Can Volleyball Reach the North American Market?

Gavin Schmitt hits against Cuba. The opposite wants to play in North America. Kill on Two interviewed several people about the USAV project (Photo: Norceca)

The idea of a professional volleyball league in the United States isn’t new, four attempts were made before. Three of those were for women only and the fourth was for a co-ed format.  This time USA Volleyball got involved.  President Doug Beal has been working hard in the background to turn it into reality. But how far can USAV go? Will we finally see the sport reaching a broader audience in North America? Kill on Two talked to Beal himself and several other people connected to the volleyball world. There’s a lot of optimism and some huge expectations, but at least one of the biggest names in the history of this sport believes the project is destined to fail.

USA Volleyball has signed an agreement with Grand Prix Sports, a subsidiary of Los Angeles-based sports and entertainment company Grand Prix Entertainment, to run its indoor competitions until 2018. The package includes the "sanction, license and global broadcast rights" to all USA Volleyball men's and women's professional events.  This agreement comes at a time when USA Volleyball attempts to capitalise on the sport's success in The London 2012 Olympic Games.

This year 12 women’s teams representing their respective USA Volleyball regions competed at the USA Volleyball Open National Championships in May.  The team from the Hoosier Region (The Exterminators) defeated the team from the Iowa Region (Iowa Ice) in the title match. There were no other official contests for the league in 2012, but that will likely expand in 2013 as the number of region teams grow along with a men’s side, says USAV. Although the initiative may help the sport to become more popular in the States (with the possibility to reach Canada in a near future) there were no stars so far. No players from Team USA competed in the league in 2012. The American women won the World Grand Prix three times in a row (2010, 2011 and 2012) and won two silver medals in the last Olympic Games editions (Beijing 2008 and London 2012). All members of the team play abroad, in Europe, Asia or Brazil. Places with strong and developed leagues.

Doug Beal: “We’re moving on pro volleyball in the USA” (Photo: USAV)

“Our plan is to develop our league slowly over the coming years. We’ll start by some special events, small tournaments throughout the country to grow interest. In 2013 we’ll have more women’s teams and the men’s division will start. By 2016 I believe we’ll be ready to start a league as you see in Italy, Russia, Brazil or Poland. I’m not saying we’ll begin at the same level, but maybe the format, the presence of pro players” explains Doug Beal. He observes that a league in USA has to deal with some huge distances, a battle for space on TV and four time zones in the continental part. “It’s not easy, but we’re moving on professional volleyball in the USA”. Beal says that Canadian teams can take part in the future, the way it happens in many other sports leagues.

One of the main challenges, apart the fact most Americans ignore the sport, is to attract sponsors so the league can go big. “We have not yet started to sign sponsors, but Grand Prix Entertainment is mostly responsible for this and they are working now to begin this process”, informs the USAV President.

We can’t say there’s a buzz on the matter, but the idea of a pro volleyball league finally reaching North America gets some attention. Olympic champion in London 2012, Russian star Maxim Mikhaylov told Kill on Two that the project will take some time until it gets consolidated.

“Definitely it’ll take more than a year to become something big, and money will play a big role on developing and popularizing volleyball in the USA. However, considering the amount of excellent players they have, developing a league is certainly something possible”, affirmed the opposite hitter.

Italy men’s team head coach, Mauro Berruto, was thrilled to hear about a league in the States.

“This is some really great news. We do need as many good leagues as possible in the world if we wish our sport still growing. I'm sure this league will help volleyball to improve, it makes me happy” an enthusiastic Berruto told us.  Berruto recently led his squad to a bronze medal in the London Olympics. He recalls that hundreds of top players went to Italy in the last decades to play in their league. “We’ve been having for a very long time most of the best players in the world in our league. That was pushing up the level of excellence, building a net of very good coaches, requiring clubs to have high level of professionalism”.

Mauro Berruto, Italy men’s team coach, thinks the idea is fantastic (Photo: FIVB)

The idea of volleyball grabbing a slice of the highly competitive American market is a reason for excitement says Berruto. “That would be a new spot for our sport, a great new opportunity, a new place to research excellence. Personally, I'd be really interested on this project. Volleyball is already a world sport, as we have 220 nations represented in FIVB, but the idea of having a professional league in USA is really exciting. Besides, the United States has a stunning sports culture and very high level national teams. I believe all the conditions are positive” he says.

Polish league sophomore and USA Men's National Team member, Paul Lotman is optimistic.

