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Professional volleyball in the U.S. – possible?

Recently, someone asked the question in a Facebook group whether there will ever be professional volleyball in the U.S. Of course there have been attempts at it over the years. None have lasted long, though. Most recently there is a new version developed through the USA Volleyball regions. It’s not a proper league yet, though.

An argument can be made that in many ways college volleyball is a type of professional league. Scholarship athletes are, after all, compensated for playing for their schools. It’s not a salary, but it’s definitely an exchange of participation and representation for something of value.

College vs. Professional

I wrote a series of posts comparing US college volleyball with professional volleyball in Europe. Here is the first one. The biggest difference between the two is the length of the season.

Actually, in a lot of ways US college teams – especially those in the upper levels – are bigger operations. Consider the amount of travel there is for teams in the Big 10 or the PAC-12. Think about how much money those coaches are paid. There aren’t many in the professional ranks who make that much. There also aren’t many clubs with staffs that large or comparable facilities.

The bottom line is that right now college volleyball in the US is a bigger deal than professional volleyball is in many other places.

Extending beyond college

The big question for US professional volleyball is being able to extend the sport beyond college without a major drop off. Who is going to want to go to a professional match if they can get a higher quality product watching the local college team?

Yes, you expect the level of play to be better. What about the facilities? What about the match-day environment?

In some places (Nebraska, Hawaii) college volleyball is a really big deal. Competing with it would be very challenging, especially for a fledgling league.

Use the soccer model?

One way a new professional volleyball league could go is to follow the Major League Soccer (MLS) route. That model is one where you get a bunch of billionaires who like the sport and have each start a team to operate a league at the national level. These folks can absorb years of losses to take the long view. It’s worked out pretty well as that league is now in its 21st season.

In the MLS case many of the early investors were NFL owners. For them it made a lot of sense because most of the soccer schedule was outside the football season. That gave them the opportunity to use their stadium more rather than having it sit empty. Most teams have now moved to soccer-specific stadiums. They realized the huge ones for football had serious match-day experience drawbacks.

So would something comparable for volleyball be getting NBA owners involved? You’re basically talking about the same sort of facility, after all. I think the problem there is that basketball has a much longer season than does football. Also, many of the arenas used for basketball also have hockey tenants. Volleyball would have a hard time getting on the schedule.

Using a regional-to-national model

A national level league like the one MLS developed would be expensive due to travel. And I’m not just talking about airfare, etc. I’m also talking about time. If you’re making lots of long trips you take players and staff away from home – and importantly, jobs.

Look at the leagues in Europe. The geographic regions they cover are basically the size of US states. Consider what could be done if we took a state or region approach to professional volleyball. We could run regional leagues and have those champions progress to a national level championship. It could even be something like the CEV Champions League.

I think taking this kind of regional approach makes sense from a few perspectives. Reducing travel expense is obviously one of them. There’s also the fact that a regional structure is basically already in place through USA Volleyball.

I also think this allows for the development of a semi-professional model. Players could have day jobs and/or attend school. At the lower levels in Europe, this is how it works – especially with domestic players. And if you look back at the history of US sports, most of them (if not all) began as semi-pro operations.

Implications for men’s volleyball

I think the biggest potential here might be for men’s volleyball in the US. There’s only something like 1/10th as many men’s college teams as women’s team. A professional league structure would provide more opportunity for male players.

Stuff to think about.

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John recently compelted a stint as head coach for a women's professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women's Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

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