As round three approaches in the 2021 Super Netball league, the West Coast Fever are hoping to secure their third consecutive win.
Last year’s runners up have already put on two solid performances in their opening matches against the Melbourne Vixens (65-51) and NSW Swifts (63-55).
This weekend they play the Sunshine Coast Lightning, in what should be a fantastic battle between two undefeated teams.
However, should Fever win, there may an uneasy feeling amongst those within the netball community who believe the team got off lightly after breaching the salary cap.
In November, Super Netball made the West Coast Fever aware of a potential compliance issue, working with the club to conduct an investigation that uncovered they had deliberately breached the salary cap in 2018 and 2019.
With payments of $127,954 above the cap in 2018 (19.7 per cent over the limit) and $168,659 over the salary cap in 2019 (25.3 per cent), it was revealed that fleet cars, jobs and accommodation were used as player incentives and the reason behind the overspend.
They were fined $300,000 in December, with half of that suspended, and lost 12 premiership points for the 2021 season, starting the year three games behind.
Most fan anger surrounds the fact that — unlike other sports — there has been little information divulged about who was responsible and which players benefited.
And although two of Netball WA’s senior administrators quit late last year, the Fever have declined to confirm whether they were involved.
All the league and club have disclosed is that neither West Coast’s players nor head coach Stacey Marinkovich knew about the breach.
Fast forward to now and the team look like they could go 3-0 to start the season, which would take them back in the clear on zero.
Teams like the Vixens, Adelaide Thunderbirds and Collingwood Magpies also sit on zero points, still searching for their first win — even the teams in third and fourth place only currently have four points to their name.
In fact, if West Coast can keep up their winning momentum for the next three weeks, they could very well find themselves inside the top four before we even reach the halfway point of the competition.
Was the penalty harsh enough?
It can be a hard for sports administrators to find the right balance between letting a club off lightly and being punished so badly that it takes years to recover.
And one of the defences made for the extent of Fever’s penalty is that the league only has eight teams.
Some people believe, had the Super Netball Commission imposed heavier sanctions to rule out the team from 2021 contention, that it could seriously affect broadcast numbers and people’s general interest in the games they play.
Furthermore, with a sport like netball that relies so heavily on membership and ticket sales, others say harsher penalties could have impacted West Coast’s ability to generate revenue, after the sport already took a hit with COVID-19 last year.
The ongoing discussion is creating a clear divide between Fever fans who feel it is time to move on and those, like former Australian Diamonds coach Lisa Alexander, who think they should have copped more.
“It should have definitely been at least half a season,” Alexander told ABC Offsiders.
How do other sports compare?
Two of the most extreme examples of a team being ruled out of the premiership race due to salary cap sanctions lie in rugby league.
In 2010, the Melbourne Storm were unable to earn any competition points, starting and finishing the season in last place as part of the sanctions placed on them for breaching the NRL’s salary cap by an estimated $1.7 million over five years, with a secret dual contract system.
The Canterbury Bulldogs also copped a heavy penalty with just three rounds to go in the 2002 season, when the league discovered they had spent more than $1 million over the salary cap between 2001-2002.
They were stripped of 37 points, seeing them fall to the bottom of the ladder where they finished with the wooden spoon.
In comparison, the Super Netball Commission first made Fever aware of its potential breach in November, almost a month after the end of the 2020 season (where the team again played in the grand final).
We can only wonder what might have happened if the league had realised when the season was still in play, and whether they would have been inclined to take immediate action in a similar fashion.
The AFL usually penalises its teams using draft picks rather than competition points for breaches of this manner and this can have a long-lasting impact on a club, just like it did for Carlton in 2002.
The Blues lost all their early draft picks after making their third salary cap violation in the space of five years, paying up to seven players under the table and unable to make their first selection in the 2002 draft until number 45.
They also lost their first and second round picks in the 2003 draft, and many insist, like former Carlton coach Denis Pagan, that they never quite recovered.
“Carlton used to be a great club; a real destination club … But if you look at them now, they’re a shadow of their former self,” he told SEN Afternoons in 2018.
While netball certainly needs to forge its own path, with a smaller domestic competition and less money at play, it could find more of a middle ground between its current sanctions and the ones delivered in higher profile leagues.
Do we only care because they are successful?
If the Fever had lost their first two matches of the 2021 season, it is likely netball fans would be less inclined to continue this conversation.
For example, take the Adelaide Thunderbirds salary cap breach in 2019.
Last March, it was announced the Thunderbirds has been fined $100,000 (with $90,000 suspended for the next three years), after self-reporting a violation of $22,698 in the year they had kiwi superstar Maria Folau on the books and finished second last, with just three wins.
But there seemed to be much less fuss from fans around their story and the narrative certainly didn’t follow them throughout the 2020 season, where they finished seventh again.
Of course, there is a large difference between the amount of money that each of these netball teams exceeded the salary cap with.
But the question remains, are we only debating the level of Fever’s sanctions because they are a successful team?
Or does netball need to develop a harder stance on salary cap breaches, to protect its reputation?