Tag Archive for professional volleyball

Pre-conference vs. pre-season

I want to address something that confuses volleyball people outside the US at times.

In professional sports – including volleyball – pre-season preparation includes a certain amount of external competition. They televise and analyze these games in the NFL, for example. In other sports, not so much.

Volleyball is one of those sports.

Professional teams (and non-pros as well) play loads matches during their pre-season which they call friendlies. I watched one in 2015 when I was at Bühl. They hosted a Dutch team. If I remember correctly, they played something like 15 friendlies in 2014. That’s over the course of a pre-season lasting about two months. When I coached in Sweden, we played 5 or 6 friendlies during our month of preparation.

But they don’t count for anything.

Yes, my Svedala team won a pre-season tournament in Denmark. It did not, however, influence any kind of standings or rankings. This is where things are very different for NCAA teams.

In US college volleyball teams play lots of matches before they get into conference play. We don’t call them friendlies, though. We call them pre-conference or non-conference matches (not all happen before conference play) and they count toward our official season. The NCAA permits teams to play on a specific number of dates. Conference matches take up a certain number of those dates. Schools fill the rest with non-conference matches.

Once upon a time, pre-conference matches served the same purpose as do friendlies in the professional game. They helped prepare a team for conference play. Maybe also to give non-starters some playing time – especially when they happen during the conference season.

Then there came into consideration at-large bids to the NCAA championship tournament. Tournament selection committees had to compare teams from all over the country, which saw things like strength of schedule, polls, and eventually the RPI develop. And of course, once you have those things, you get schools aiming to make themselves look attractive to the committee. Generally speaking, teams don’t control their conference schedule. That just leaves their non-conference schedule open to manipulation.

Let me provide an example from NCAA Division II.

At this level the first three rounds of play are regionalized. By that I mean the country has been divided up into 8 regions. Each comprises a group of conferences. From those conferences, a committee selects eight teams to compete in their NCAA Regional tournament. The regional tournament winners then advance to the national quarterfinal round.

The eight teams who reach the regional tournaments do so in two ways. First are the automatic qualifiers. Those are the champions of the conferences in that region. Midwestern State is in the NCAA’s South Central region as part of the Lone Star Conference. The Heartland Conference and the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference are the other two conferences in the region. The winner of each earns an automatic bid to the NCAA regional tournament.

Now that three automatic spots are covered, that leaves five for the selection committee to fill. These are done primarily from the Region’s ranking of teams. The rankings reflect how teams in the region do against each other and how they do against common opponents, among other factors.

So if a team wants to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA regional tournament it must demonstrate its strength relative to other prospective at-large teams in that region. Teams do so by playing non-conference teams within the region. It can also mean playing teams outside the region that demonstrate your level of play in comparison to others.

The bottom line is that non-conference match selection matters for at least some teams. Not only must a team select its opposition well, it must do well against them. This is why we don’t call them friendly, and why we count them as part of our official season. You can compare this whole process to how the CEV ranks countries and teams based on their performance in CEV competitions for consideration toward bid distribution and seedings.

A professional volleyball league model

In Canada, a new professional league is launching.

The One Volleyball Premier League begins play this week. The league features both men’s and women’s divisions, each with four teams. There will be six rounds of league matches played through June and July, and the championships are on July 22nd. All the matches take place at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Obviously, this is not a big production. It’s basically a city league of very short duration. I’m sure it won’t feature any of the top Canadian players because they will be on national team duty (or for some, playing beach). That means the league comprises a second tier caliber of player. They all had to register with the league and go through a draft.

The reason I bring this little enterprise up is because of the model it represents. I wrote previously on the subject of launching a professional league in the US as something USA Volleyball is exploring. A regional model is one option.

This new Canadian venture takes the regional model concept a little further by bringing it down to the city level. It is something that is an interesting thing to think about, especially if the players are likely to be semi-pro rather than fully professional (at least to start). Larger metropolitan areas are more likely to provide employment opportunities.

