There are Olympic sports and there are minority sports. There are also largely UK-specific sports that don’t translate well across the world. Then there are downright obscure sports. Korfball fits squarely into that latter category but it’s a label it’d like to change in this country.
On Tuesday 30th April, Norwich Knight’s player and assistant coach Ross Lenton was invited to appear on BBC Radio 2’s Breakfast Show to talk to Chris Evans about his team and the sport of korfball. The Knights, the previous Sunday, had pulled off an astounding victory to win the EKA Cup (korfball’s national cup competition in England) despite a season to forget.
A 16-10 win against KV in the final, taking place on the same day that Norwich had overcome Nottingham 25-19 in the semis, will do little to convince Lenton that they have performed well enough throughout the league campaign. Two cup match wins followed two league wins in one week against KV and Kingfisher, but they come at the end of a run of four straight losses and just two league wins this calendar year. In some sports, a successful cup run can be the perfect distraction to a year that sees you finish seventh out of ten teams, but the shallow depth of talent in korfball hardly makes it a proud achievement.
Ross Lenton’s chat with Chris Evans early on a Tuesday morning was the perfect chance to enhance the reputation of his sport in preparation for next season – not that the 2012/13 campaign is over. Once the small matter of the league play-offs are dealt with, the Great Britain must get ready for the 9th edition of the World Games.
Somewhat modelled after the Olympics, the World Games are an international multi-sport event comprised of all the minority sports you’d never imagine you’d be watching and some you’ve never heard of. Korfball finds itself on the programme alongside established Olympic events like rhythmic gymnastics and trampolining, new Olympic event rugby sevens and future hopefuls squash, karate, wushu, softball and sport climbing. Then you also have orienteering and lifesaving. It’s such a baffling mix but it’s one that korfball feels comfortable in and one of the biggest events in its calendar.
Despite England being fourth in the world at one time (korfball world rankings aren’t exactly easy to find), Great Britain had a torrid time of things at the 2009 World Games in Kaohsiung, finishing 7th out of eight nations with only a single win against Australia to show for it. Head coach Dave Buckland is hoping to make amends this time around by picking a strong squad to travel to Cali, Colombia, consisting entirely of English Korfball League players. Included are Joe Bedford and Hannah Lorrimer, the league’s top male and female scorers respectively, who both helped guide Nottingham to second in the league. The mixed sex contingent is drawn from a smattering of other teams – five of the ten EKL teams are represented – but with no athletes from more popular overseas leagues, it’s unclear whether the part-time Great Britain side can make an impression on the Netherlands and the Belgiums of the game.
Back to the subject at hand, then. How do you improve the standing of korfball in a country saturated with other sports, ones that are more exciting, intriguing and altogether more “British”?
Korfball’s main draw is that men and women play together. The sport shares this trait only with equestrian sports and, even then, it’s the horse that’s the main focus. Women ‘can’ compete alongside men in other sports (snooker’s Reanne Evans comes to mind) but it’s the teamwork between the two sexes in korfball that really catches the eye. Sure, there’s a question of “how do you maintain team spirit when the two halves of a korfball team are confined to different changing rooms (I assume)”? As long as everyone’s playing from the same page on the court, evidenced by league winners Trojans losing just one game this year and finishing respectably in Europe, it doesn’t matter.
One problem korfball has is that it’s too similar to other ball and net sports that themselves struggle to be seen in the UK. In throwing a medium-sized ball into an overhead bucket, korfball draws obvious comparisons to basketball and netball. The latter is a popular participation for young girls, but the Netball Superleague gets little public recognition, outside of one televised match a week on Sky Sports – several days after the event. Interest started to be piqued when England trounced Australia in a test series earlier this year, but BBC just seem to be drumming up false interest in preparation for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
Basketball is a huge global sport and the NBA is one of the most followed leagues in the world, but it struggles to make an impact here. British Basketball League headline events like last week’s Playoff Final between Leicester Riders and Newcastle Eagles is welcome, particularly when they sell out Wembley Arena and the Glasgow Emirates Arena, but they’re exceptions to the rule. It’s hard to get excited when most people’s knowledge of basketball stretches as far as a pretty poor home showing for an underfunded Great Britain at London 2012. If basketball fails to get most Brits’ blood pumping, what chance does korfball have?
The answer, then, seems to depend on the media. Tuesday’s Radio 2 interview, nestled away at 8:40am, that transitional time when people are just getting into work and turning their radios off, is a rare chance for an unknown sport to reach an audience of over 9 million. Did it work? I don’t know, I didn’t hear it (yeah, I know, good going, Scott) but the sport’s name went out over the airwaves and if even a few thousand took any notice, it’s an improvement.
Part of me wishes I’d taken the opportunity to play korfball for my university several years ago instead of succumbing to a year of drunken nights and little exercise (as fun as that was). What it did do was let me know that korfball exists and now I’m passing on that nugget of information to the five or so people that’ll read this.