Volleyball a niche mainstream sport?

In an edition of the Volleyball Ace Power Tips newsletter, American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) president Kathy DeBoer had a bit of a rant. She got quite fired up about the perception of volleyball as a sport in the States. If you’re not a US reader, don’t flip the channel, though. I’m going somewhere with this discussion with a broad implication.

In the newsletter, Kathy took a look at some figures related to high school and college level volleyball participation. It started with the state of Michigan where there are more girls’ volleyball teams at the high school level than any other female team sport (20% more participants than the next highest). This was been the case for the last 15 years. In fact, only boys’ basketball had more schools sponsoring teams in Michigan at the time. Despite this, volleyball was only sponsored by 50 of the colleges in the state while women’s basketball was in 56.

Kathy said the AVCA manager of media relations made the comment, “Volleyball is the only mainstream sport that everyone thinks is a niche sport, even the people in it. I can tell you right now, no male sport with the participation and sponsorship numbers of volleyball would ever consider itself a niche sport.”

I think there’s a key bit in there which is really telling. It’s the “…even the people in it.” bit. I’ve been involved in volleyball since the latter 1980s. Thinking on that phrase, I couldn’t help but look back on all those years and realize he’s totally right.

The newsletter went on to show that 22 of the 50 states featured girls’ volleyball as the top team sport. Soccer came in second in the rankings at 16 states. Basketball was a distant third with only 7 states. And yet, basketball continues to have a higher profile than either volleyball or soccer at the collegiate level.

There are at least two parts to this problem.

One of them is the lack of a comparable men’s sport with a high profile. Unfortunately, men’s volleyball is way behind the women’s side of the sport. Some blame Title IX for that. There’s a lot of competition in male sports, though. Also, for a long time volleyball was viewed as a girls’ sport (as indicated in The Volleyball Debate). In some places it still is!

Regardless of the reason, not having a strong men’s counterpart does play a part. Title IX compliance strongly encourages schools to provide equal funding and other support to women’s teams as given to the men in the same sport. Thus, when men’s basketball gets loads of money, media coverage, etc. it will invariably follow that women’s basketball does too.

Actually, now retired Brian Gimmillaro from Long Beach State suggested something to me during a chat we had once. It was about the business side of things. He said women’s volleyball determines the support of the men’s team instead of the other way around. He said the men’s coach there told him to keep on winning because the men benefit from it. That means things like getting the best locker and team room facilities in the conference. The decision by the Athletic Director at the University of Pacific to cut men’s volleyball (which had a budget of about $100k less than the women) for funding purposes provides an idea of the state of the game on that side of things.

This sort of development suggests that we really need to be looking to address the profile of women’s volleyball, both in its own right and potentially as a way to elevate the men’s side of the game as well. There being no male counterpart to the recently developed collegiate Sand Volleyball competition tends to support this argument. The high profile of Misty & Kerri, and then Kerri & April, at the pro and Olympic level have brightened the spot light on the women’s side of the beach game as well.

So how do we do increase the profile of women’s volleyball – or volleyball in general?

At the grass roots level, the AVCA newsletter offers some good advice about dealing with local media to make it easier for them to write about the sport. Part of it is just realizing that most media types do not have volleyball backgrounds. That means it needs extra support from those of us in the community to cover the sport effectively and efficiently. Obviously, getting our own teams, clubs, etc. press coverage is the main focus, but by doing just that we raise the profile of volleyball in general.

On top of all that, we have to make sure we are constantly letting everyone out there know how great a sport we have and how the sport is developing in a way which demonstrates how mainstream it is – or in the case where it’s still developing, how well it’s growing. In short, we need to be evangelists. Just don’t be obnoxious about it. 😉

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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