I’m not saying a pro league in the US should go this route. I do think, though, that it provides some things worth thinking about. This is especially true if the plan is not to try to go big and national right away.

Looking back on my job search thinking

Volleyball Coach

I recently found myself reading the post I wrote at the start of my 2014-15 job search. It was interesting to revisit my thinking at that time.

This was December 2014. It was my third year at Exeter. I had in mind the completion of my PhD and likely the end of my time in England. There wasn’t much chance I’d be able to stay there in a primarily coaching capacity. The timing was such that my main focus was on US college coaching jobs. They were the ones opening up at the time, though I also had professional jobs in Europe in mind. I had to wait until later to go after them.

I definitely expected to end up back in college volleyball at that time. While I knew it would be a challenge given my long time away, I felt like I had a decent set of credentials. I could go back as an assistant coach, but I figured at that point I was better suited for a head coach position. When it came to looking at a professional job, I thought it would be the other way around. I figured I’d probably need to be an assistant somewhere first to learn the ropes in that structure.

It’s funny how things played out!

Expectations vs. Reality

Although I applied for a long list of both head and assistant positions, I barely got a sniff at any US coaching jobs at that time. There was one phone interview for a school in Texas (coincidentally). That’s as far as it went, though. It was such a poor response that I very seriously thought about non-coaching jobs.

As you probably know, I ended up getting a professional job as a head coach in Sweden. I didn’t really understand at the time I wrote that old post how few assistant coaching opportunities there were for non-locals (or at least non-EU). Outside of the very top leagues (and clubs) the only real opportunities were as head coach for foreigners, and I didn’t have the right passport. I also wasn’t very well connected to hear about potentials positions.

Of course things didn’t play out exactly as I planned in Sweden at Svedala. The team had one of the club’s best seasons, but I was cut loose early in the second half of the campaign. Fortunately, I already had some pokers in the fire, and was shortly thereafter hired at Midwestern State where I am now. I wouldn’t have guessed that I’d end up an assistant in Division II, but that’s where I am.

Interestingly, the Midwestern job wasn’t the only one for which I was offered an interview. I also got called about doing one for a Division III head coaching position. By that time, however, I had already started at MSU.

What did line up

In that old post I talked about the sort of position I wanted, given the opportunity. It was one where I could build something – or at least be part of doing so. That’s something which never changed. It remains true today. It’s a big reason why I am at MSU. The situation here is all about rebuilding a program. I may not be the head coach, but I still have the opportunity to make a meaningful impact.

You can follow my progress in that regard via my Coaching Log entries.

 

Coaching in a tough conference

I appreciate what it must be like to coach a middling team (or lower) in one of the Power 5 conferences in NCAA Division I. My current employer, Midwestern State University, is part of the Lone Star Conference. Based on the 2015 final rankings (the 2016 rankings aren’t yet available at the time of this writing), the LSC was the 4th strongest conference in NCAA Division II.

In the last couple of weeks we played three well placed teams from other conferences. One of them currently sits in a tie for third in the Great American Conference. We beat them in three using a line-up featuring our three freshmen as starters. Basically, we rested some of our normal starters.

The other two are second and third in the Heartland Conference. We lost to the latter in five at their place, but could have won it. Our freshman setter started the match, but didn’t play great. We put our starting junior setter in at 1-2 down and improved immediately. Just a bit too late.

Against the second place team, we again used our freshman setter to start. We brought our junior back for the final set, though. Other players were rotated as well, but we won easily in three.

All of this from a team currently sitting 8th out of 11 teams in the LSC with a 3-7 record.

Of course, as much fun as it is be to fantasize about playing in another conference, that’s not reality. For example, this MSU team would do exceedingly well in BUCS, where we competed when I coached at Exeter. The problem is such a team in BUCS for Exeter is not a reality. The recruiting prospects just aren’t there – though they are at some other schools.

