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Cambridge University alumna Clare Briegal helps lead global growth of netball at the International Netball Federation

As chief executive of the International Netball Federation, few would hold as much sway in the sport as Clare Briegal.

The New Hall alumna leads an organisation that has 75 member nations in a discipline that is growing in popularity across the world.

However, the role counted for nothing when Briegal went to visit the University of Cambridge Sports Centre.

Asked by the Cambridge Independent to take a step back for a picture with the Cambridge University Ladies’ Netball Club’s Swallows team facing Lincoln III in the background, it fell foul of the umpire, who stopped the match to issue a reprimand and warning of going too close to the court.

Of course, you wonder if the temptation may have been to say ‘do you know who I am?’ but, instead, Briegal was impressed by the diligence and professionalism of the official, who was oblivious to the status of the individual and focused on delivering for the needs of the players.

Briegal’s sporting odyssey started in Cambridge in 1981 and she was back at her old haunt for a first visit to the sports centre, which was built in 2013.

“I wouldn’t have classed myself as an athlete prior to coming to Cambridge, I was mainly academic, and then I was touched by a high-performance programme,” she explains.

“I’ve always had that training ethic in my head, so even when I go to the gym in the morning now, I’m still mentally that person and I still have that training ethic.

“Hopefully, it will keep me fit and healthy for the rest of my life.”

Briegal had arrived at Cambridge as a badminton and squash player, but the introduction to rowing during freshers’ week at New Hall, now Murray Edwards, changed everything.

She would go on to win oars as a member of the May Bumps headship crew in her third year and, having trialled twice for Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club, stroked the reserve Blondie crew in 1984.

It was the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002 that encouraged her to get involved in volunteering in sport, assisting with British Rowing at a host of events, which in turn led to helping at the London Olympics and the decision to try working in sport.

Briegal’s background had been in sales and marketing, including for ICI and as marketing director for Twyfords, and her first contact with netball was as interim chief executive of the INF on maternity cover in 2012.

Bar a six-month spell, when her maternity cover returned briefly, she has never looked back and neither has the sport.

A survey conducted by Sport England in October showed that netball was the sport that bucked the trend by increasing the number of people participating in team sports in the previous 12 months, while the return of the Vitality Netball Superleague just last weekend had record attendances.

But while the boon close to home is of great importance and satisfaction to Briegal, her priority is to boost the sport worldwide.

“Our objective as the international federation is to grow and develop the sport globally so that means we have certain countries where we have very large populations playing netball, like South Africa, Australia, New Zealand,” she explains.

“We basically take the knowledge and expertise from those areas and take them to the parts of the worldw where they don’t have the knowledge and expertise.

“For example, the world cup that was held in Liverpool last year, part of the funding that came into that world cup was legacy funding that we then took to take coaches from England Netball out to Argentina, so developing a hub for netball in South America. My role is really brokering all of that.”

Clare Briegal, the chief executive of the International Netball Federation, at the University of Cambridge Sports Centre. Picture: Keith Heppell
Clare Briegal, the chief executive of the International Netball Federation, at the University of Cambridge Sports Centre. Picture: Keith Heppell

The international federation owns the world cup, so hosts the bidding process in order to allow member nations to run the tournament.

They also own the rules of the game so have an advisory panel to develop the international rules book each year, and also appoint officials to international test fixtures.

Of the 75 members of the federation, there are 52 full members, which means they have a national representative team, and the rest are associate members working towards full representation, which would mean a national squad.

“What’s happened in my time, I guess, is we’ve moved a lot of members from associate up to full membership where they’re aiming to get a world ranking,” explains Briegal.

“It could be transformational for them in terms of their funding. Once they start to get recognised and a world ranking then their government starts to invest in them and national pride takes over.”

The biggest challenges for the INF, though, are working out the best way to develop the sport in its allocation of funding and the wisest way to invest their money given that there is so much they could do.

They are heavily resourced in people, but have little hard cash to send those people around the world.

“The board that operates for the international federation, the board that I work with, the next meeting is how do we allocate those resources globally for the next four-year period to get the maximum return,” says Briegal.

“They are a global board so you’ve got individuals from each of the five regions. How can they best apply what funding you have?

“The challenges are different region by region and country by country. In some cultures, women get very little; in other countries, women aren’t treated equally; and in some countries, people actually put more money into women’s sport as it needs a bigger leg up, that equity argument.

“My daily challenge is that I might have St Lucia calling me, a tiny country, that just basically wants to try to get enough money together because everybody plays netball already so it’s just how can we fund the national team to go and play in Barbados.

“To Australia, that are on saying ‘my issue is with my government and we want to host the netball world cup and here is millions of dollars that we can spend, where shall we spend that money?’. So it’s a case of saying, ‘why don’t you try St Lucia?’.”

History will be made in 2023 when the Netball World Cup heads to Africa for the first time, in South Africa. While there will be a greater spotlight closer to home with the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022.

“Netball has huge potential and I’m very excited about our current future planning process, the ambition,” she said.

“As we’re higher profile, we get very interesting people coming to share their ideas with us and attracting very strong partners, other sports federations and the opportunity to get netball into multi-sport games regionally around the world.

“The Commonwealth Games is a great thing coming to Birmingham in two years.

“Netball will be in the Commonwealth Youth Games for the first time in Trinidad & Tobago in 2021, so it’s all good stuff.”

Netball may be the priority now, but Briegal has certainly not deserted rowing.

For her ‘relaxation’, she is a multi-lane umpire.

Having originally got involved as an aligner at Henley Boat Races six years ago, Briegal was assistant umpire for the men’s Boat Race in 2019 and, on March 15, will be part of history.

She will be umpiring the first Lightweight Women’s Boat Race to be held on the Championship Course on the Tideway.

“I was umpiring the Oxford Trial VIIIs and when we sat down doing the briefing before the race, I said ‘you might not recognise but you’re creating history as you will be talked about as the first lightweight crews to race’,” says Briegal.

“I wasn’t trying to scare them but saying that it is significant because every step might seem little to the people that are doing it but it’s a significant journey to where these crews will end up.

“Whether you’re at the beginning or part way through, you’re still adding to the history and the value of the whole event.

“I think it was really cool for them and wanted to make it a little bit special even though they might not all make the final cut.”

A place in history and helping to shape it, and to just think, arguably it all started for Briegal at the Cambridge University freshers’ fair.

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