goalkeeper Geva Mentor would lead the Lightning as captain, with Australian Diamonds captain Caitlin Bassett serving as Mentor’s vice. Other established internationals were also brought on board as part of an expedited recruitment drive that, by necessity, spanned little more than a month.

“There was obviously a bit of work in that,” says Smith. “It’s a huge leap of faith for a player to join a club that has nothing at that point. We had just developed a logo and a brand but didn’t have too much else. We really had to work on making it attractive for players.

“The first part was Noeline as the coach. She’d have a discussion with each of them and really took the time to understand what they wanted to get out of their netball career. Some were older and so it was maximising the time they have remaining in the sport, what they wanted to do in terms of their international career, what their life was outside of netball, whether it was another job or studying or whatever. She talked through the team she wanted to create, the playing style, and that really appealed to a lot of the players.”

Besides championing Taurua’s track record, another big part of the sell, says Smith, was “the Melbourne Storm connection”. Having won two NRL Premiership titles - their third came in 2017 - the Storm had forged their own culture of success. Off the field, too, they were enjoying something of a financial turnaround under their current ownership group, which took control of the club in 2013.

We’ve had that strong buy-in from the start. We made sure everyone in the community was getting engaged before we even put a ticket on sale.

“The Storm are very renowned as a successful and very professional elite sporting club built off a very strong culture,” says Smith, who adds that the team stands to turn a profit this year for the first time in their 20-year history. “That was a unique selling point, I guess, and then it was around the university and the facilities here. It’s very unique because this is our home venue, it’s our training venue, our office is here, everything is here. And then there was the Sunshine Coast lifestyle - it’s not a bad spot to live.

“We actually created almost a glossy brochure explaining who we are, what we stood for, how we were going to build the club off the vision and values of Melbourne Storm. But at the same time we were going to develop a club that would develop its own ways of doing business.”

For Mentor, who, like Smith, relocated from Melbourne to join the Lightning, the allure of this exciting new venture on the Sunshine Coast was too strong to resist.

“When I heard about the new team being developed up here, the fact that it was aligned with Melbourne Storm and the Sunshine Coast University, I thought it was a great partnership in itself,” she tells SportsPro, taking time out after a mid-season training session in early July. “The fact they managed to get Noeline Taurua as the head coach, who I’d heard so many great things about, was another draw card for me in terms of where I could take my netball to the next level. Probably the biggest thing was we’re starting up a club from scratch and I have great belief in being able to create your own culture and history.

“Obviously you can’t go past Queensland being a beautiful state to be in. I’m up here and you’ve got the hinterland, the beaches, you’ve also got the local culture and the community feel. People say they come here for a holiday and if you can work where you holiday, then you’ve got the best of both worlds.”

Lightning captain Geva Mentor (right) addresses the crowd after leading her team to victory in Sunday's Grand Final.

As the recruitment on the playing side continued, the Lightning drew heavily on the Storm’s in-house resources in other areas. The heads of key departments were hired based on recommendations that came primarily through the club’s existing network - Narelle Sibte, the Lightning’s high performance manager, was an early hire and quickly set to work installing critical support staff such as doctors, physiotherapists, strength and conditioning coaches and dieticians. Meanwhile a commercial manager was enlisted to oversee sponsorship acquisitions and an initial marketing effort that centred on fostering community engagement in the Sunshine Coast region.

“When we launched the brand, we invited the presidents and all the key people at the associations and they were actually part of the reveal of the logo,” says Smith. “We’ve had that strong buy-in from the start, and then as we signed the coach and the first couple of players, we made sure everyone in the community was getting engaged before we even put a ticket on sale.”

That process of integration garnered immediate results. Both on and off the court, the club far exceeded expectations from the very beginning. Every home game sold out in the inaugural season, which began with an auspicious draw against local rivals and then-defending champions, the Queensland Firebirds. More than 2,000 memberships were snapped up in the first year, despite packages being limited to priority tickets and significant discounts rather than season-long allocations, as is the norm.

