Doug Beal | Former CEO of USA Volleyball
Since I retired as CEO of USA Volleyball at the end of 2016, many people have asked where I think the game is headed – this year, next year and 10 years down the road. My short answer: volleyball is healthy, vibrant and better positioned than ever to experience significant growth.
There are so many indicators of pending prosperity, it’s hard to pick one or two. A couple of good examples are the success our U.S. teams have had internationally across all three disciplines (indoor, beach and sitting), and the significant growth of the sport at the high school, club and collegiate levels. Another positive indicator is that volleyball has become the No. 1 girls’ participation sport, overtaking basketball.
Before I share some specific thoughts on the challenges ahead as we strive to get bigger and better, let’s start by looking at where USA Volleyball is today vs. where it was when I began my tenure as CEO in 2005. Twelve years ago, USAV was worth a little more than $8 million as a company. It’s now above $30 million.
Programmatically, USAV has grown significantly over the past 12 years. It has expanded its high-performance and age-group national team programs that offer high-level training and competition opportunities for players across the country. Membership has grown every year during the past 30 years. In 1986, USAV’s membership was 31,286. By 2016, it had increased by more than 10 times that amount – to 333,680. Attendance at HP tryouts is also up, and so is participation in qualifiers for girls’ and boys’ junior events. Coaching programs have increased too, as have participants and events within the beach High Performance program.
From a facilities standpoint, USAV has also expanded in several areas. The NGB now owns its headquarters building in Colorado Springs and recently opened and expanded a 15,000 square foot beach headquarters in Torrance, California, that has a 4,000-square foot weight room used regularly by our top pros and pipeline athletes.
Another area of progress is the increased number of high-level events we’ve hosted here in the U.S. In the past 10 years, we’ve had attendance bumps at men’s World League matches, selling out in Chicago and drawing good crowds recently in Dallas and Los Angeles. We also hosted the women’s Grand Prix finals in Omaha, Nebraska in 2015. Other successful events have included a world championship qualifier, youth and junior tournaments and senior events. And we broke new ground in the last couple of years when we had live TV matches on network television – a women’s Grand Prix match against China and a men’s World League match against Russia. The USA teams have been covered many times on live TV, but always on cable. These were the first network broadcasts.
Investing money and time to continue hosting these types of events is crucial to growing the game in the U.S. It’s not easy. The fact is, it’s expensive and logistically demanding.
Clearly, volleyball is successful as a participant sport, but one of our biggest challenges is commercializing or monetizing it so people of all ages are as eager to attend and watch matches as they are to play. Hosting top international competitions more frequently is a must if we’re going to continue building our fan base. The more regularly we can put high-quality volleyball in front of the American public, the more we’ll develop fans with allegiances to teams and players rather than just spectators who view volleyball as a series of one-off events.
The same is true for the beach. In 2013, under the direction of Leonard Armato, the U.S. held the first FIVB beach event on U.S. soil in 10 years: a grand slam in Long Beach, California. That tournament has been held each year since then, and so have two other FIVB events that were run by AVP owner Donald Sun: a 2015 grand slam in St. Petersburg, Florida, and a stop in Cincinnati in 2016.
Evidence of how attractive the U.S. market is to promoters was seen in February of this year when Hannes Jagerhofer, a successful promotor from Austria, ran an FIVB grand slam tournament in Fort Lauderdale.
I fully believe there will be an opportunity in the near future for the U.S. to host an FIVB beach World Championship, which is the second most prestigious tournament on the international beach schedule behind the Olympics.
These are important steps forward. A good goal – and a reasonable one, I think – would be to host more than one FIVB event in the U.S. each season as we did in 2015, when the tour stopped in Long Beach, California, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I don’t think it’s essential that both are world tour tournaments. These events could be exhibitions or made-for-TV competitions. The important thing is to showcase our athletes and encourage country vs. country rivalries.
Why we need a pro indoor league
There has been a lot of talk for many years about pro leagues in the U.S. The time may finally be right, and there are a number of reasons for that. Here are some of them:
- The sport’s overall growth.
- The increase in television exposure.
- The success and growth of the Premier Volleyball League (PVL) inside USAV.
- The large number of athletes playing professionally overseas.
- The success of our U.S. teams in international competition.
- The growth and reach of USA Volleyball.
- The expansion of USAV’s High Performance program.