The same is true of lower ranked conferences in NCAA volleyball. Teams there simply struggle to get the same caliber of athletes. Some of that is geographic. Teams in better volleyball regions just have access to more good players. Some of it is resource-based. Those in the best-funded, best-supported programs have a clear advantage.

This isn’t just the case in college volleyball. You can see it in professional volleyball as well. Even low level teams from the top leagues are strong enough to dominate the lower leagues. There are exceptions. Some leagues have one or two very well-funded teams that can compete with teams from stronger leagues.

The bottom line is we all must coach to the best of our abilities with the resources we have available to us.

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.

Finding professional coaching opportunities

Volleyball Coach

When you’ve done something that most folks in your community haven’t done, but might be interested in doing, you tend to get questions about it. In my case, I’m one of a very small number of American coaches with experience coaching in a professional league in Europe. As a result, I periodically get questions about how to go about doing that – like this one:

Hi John,

Can I just bother you to ask about where a coach can find professional coaching opportunities in Europe? In particular, I was wondering how you got your job at Svedala last year – if there is an application to do like here in the UK or there in the US, or if it is thanks to links with other coaches. So mainly what is the process to become a professional coach in Europe?

Many thanks,

Matteo

First, let me direct anyone interested to the Coaching professional volleyball – advice wanted article I wrote. It talks about a lot of what I think you need to know, understand, and be prepared for when looking at professional coaching in Europe.

How does one get a professional coaching job?

Matteo asked how I got my job at Svedala. It was totally a networking thing. The outgoing coach (an Aussie) was in touch with a coaching contact of mine in Germany (an Argentine). The latter, knowing I was looking, put me in touch with the former. He pointed me in the direction of the club’s manager. Obviously, things went from there.

As to whether there’s an application process for these positions, there is – unless the club already has someone in mind. However, it’s not nearly as formal as for college jobs in the US, however. We’re not talking big organizations like universities here, after all. Think about your local volleyball club. That will give you a pretty good idea of how many people are involved in the decision-making process for hiring a coach.

Matteo mentions being in the UK. I don’t know what his citizenship status is. If he’s EU, though, then he’s definitely got some advantages in landing a professional volleyball coaching job there. Even more so if he’s got language skills. The latter are especially handy for someone thinking to be an assistant coach because of the additional duties for coaching lower level (youth) teams which often come with those jobs.

Network, network, network!

No matter what, though, networking is hugely important. You need it to have people to act as recommendations when putting in for jobs. Perhaps even more so in the early stages of your career, you need it to find out about job openings.

So my strong recommendation to anyone looking to coach professionally in Europe is to get out and meet fellow coaches and volleyball people. And not just meet them. Actually spend time with them so you get to know each other. The contact from Germany I mentioned above is some I actually spent about 10 days with while visiting with his team during the first part of their preseason.

Is volleyball business or entertainment?

This post is motivated on an article on the WorldofVolleyball site.

That article’s title is Volleyball – Entertainment or Business? My immediate response to seeing it was, “Yes.” The two are intertwined. Volleyball is an entertainment business. It’s just as the NFL is an entertainment business and the English Premier League is an entertainment business.

Obviously, I’m talking primarily about the professional and international level of the sport here. That is the main focus of the WoV article. That isn’t to say, though, that lower levels of the sport aren’t about entertainment either. The waters just get a bit muddied when talking about something like high school or Juniors. You could also add marketing into the mix when it comes to colleges and universities. Clearly, sports impact applications and attendance at schools.

Professional teams

The primary focus of the WoV article is on teams, specifically teams from Poland, excluding themselves from competing in next season’s CEV club competitions – Champions League, Cup, etc. The reporting goes that the clubs are doing so because they don’t feel like they will be strong enough to legitimately challenge to win. As a result, they would rather save themselves the expense. This is a similar sort of discussion to the one I brought up in Properly professional or just participating?

