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Netball Super League and fan favourite umpire Gary Burgess marks 250 appearances for the league.

Taken during the Netball Super League Grand Final at the Copper Box Arena, London, England on 11th June 2023.

An umpire known by many, a role model to those starting in officiating, a dad to two arts and crafts-loving daughters, and a player’s best-worst nightmare; Gary Burgess celebrated 250 Netball Super League (NSL) games last weekend. We caught up with Gary to reflect on the last 250 matches as well as how he started his umpiring career alongside working as a PE teacher.

Taking us back to the very beginning, Gary’s passion for sport was instilled through his teaching. A PE teacher and hockey umpire by trade, he made the switch to netball after wanting to expand his sporting knowledge.

“So this is my 19th year of being with the Netball Super League. But going back to where it all began, I was a hockey umpire before and I was teaching at a school. We went on a load of different courses to make ourselves more employable, basically as male teachers.

“And I went on to netball and my netball umpiring award and that’s where I met Sheelagh Redpath. Sheelagh was there and basically, the skills that I had in hockey were quite transferable to netball, so Sheelagh picked me up there. She has been my mentor for 20 years and she still mentors me now!

“To cut a long story short, I did it initially to make myself more employable but it ended up with me being in the right place at the right time with Sheelagh picking me up along the way and supporting me throughout.”

When asked what has changed in the sport from when he first started his umpiring journey to now, Gary’s love and passion for netball has grown year on year.

“I’ve always been very grateful to England Netball being a man in a woman’s sport because at no point have I ever felt like an outsider. And I do think that as men, we have to be careful to not, you know, put a foot wrong really, because we’re here by invitation, and at any point that invitation can be rescinded.

“But like I said, I’ve always been supported by England Netball and always been welcomed in. And it’s never been a case of, what are you doing here? I think one of the big things that’s developed over time is social media. When I first started umpiring, it wasn’t even really a thing and it’s now a massive thing.

“When I first started out, the only opinions you got were on the match, but likewise broadcast quality and broadcast exposure has increased over the time. So, you know, that’s one of the big changes that has happened.

“But I think certainly from my my point of view in the 20 years that I’ve been doing this is that the game has got a lot faster. It’s got a lot more physical. But I say physical as in a positive, it’s not a negative physicality. People talk about that the game is really physical. It’s actually not a bad thing.”

When asked to expand on his opinion on the physicality of the game, he said: “It’s physical because the athletes are doing more of their strength and conditioning programs which are outstanding.

“You know, they’re bigger, they’re stronger, they play harder. And that basically all adds to a more physical game. So physicality in that was not a negative. It’s absolutely a positive.”

Announced as Umpire of the Season in 2023, we asked Gary to expand on his feelings on being a male in a proudly female focused sport and how things for him have changed over the years.

Taken during the Netball Super League Grand Final at the Copper Box Arena, London, England on 11 June 2023.

“I think for me, I’ve always said that we as an organisation, as a governing body, we have to create role models. We have to create diverse role models so people can be what they can see. I definitely didn’t think about that when I first got into netball because of the exposure of the sport.

“You know, we did have some really great male umpires before: Gordon Padley, Roger Perham, Brian Worrall, Alan Anderson and Bill Alexander. They were all there but the, kind of, exposure of netball back in the day, that wasn’t, that wasn’t great. But as I said to you earlier on, because of the exposure, because of the media attention, because of all of that, I stand out because I look like this.

“You know, I was a senior leader in a school for a long time in charge of behaviour and discipline. I’m a skinhead, I’m a man. And so basically at the very beginning, I had to consciously tone all of that down because I spent my life telling kids off, you know? So that was my job.”

“I’m the biggest advocate for this sport getting the recognition and funding and sponsorship that it deserves because I know how hard those athletes work. After leaving teaching in 2016 and working for England Netball since then, I see it every day how hard our athletes train and it’s brilliant to see.”

Reflecting on his umpiring successes over the years, Gary offered his advice to anyone starting out in umpiring or thinking about taking that step towards becoming one.

“I think I’ve always said this and you’ve got to go by the umpiring rulebook. The rulebook is black and white. Okay? The umpiring itself is colourful and vibrant and you need empathy and you need understanding with the players.”

“But ultimately your job there is to make the players, or to provide the players with a platform to be, outstanding. That’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to provide them with some clear boundaries so they know how far they can push things. But ultimately everyone is striving to make those netballers the number one product. That’s what we’re looking for.”

“So if I was to say to somebody that was just starting out, use the rules to enhance play, don’t ever use them to catch people out. It’s not about that. It’s about you using the rules to enhance play, not to catch players out and it should never be snarky or cynical or officious.”

“It should be clear, concise. I know I’ve always said this. Knowing the rules is your get out of jail free card because if something changes, ‘Are you sure?’ I’m absolutely sure. I know the rules. So I’m 100% sure on that. So yeah, that’s probably what I would say. Know the rules, but understand that you know the rule book’s black and white, the umpiring is colourful and vibrant and you need to be empathetic.”

Taken during the NSL match between Saracens Mavericks and Manchester Thunder at the OVO Arena, Wembley, London, England on 7 April 2024.

When asked if he could describe his NSL experience in one word, Gary’s time spent with other umpires definitely came to mind.

“One word is really difficult. I would say I’ve loved every minute. But if I was to give you one word, it would probably be friendships.”

“Louise Travis is as experienced as I am. But I think we both are by far the most experienced umpires in the league. But again, that’s what you get when you’re in the league for 18, 19 years. And, you know, I think my debut was in 2006. But yes, it’s all about the friendships you make along the way.”

Umpiring at the OVO Arena, Wembley on Sunday 7 April, Gary collected his accolade in front of a huge crowd. A huge congratulations to Gary for achieving this brilliant milestone! Keep an eye out on our social media to see more exclusive clips with Gary coming your way very soon!

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