- The increased appetite for volleyball on TV.
Pro leagues are the backbone of the game in many of the top volleyball countries around the world, and here in the U.S. we’ve seen examples in other sports of the interest that can be created when there’s synergy between pros and college stars. Take, for instance, what the Dream Team did for basketball at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Before then, as you probably know, Olympic teams were composed of only college players. In Barcelona, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and other top NBA players led us to the gold. The media loved it, and so did the fans. And it gave basketball a far greater global reach.
Twenty-five years later, the average worth of an NBA franchise is 1.36 billion, according to a recent Forbes report. For perspective, consider that the price tag in 1988 for the four NBA expansion franchises (Miami, Orlando, Minnesota and Charlotte) was $32.5 million. Many basketball experts will tell you that the growth in basketball, measured both financially and in worldwide interest, had a lot to do with the Dream Team. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who was the coach of the USA men’s basketball team at the last three Olympics, was recently quoted as saying: “Basketball was about to explode (in 1992), and the dynamite stick to explode it was the Dream Team.”
I’m not saying that volleyball in 2017 is where basketball was in 1992. It’s not. But the pace of growth in our game is already accelerating and can be sped up even more if we have professional leagues that can leverage the Olympics for fan support. A common sentiment around the world is that the sport will greatly benefit everywhere if it becomes more commercially viable in the U.S.
If you look at other sports, player vs. player rivalries are a huge magnet for fans. In basketball, it’s not so much Cleveland vs. Golden State as it is LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry. Without a volleyball pro league, it’s much more difficult to develop that type of interest. Yes, our top players and the USA teams compete against top athletes and national teams from other countries, but if it’s an international tournament in Japan, very few people see it or pay attention to it here at home. How many of you reading this article saw the U.S. men’s team win the World Cup in 2015? How many saw the U.S. women win the World Championships in 2014? As successful as our national teams are, the only time we really get exposure is during the Olympics, and even then we only get it if the teams do really well. We need to continue making volleyball a viable sport for kids to aspire to play, and one of the biggest ways to do that is for them to have more opportunities to see the stars of the game on TV.
An uphill climb
I would be the first to acknowledge that it will be anything but easy to get an indoor pro league off the ground. It’s extraordinarily challenging and extraordinarily expensive, so it could take a lot of deep-pocketed investors. But I believe they’re out there – I’ve talked recently to several potential serious investors who have expressed interest – and I think that the environment today is far more accommodating and receptive to a professional league (men’s, women’s or both) than it was 10 years ago. And investors are the very top priority, more than TV, more than sponsors. To succeed with a pro league, you have to have passionate, committed people who are willing to spend money, who believe in the product and who aren’t looking for a quick return on their investment. There’s no such thing as a fast buck or easy success in pro volleyball or pro anything, for that matter. The number of failures in pro volleyball and other sports is far greater than the successes.
USA Volleyball could and should be the catalyst that puts a lot of the right people in the room to explore the possibilities of a pro league. The fact that the new CEO, Jamie Davis, comes from the sports business world is a big plus, in my view.
To create successful pro leagues, we have to make sure the model is sustainable. The more times a pro league fails, the harder it is the next time around to get people to believe in it.
There’s a lot about volleyball that feeds a good sales pitch. It’s a relatively safe sport that has neither the frequent concussion issues that plague football nor the performance-enhancing drug use that has infiltrated so many mainstream sports. It’s a fun game to play, fun to watch, and it has a family atmosphere that makes it very welcoming.
As I stated, a pro league is a very tall order. But if we’re serious about taking the game to the next level, we have to put great effort toward making it happen. The FIVB understands how important it would be for the sport worldwide if the U.S. is successful in creating a healthy pro league, and we certainly have the population of players and a high enough level of interest in the game to pull it off.
There are no guarantees, but the only true failure would be not trying to make it happen at all.
In Part 2 of Doug’s state of the game series, he’ll look at men’s collegiate volleyball in the U.S. and talk about how an increase in the number of fully funded programs could boost interest in the game.
The recently retired CEO of USA Volleyball, who was head coach of the U.S. men’s Olympic gold medal team in 1984, weighs in here on the sport’s status in the U.S. and on what he thinks needs to be done to take the game to the next level. In the first of a three-part series, he talks specifically about the need for an American pro league (men’s, women’s or both).