Netball: Taking America By Storm Thanks To Sonya Ottaway

Exciting, exhausting, exhilarating and inspirational is how you would describe Netball America Inc President and KPMG Director, Sonya Ottaway. Her motto is "what matters is whether you've created something special, and whether you've made a real difference to other people's lives".

Her extensive background with KPMG International as an International Project Manager within the Risk Consulting business has helped her to create something special in forming Netball America Inc, a USA national not-for-profit corporation. The corporation has allowed her to make a difference in people's lives, especially to youth and those in under-served areas.

Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance. 

How long have you been living in the US for? And where is home in Australia?

I came to the USA – Los Angeles – back in 2000, on a four month assignment with KPMG. Once my time there was up, I travelled around the US for a few months before heading back home to Brisbane. That’s when I really got a feel for living overseas and what American culture was like. Much to my mum’s dismay, I came back in 2001 and have been here ever since. All my family is still in Rockhampton and Brisbane.

Can you tell me a bit about the works Netball America Inc does? What was the impetus in getting it started?

Growing up in Australia, playing netball at primary school is a given. It’s taught through physical education curriculum and offered as an after school sport at nearly every school in the country. It’s so ubiquitous; it can almost be taken for granted.

I’ve always had an avid interest in Netball; it’s followed me around my whole life. I represented the USA for five years, have played against Australia in the World Cup and trained with the Silver Ferns for the weekend. But, if you speak to an American, they don’t even know what netball is! It’s such a great sport for kids, teaches such great teamwork i.e. not being able to hog the ball.

I wanted to spread the good netball word, so I started meeting with teachers in schools where they were struggling to get the girls active. The schools responded really well – it’s an easy sport to pick up because anyone can play. Additionally, because it’s non-contact, boys and girls are able to play together.

We saw a great response from all the schools, which was our biggest driving force to get it across America. It was an easy sell to the schools that were looking for something new; it’s an easy sell.

What sports are normal for schools in America? Where in America are you based?

The main sports seen in schools in American Schools are basketball, softball and volleyball. A lot of them are looking to introduce more international sports because they’re looking to get more international students.

We work in different district areas, and are slowly growing in amount of schools we have implemented netball in. For example, there are 12 NYC public schools that we’ve implemented a netball curriculum in, and hope to have 15 by the end of the year.

In Orlando, we’re hoping to roll out 500 schools over the next five years. Most of it at the moment is not built in to the curriculum and it’s all after school, we’re hoping to change that!

What initiatives have you implemented?

We run a program called Be An Inspiration – sessions where we meet with kids three times a week. We recruit someone to come in and talk to girls about different topics. We run physical programs with them as well as mentoring and leadership programs. We also set up a community day where everyone is invited, the parents come out to enjoy the activities. 

How long has it been in operation for? How is it making a difference in people’s lives?

Netball America Inc was founded in 2007 and incorporated in 2008, so we have been around for a little while. What we’re trying to do is inspire the youth of America using netball as a vehicle. We’re looking to tap in to community resources and help give girls opportunity, and really looking to infiltrate netball in every educational system in America. There are currently 33 states right now that have some form of netball. The youth is our one big area of focus.

Do you think Netball America Inc has made a difference in increasing Australian/American relations regarding sports? How?

Yes I do. For example, during the most recent World Cup, Australia came over and took away the bronze medal. Vicky Wilson – a very prolific netball player, has been helping run some clinics for people in the US and bringing the standard up to an international level. We have a lot of support from the Australian community here 

Australia has always been the land of opportunity – perhaps we have started to take that for granted somewhat. Trying to do any type of after school sport is a luxury here, as most teenagers focus on college sport that may grant them a scholarship – currently no college offers scholarships for netball and it’s a long way away. We are lucky back home that we’re exposed to all different types of opportunities.

How has working at a corporate such as KPMG assisted in getting Netball America Inc to where it is? Do you try and implement any sport initiatives in the workplace as well?

I’ve had KPMG globally do a community day once a year, where the entire Citibank KPMG team all went out to the community to play netball in the afternoon. It’s great to be able to utilise some of their amazing connections and networks, and have the resources to really think out of the box and do something no one has done before.

You have facilitated an O category visa – something that requires outstanding skills in a field. Do you plan on giving many Australians the opportunity to come play netball in the US?

We did get the first O visa for netball, and are looking in to doing that more and more in the future. It would be great to start giving Australians the opportunity to come over to the US with working entitlements to play sport. However, applicants do need to have enough capital to come over and support themselves financially, as netball is not a full time gig.

What’s been a career highlight for you?

Definitely hosting the World Cup. I flew to Belgium three and a half years ago and have been putting the whole event together ever since. It’s like putting together a bid for the Olympics! I’ve been working 20 hours a day for the past year to put it together and had such good feedback after the event, it was undoubtedly such a highlight of my career and the first of its kind in the US.

What’s next for Netball America Inc? 

We have a few great events in the pipeline that we’ll be rolling out this year. We’ve petitioned to get netball in to World Out Games, which are on next May in Miami. Other than that, we’re just working on promoting awareness and integration of netball around the world!