When I coached in Sweden, this sort of decision-making was very much going on for the clubs there. No doubt it will continue to be the case. For the most part they did not see enough value being derived from taking part in CEV competition (or NEVZA) to justify the expense involved.

Non-Professional organizations

And it’s not like professional clubs are the only one making these sorts of choices.

Clubs and teams at all levels make decisions all the time about whether certain competitions or matches makes sense. When I coached at Brown we made choices about pre-conference tournaments. They were based on likely recruiting potential (which is why were frequently went to California). College coaches regularly pick out-of-conference competition with an eye toward the level of competition and how it will help them achieve their season objective (e.g. helping their RPI for NCAA tournament inclusion/seeding). Juniors clubs evaluate tournaments to play in with regards to the level of recruiting exposure they will provide, among other factors.

It all comes down to a cost vs. benefit (at least perceived) analysis.

Make it make sense to stay in

My view with regards to CEV and the like is that they should be doing everything they can to bring the clubs from the lower level countries into their competitions. You want to make the sport more relevant and financially stronger? Then you need to expand its popularity in places where it doesn’t get the exposure you’d like.

Find ways to incentivize clubs to take part in your competition. The NCAA pays travel expenses for teams playing in its tournament. It also does things to try to minimize those costs and travel times through how it structures it’s tournaments. The CEV needs to look at the reality of the sport at the lower levels and find ways to make their competitions more inclusive.

And this obviously isn’t something for just the less competitive countries and leagues, as the Polish clubs seem to be demonstrating.

I’ll return to the point I made above. Volleyball is an entertainment business. A major part of any business is ensuring that is will be able to continue operating – which means this applies to non-profit organizations as well as for-profit ones. This is something every confederation, league, and club needs to understand.

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.

Volleyball Coaching Job Search Log – Feb 26, 2016

I got an update from the coach at the school in Texas that the hope was they’d be ready to make an offer soon – perhaps early next week.

Back in Europe?
Since the Texas position remains in limbo for the moment, I’ve stayed active in the job market – even to the point of applying for a potentially interesting non-volleyball position. I was in touch with one of my contacts in Germany on Sunday who asked me whether I would pursue a job in Europe. My response was that if nothing interesting developed on this side of the Atlantic over the next few weeks (basically until clubs started winding down their seasons and positions begin opening up), then I would consider it. The situation would have to look really good and interesting, though.

Camping
I’ve had a few conversations with one of my other coaching contacts in Germany about running a Summer camp over there. It’s something he’s interested in doing, though he has concerns about handling the logistics. In any case, the situation with his club is muddled at the moment. Things need to settle out before we could make any plans, which probably means we’re talking 2017. I have an idea for something Stateside that I’d want him involved in this Summer, though. Hopefully, more on that later. 😉

Other positions
I saw a posting for a potentially interesting job back over the weekend – a joint men’s and women’s position at the Division III level. There’s a definite appeal to being somewhere with both genders. It was a dynamic I really liked while coaching at Exeter. In this case the situation also involves building a program from scratch (men’s), which is the sort of challenge I’d like to take on. The problem is coaching both means you’re in-season almost the whole school year. That wouldn’t offer much opportunity to do some other things. Plus, it’s in a region I’m not overly keen on at this particular moment, and is a religiously oriented school, which likely wouldn’t be a good fit.

There was another head coach job for a religion-based school that I bypassed, and a couple others where I just wasn’t interested in the part of the country and/or the situation. I’m at the point where if I am going to be serious about a job, it needs to offer some things above and beyond just the opportunity to get paid for coaching volleyball. It’s kind of like when I decided to do my PhD in England. That had a lot to do with having a new type of experience and being able to grow in new ways as an individual.

A pair of other head coach jobs, though, were interesting enough for me to send off my resume. One was in Division I and the other in Division III. Very different parts of the country, and different from the other jobs I’ve applied for thus far. I’m not saying that either would necessarily be my dream job, but they made me want to have the discussion.