Indoor volleyball players can earn paychecks overseas, but if you’re looking for the big money, you’d better be able to bring some serious heat against world-class competition.
By Don Patterson
This is the first in a series of articles Art of Coaching will be doing to provide a close look at what it takes to make money playing volleyball overseas and how U.S. players – both those with national team experience and those without – can give themselves the best chance to earn a contract.
Volleyball doesn’t have much in the way of bragging rights when it comes to big, fat salaries. Not, certainly, compared to the obscene contracts that we hear about regularly in the major sports. Like Peyton Manning’s $96 million over five years. Or Albert Pujols’ $240 mil over 10 years, plus four season tickets.
When a volleyball player hits a million, it’s big news. U.S. setter Lloy Ball, who played in four Olympics and led the U.S. to a gold medal in 2008, was in that neighborhood after he established himself as one of the top setters in the world. Destinee Hooker, the starting opposite on the U.S.’s silver-medal team in London, is also reportedly up there with her contract from top Russian club Dynamo Krasnodar.
The wealth gap between elite volleyball players and elite athletes in the big-time sports trickles down to the lower levels. In pro baseball, football or basketball, you can be just another player on the team and still be a millionaire or very close to a millionaire. In volleyball, if you’re just another player at the lower levels of the international club arena, you’re making hamburger-flipping money, and sometimes not even that.
To give you a better understanding of the global volleyball job market, Art of Coaching sat down with volleyball agent Andy Inveiss, a San Diego-based attorney and founder of SportsNet International. Inveiss has represented volleyball players and coaches since 1987 and negotiated over 350 international contracts and another hundred or so contracts for U.S. national team players. His current client list includes Australian outside hitter Rachel Rourke (who plays for high-powered Azerbaijan Rabita) and Rachael Adams and Cassidy Lichtman of the U.S. women’s national team. On the men’s side, he represents U.S. national team players Russell Holmes, Garrett Muagututia and Futi Tavana. Inveiss also represents four of the U.S.’s top head coaches: Karch Kiraly (U.S. women’s national team), John Speraw (U.S. men’s national team and UCLA men), Hugh McCutcheon (former U.S. men’s and women’s coach and current head coach of the women’s team at University of Minnesota) and Gary Sato, an assistant with the U.S. men’s team last quadrennial who is now the head coach of the Japan men’s national team.
If anyone can offer an unvarnished look at what it’s really like for American players to land a contract overseas (and actually get paid), it’s Inveiss. We mined his mind on a variety of topics related to the international money game, and here are the highlights:
The position hierarchy
For starters, you should know this: Not every position is equal. Not even close. A powerful outside hitter who can pass and terminate is at the top of every team’s wish list, from the top level Division 1 clubs that compete in the prestigious European Volleyball Championships down to small clubs in countries that don’t dish out the big bucks. Here’s how Inveiss ranks the pecking order:
1. Outside hitter with power who can pass and terminate. Top of the list. When you can bring the noise and pass nails, you’re golden.
2. Opposite who can terminate. Everybody likes players who can rack up kills.
3. Outside hitter with power who is just an average passer. This player is usually the third passer on the court after the libero and primary passer but someone who can still bring the heat and terminate.
4. Middle blockers. MB is considered a specialized position, so there’s still a demand. Not the same demand as for the outsides and OPPs, but still plenty of interest.
5. Setters. Unless you’re one of the best in the world at your position, there isn’t a ton of demand for setters. Many clubs feel as if they can find a setter in their own country and would prefer to save their money for the heavy hitters.
6. Liberos. The hardest position to place, according to Inveiss. Olympic caliber liberos will find a home, but for everybody else, good luck. Cash goes to point-scorers, not passer-diggers. That may not be right, but it’s reality in the international arena.
Inveiss notes that, below the top clubs, much of the talent evaluation is less than sophisticated, so power becomes even more important. “They want someone who can bang the ball,” Inveiss says. “If you hit hard enough, even if you bang it into the bleachers, they like you. And if you can jump, they like that, too.”
Who gets the money, who doesn’t?
Tier 1 – Just happy to be there
No disrespect to all those players who have reached the college level and played well, but if you aren’t an All American or a player who has been invited to the U.S. national team training center, you’d better not be in this for the money. A solid college starter who hasn’t gotten a call from the national team only commands between $7,500 and $20,000, Inveiss says.
That’s not a lot of money for seven months playing in a foreign country, but keep two things in mind: 1. Your apartment and some expenses (like airfare and some meals) will likely be covered, so most of what you earn is yours to keep; 2. Hey, you’re getting to experience another country and play volleyball. If you’re the adventuresome type, that’s not a bad deal.
Tier 2 – A real job
If you’re an All American, especially one who has played in an NCAA final four and received an invitation to try out for the national team, your value jumps considerably. The range for a season usually falls between $15,000 and $60,000, Inveiss says.
Depending on the player, it could exceed that by quite a bit. Inveiss estimates that BYU’s Taylor Sander, who has national team experience (he was the MVP of the Pan Am Games) and led the Cougars to the NCAA title match this past spring, could earn considerably more than $60,000 next year after his senior season.
“He’s a known entity already,” Inveiss says. “If you have successful international experience on the national team before your college eligibility is up, then your market value increases.”
Tier 3 – Good money
Those who have reached the national team level and played in big tournaments like the World Cup and World Championships can negotiate six figure salaries. How far into six figures it goes depends largely on your position. But a power outside hitter or opposite in either the men’s or women’s game who has started matches and is a proven performer can get paid $200,000 and may get offers up to $400,000.
Tier 4 – Top dogs
Starters in the Olympics who have won a medal and are playing one of the coveted positions can start negotiating in the $250,000 range, and, depending on their resume, their earning potential can rise as high as $1,000,000. Keep in mind, these are the best of the best. In a 10- or 15-year period, there may only be 10 or 15 players from a top volleyball country like the U.S. who earn this kind of money.
The message that can be taken from the different earning levels is that it’s a long way to the top. And even if you’re really good, dues-paying is part of the process.
“For a lot of All Americans, their mentality is, ‘Hey, I’m good. I’m an All American in the United States.’ But it doesn’t mean anything. You’re an undeveloped kid coming out of college who doesn’t have the experience of playing internationally against players who have been pros for eight or nine years and have played all kinds of international tournaments on their national teams. These players are ferocious. Both the men and the women. They’re tough and strong. And the pressure to play at the highest level is big. In most countries, playing volleyball is like playing in the NBA.”
Countries that write the big checks
As with players and positions, countries are on different tiers when it comes to salaries. The top paying men’s teams right now are in Russia, although it’s not the most desirable location for some players because of the extensive travel between cities. A close second for good salaries is tied among FIVE countries: Poland, Turkey, Brazil, Korea and Japan. Traditionally, Italy has been a top-paying country, but there are a lot of question marks there right now because of a sputtering economy.
For the women, the top-paying countries are Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkey, Brazil and Korea. Opportunities are arising in China, which has only recently opened up to Western players, and Inveiss says there may be an increasing number of contracts offered to Western players in Japan, too, where former U.S. assistant coach Gary Sato is now heading the men’s national team.
The next level down for paychecks for both men’s and women’s players would be France and Germany. Below that, it’s Spain, Finland, Holland, Denmark and Switzerland, Austria, Greece and teams in the MEVZA League.
Next week: The second article in our series will cover the Do’s and Don’ts of pursuing an overseas contract, including how to construct a resume, what clubs look for in a game tape and who to use as a reference.