Properly professional or just participating?

Once up a time, on his Facebook page, Mark Lebedew commented that, “Professional sport is not for clubs who want, but for clubs who can.” Mark told me he made that observation based on something a mutual friend of ours had to say combined with a bankruptcy issue in the top German league.

I heard that at the end of the 2015-16 season there were four bankrupt teams in Bundesliga 1 on the women’s side. That is pretty amazing. Even more so when supposedly the women’s side of the game in Germany is stronger than the men’s (it was suggested to me that was because the women’s side is more cooperative). Might be even more amazing when you consider that you don’t tend to have spendthrift operations there.

Competition vs. Participation

Mark extended his comment. He brought up the idea that you’d be better off with fewer teams who are stronger than more teams. You don’t just want them there for the sake of having some defined number in the league. Basically, competition vs. participation. It’s something fledgling sports leagues definitely deal with.

Major League Soccer (MLS) is an example of this. In it’s early years the talent was spread very thin. Things are much better now, obviously, but it took a while to get there. And the league has been expanding fairly steadily over the years. That dilutes the talent if players of a high enough caliber are not brought in to fill those squads.

Here’s the thing, though. MLS has a salary cap structure. It’s a bit fluid these days, but in the early-going it was very rigid. That served to keep teams on an even playing field, at least with respect to the player talent. This is something you don’t generally see in professional sports leagues around the world. In German volleyball, for example, two clubs dominate the men’s league. They have far more in the way of financial resources. Everyone else plays for the scraps. I talk about this gulf in competitive level some in my Professional volleyball country league rankings post.

Mark may not have been specifically taking on that particular issue in professional volleyball (or other sports for that matter). There is definitely the question, though, of whether teams are legitimately there to try to compete or just there for the sake of being able to say they are.

I’d say in some respects it was the latter case for Svedala, where I coached in Sweden. Part of the club wanted to be legitimately competitive in the Elitserie. Part of it, however, saw the focus of the club as the youth teams. The pro team was just a sort of marketing tool. Certainly, putting national youth academy teams in the first division – as happens in both Sweden and Germany – strikes me as being more about participation.

Making it sustainable

Personally, I would really like to see teams in our sport – be they professional or collegiate – reach a level where they can be self-sustained. What does that mean? To my mind in means bringing in revenue which is not heavily dependent on just one or two big sources – like major sponsors. What happens if those sponsors pull out? That’s at least some of the issue with clubs in Germany.

We’re a long way from being there, especially without the big television contracts enjoyed by other sports. It’s something we can work toward, though.

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John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women's team. This follows 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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