I really believe that Suncorp Super Netball is the premier domestic league in the world.

“That was a different strategy but we thought that was the best strategy given the limited capacity,” Smith explains. “We sensed there would be a strong appetite for tickets in this region. There are still 300,000 people in the region, and 6,500 registered netballers, so a 2,000-seat stadium is quite limiting. We wanted to make sure that the stadium was full every match, but the bigger thing was making sure as many people as possible in the community got to experience it. That worked well for us.”

Thanks to the Lightning’s early success, plans are already in place to expand the USC facility. With state government funding secured to the tune of AUS$7 million, the aim is to increase the venue’s capacity to around 3,500. “This stadium was never built to be a national-standard facility - it was really a community sport hall,” says Smith. “If we can even get ourselves to 3,000 next season, that will help significantly. But we’ve got to look even longer term than that because 3,500 is all we’ll get in this stadium. We need to be looking at what’s after that.”

Commercially speaking, there has naturally been some crossover between the Storm and the Lightning. Initially, corporate partners of the Storm - who own 60 per cent of the Lightning - were approached about the new opportunity to expand their partnerships. Hostplus Super Fund, a key partner of the Storm, was among those to broaden its allegiance, but not all were interested in doing the same. “It was a stretch because sponsorship is really tough, as everyone knows,” laments Smith. “Most of them had spent their budget on the Storm and didn’t necessarily have more to spend.”

Nevertheless, the Lightning have found plenty of support for their project. Global brands like Nissan and Samsung now sit within an extensive commercial portfolio that includes a raft of smaller partners and suppliers. While the Sunshine Coast Council does not hold an ownership stake in the team - USC owns the 40 per cent not controlled by the Storm - it instead serves as a sponsor through its Visit Sunshine Coast promotional arm, as well as providing funds and in-kind services such as covering traffic management and parking costs. “We’ve got a real mix of international, national and local brands,” notes Smith. “We managed to get a really good, diversified portfolio of sponsors.”

Sunday's Grand Final at the Perth Arena drew a record crowd of 13,722.

Besides a small startup grant, direct financial support from the league office was negligible. Netball Australia was, however, supportive of the Lightning project in other ways. With the formation of the new league came a new national broadcast deal with the Nine Network and Telstra, for example. While there was no rights fee involved, the agreement marked a step forward given the league previously had to cover production costs under its former deal with Channel Ten. Now, Nine covers those costs and primarily shows action on its secondary channel 9Gem, while a revenue-sharing arrangement sees the broadcaster and the league split any income from advertising.

“That was a massive step up for them,” says Smith. “Last year all the games were televised and on an app. This year, though, we’ve been able to get two games out of the four per round on the Nine free-to-air channel, and that’s a game-changer. Ratings are over 50 per cent up on last year’s and the times are not primetime evening - they’re 1pm or 3pm on the weekend - but they actually sit quite well with some of the rugby league matches that are on.”

Mentor agrees that netball in Australia, one of the most competitive markets in sport globally, is on an upward trajectory thanks to those recent improvements. With an estimated 1.2 million participants, it is one of the most-played sports in the country, and with a push for broader mainstream media exposure coming from many quarters, she sees a bright future for the sport as a whole, not just for the Lightning specifically.

“Australia seem to have got it right in terms of the female movement within sport and creating this league, the importance that it’s not just about pumping money at the top level, it’s about grassroots and making it sustainable and building that foundation,” she says. “What Suncorp Super Netball has managed to do in its second year already is lift the ratings and the profile, getting coverage on TV, bigger sponsors to the table, which means girls will be able to go professional now and focus more on what they’re doing.

“I think it’s in good hands in that everyone is willing to be innovative, willing to listen to each other and grow the sport but make sure it doesn't fall out from underneath. I really believe that Suncorp Super Netball is the premier domestic league in the world.”