In case you haven’t seen, a new professional volleyball structure is in the works for the US on the women’s side. There is a pair of fledgling leagues happening on the men’s side (VLA, NVA), but this is the first attempt in quite some time for the women.
You will note that I used “thing” in the title to this post rather than “league”. That’s because what Athletes Unlimited – the group behind this new venture – is setting up isn’t really a league. It’s more like a King/Queen-of-the-Beach format you might be familiar with. By that I mean the focus is on individuals rather than teams. There are no fixed teams, in fact. They get remixed each week over a 6-week campaign. Players earn points along the way, though how exactly that happens is unclear.
As much as I strongly favor getting professional volleyball going in the US, I’m not sure this is the way. That’s for a couple reasons.
Event rather than league
For me this type of structure is a really interesting idea for an event kind of structure, but it’s not really a league. That’s reflected in the fact that it’s designed to be a 6-week thing.
I think it would be hard to sustain this type of structure for any longer than that – and even 6 weeks might be too long. We’ll see. The lack of a team organization in a team sport creates problems in terms of getting the most out of a group of players.
Can it really get a good quality of players?
There are some big names who’ve signed up to play in this Athletes United venture. I will note, however, that they are near the end of their career rather than being in the midst of it. Further, the expectation seems to be that recent graduates will feature as well.
In other words, the player pool could end up being ones who no longer want to go through the long traditional professional season anymore or those former college players not picked up by a pro team overseas. Are players in the prime of their careers making good money elsewhere going to give that up for a 6-week thing? Seems unlikely.
Level of play?
I’m not saying there couldn’t be interesting, appealing names in this project. I just think you won’t get those top players in their prime. The implication is that the level of play probably won’t be top-end, especially when you factor in the younger, inexperienced players.
Of course, the fact that you won’t have fixed teams also means an overall lower level of potential performance. After all, you can’t really expect players who don’t play and train together as a unit week in and week out to be as efficient together as they would be otherwise.
Who do fans support?
Perhaps my biggest question in all this is the expectation of fan support. Clearly, this is a player-centric model of competition. I’m totally fine with that, but do fans really go that route in large enough numbers to make it work as a business model?
Much of the basis for professional sport support is fan affinity for their local club. Yes, people support their favorite players. But players move around, while the team stays. It seems to me that you probably won’t pay to watch your favorite player play every game or match, but you’d do that for the team you support.
I put forward University of Nebraska supporters as an example. From what I’ve seen, when the women’s national team plays matches in the area they don’t really attract the same sized crowds. This is despite the fact that Team USA usually has a couple of former Cornhuskers in the squad.
I’m happy to be contradicted by the research if there is any, however.
One other thing that comes to mind is the gambling angle. Again, the scoring details of this new venture are unclear. The implication, though, seems to be players will be able to earn themselves points in a number of ways through a match. That would seem to set up nicely for a sports betting system. Not that volleyball, so far, has featured much in that arena.
As for fantasy play, that would seem like another possible opportunity. But isn’t the structure of the competition already a kind of fantasy league?
What do you think?
I’ve been in touch with some of my contacts about this to get their thoughts. Generally speaking, they seem to have similar concerns to my own. That worries me a bit because we might all just be expressing a common set of biases and institutionalized thinking. That’s why I’m open to hearing other points of view. Feel free to share yours via the comment section below.
By the way, I’ve heard rumor of a more standard women’s league in the works. No real details yet, but that might be something we hear about in the near future.
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