“It may take several years to accomplish this goal of making volleyball popular in the USA, but if there are big sponsors who invest in advertising and TV, then I think it is a possibility. I actually spoke with Zbigniew Bartman (Poland’s national team player) about this possibility of a professional league in USA. I know Grand Prix Sports has invested a lot of time and money into this project and it is my hope that it will succeed within the next few years. Although I love playing in Poland and other countries it would be very nice to be able to live in USA and play professional volleyball. The AVP, our professional beach league, has started to make a comeback so I think it is definitely possible for volleyball to succeed in USA. It will be interesting to see how Grand Prix Sports handles the marketing of volleyball in America and how they will make it appealing to the American public”.

Veteran Fred Winters, Team Canada’s captain is playing this season in the Chinese league.  He told Kill on Two he had always waited for this.

“I'm all for it. I know many guys are waiting for this to happen, and my only hope is that it can be organized and they can pay decent money because I'd rather play in the USA instead of having to head overseas every year”.

Fred Winters: “I know many guys are waiting for this to happen” (Photo: FIVB)

Canadian Gavin Schmitt (one of the main players in 2012 World League) is making his debut in the Russian league this year after three seasons in South Korea.  He sees a pro league in USA as a great exposure for the sport.

“Any exposure we can get for our sport to help it grow globally is amazing, though I’m sure creating this league will be no easy task. It’ll be very important to pick up sponsors and exposure via television and such things, but equally important will be to educate the spectators. Having family and friends who watch me for the first time, they are not so sure of the rules, they don't know why one team gets the point when it looked like the other should and so on. Once right now volleyball isn’t so big in USA, it would be very important to educate the viewers as to what they are watching and what is happening on the court. The major upside of having the league in USA is that they really love sports and are very supportive”.

Schmitt expects to have a chance to play in North America. “I fully support and hope for the league, it’d be amazing to play in North America and not having to be so far from home all the time.  Not only that, but it’d open up future coaching jobs and further development of athletes in North America.  Also as with most of the major sports having a professional league in USA, makes it one step closer having pro teams or even a pro league in Canada. I think starting this now will be a long process before it has the ability to reach the level of popularity some of the other sports have reached in North America, but you always have to start somewhere.  Myself, I’d love if it could survive and it could possibly open coaching jobs in North America for the future, if that’s a route I choose to take”.

However, there’s also some skepticism. Four-time Olympian and gold medalist in Beijing 2008, former American setter Lloy Ball doesn’t think the project will take off. Ball, a volleyball legend who recently retired after a successful career on Team USA, and also in the Italian and Russian leagues, told Kill on Two that volleyball “will never be popular in USA”.

Lloy Ball: “Volleyball is a second class citizen in the sports world” (Photo: Reuters)

“First off, volleyball doesn’t fit into the American sports mentality. It is too difficult for most Americans to play. So, they have no knowledge or frame of reference to draw from when watching it. Secondly, it is a ‘women's’ sport here, so men won’t watch it, unless it’s beach and the players have bikinis on. Lastly, thanks to ‘Title 9’ (an NCAA rule instituted a few years back to equal the opportunities for women to play college sports) volleyball on the men's side will never grow to the size or popularity to sustain a men's pro league. A women's pro league has yet to be sustained in any sport, unless directly financially supported by a men's league, such as WNBA (basketball) and LPGA (golf)”. Lloy Ball’s words may sound bitter, but he stresses, “It’s just an honest opinion”. For him, “Volleyball is a second class citizen in the sports world”.

Still, Ball says if a league were started in USA, many good players including foreigners would feel attracted. “I have no doubt good foreign players would come and for less money, just to have the chance to live in America. But here’s the problem: That doesn’t help the league. When I played in Russia, everyone knew me. When Giba played in Italy, everyone knew him and was interested. When (Lorenzo) Bernardi coaches in Poland, he’s a star because people know him. In the USA, no one will know Giba, Bernardi, Mikhaylov or anyone else. They don't know me. So, why would they come to the games, or why would they watch on TV?”

According to International Olympic Committee (IOC), volleyball has one of the highest TV ratings, but the sport attracts people in high populated countries such as China, Japan, Brazil and Russia, among others. Doug Beal says NBC got “wonderful ratings with volleyball at the Olympics” but he admits there’s always the question: If the ratings are good because of the sport or just because of the Olympics?

“This league will have an enormous impact all over the world if we succeed” points out USAV President. Beal is aware that reaching the level of popularity of the three major sports in USA (American football, basketball and baseball) is virtually impossible for volleyball, but he believes the sport can reach, after some period, the same success experienced by hockey, soccer or tennis, which would be a moderate level. “In many countries where volleyball is successful the sport is not necessarily tier one” he added.

Doug Beal wants to break a very relevant barrier. “Here in the USA, volleyball is more a participatory sport than a spectator one, people aren’t used to follow it, so we must combine some local success with a national platform, but we’re going for that”.