USA Women’s Professional Indoor Volleyball League:
On its Feasibility and an Examination of the WNBA
In 2016, more girls participated in high school volleyball (432,176) than basketball (429,504) for the first time (Friedman) in history. Girls in the latter sport have the WNBA and NBA to look up to, but there is still yet to be a professional indoor women’s volleyball league (from here on out, for sake of brevity, I will refer to this as a “volleyball league”). In comparison, boys in the United States have male professional leagues to look up to in almost all of the top boys’ high school sports. Although the prominence of female sports has risen dramatically since the implementation of Title IX, this is still evidence that there is a dramatic drop-off between male and female athletics. Recently, Jamie Davis, the new CEO of USA Volleyball, stated, “My target is to see the league launched within this Olympic quadrennial (before 2020)” (Fischer). While Davis does not specify the gender of his intended league, it is imperative that a women’s volleyball league be created for the reasons Davis suggests: “to create stars out of our athletes and build role models for our next generation of players.” In order to tackle the viability of such a league, this paper will examine the current state of volleyball in the United States. Then I will look at the performance of the WNBA as a model of a prospective volleyball league. Now that the popularity of women’s volleyball is surging, it is crucial to create female role models and sports icons for these young girls to look up to in order to bridge the gap between male and female athletics. (click "Read More" below)
When questioned on the viability of an American professional indoor volleyball league, Jamie Davis responded:
“We have 375 of our top U.S. players heading overseas to play pro volleyball in some 40 different countries for seven, eight months out of the year … With the successes of our national teams, the high volleyball television/streaming ratings from the 2016 Olympics and our membership growth, we are confident that such a domestic league will succeed now when past attempts have failed” (Fischer).
In short, Davis’ response highlights 3 key categories: American success on the international stage, membership growth, and television ratings. In order to see if a volleyball league is viable, I will more closely analyze these three categories.
American Success on the International Stage
With 375 current professional players, there is clearly no shortage of strong volleyball players emerging from the United States. This has been reflected by the U.S.’ dominance on the international stage. Since the advent of beach volleyball as an Olympic sport in 1996, 2016 was the first year neither a USA men’s nor a women’s team won the Olympic gold in beach volleyball (Hopkinson). The U.S. is the only nation in the world to have medaled at every Olympic games since 1984 in a volleyball discipline (beach or indoor) (“USAV Facts”). Most recently, the U.S. men’s and women’s indoor teams both took bronze in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Unsurprisingly, as a result, the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB), the international governing body for volleyball, currently has both teams ranked second in the world (FIVB World Rankings).
International success is critical for growing newly emerging sports on the domestic scene. This is especially true for sports like volleyball where there is no professional league. For me, growing up, the Summer Olympics was my only chance to watch my volleyball role models play. A 2016 study by Salem State University draws this connection between international success and popularity. In recent years, volleyball has experienced a surge in popularity in the United States. As mentioned in the introduction, 2016 marked the first time more girls participated in high school volleyball than basketball. The exciting part is that volleyball participation is nowhere near its peak. According to the Salem State study, in the United States, there are “currently more than 46 million people playing volleyball” (Hopkinson). From 2014 to 2015, junior programs increased by 50%. In the 2015-2016 season, the United States Volleyball Association (USAV) had over 330,000 members and an estimated 5,300 junior clubs. On the collegiate scene, in 2012, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) officially sanctioned a Division III Men’s National Championship. In 2016, “NCAA beach volleyball became a championship sport in just five years completing the fastest transition from “emerging sport” status in NCAA history” (Hopkinson). Finally, in the Salem University study, researchers found that one of the “major hindering factors within the sport of volleyball is the lack of coaching education”. For this reason, it is incredibly significant for the growth of volleyball that from 2006 to 2016, the membership in The American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) more than doubled from 3,200 to 7,000 (“History”).
Davis mentions that there were “high volleyball television/streaming ratings from the 2016 Olympics”. Statistics regarding these TV ratings were difficult for me to locate. However, I did find that according to a report released by the NCAA, “The number of regular-season volleyball matches streamed on ESPN3 increased from 190 in 2014 to 450 in 2015”. This increase in quantity was matched by public favor as the report also found that “the ratings on ESPN2 for the national semifinal and national championship were up 13 percent from 2014” (“REPORT”).
In 2010, “the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championship between California and Penn State drew a 0.5 U.S. rating and 794,000 viewers on ESPN2” (Paulsen). The championship game was the second-most viewed sporting event of the day and “drew more viewers than the [Major League Soccer] Cup in November (0.4, 748,000), which aired on ESPN” (Paulsen). Furthermore, despite its recent advent as a collegiate sport, NCAA Beach Volleyball has joined indoor volleyball on television. In 2016, Turner Sports and the NCAA reached a multi-year agreement to present the NCAA National Collegiate Beach Volleyball Championship (“Turner Sports Reaches Multi-Year Agreement”).
The current state of each of these three categories reaffirms Davis’ response. Given the recent popularity of volleyball and the U.S.’ dominance on the international scene, it is hard to believe that there is not currently an indoor professional volleyball league. It turns out that in 2002 there indeed was an attempt to establish a volleyball league. On February 5, 2002, after 3 years of careful planning, the United States Pro Volleyball League (USPV) was launched. The league began with 4 teams with plans to expand to 20 teams by 2005, and “averaged a respectable 1,500 to 2,000 fans per night”. For the six-month season, salaries ranged from $22,000 to $28,000. Although these seem like meager figures, “the league’s business plans didn’t call for profits for the first few years”, and the league only fell through, because “William Kennedy, the USPV founder whose daughter, Kelly, played for the Chicago Thunder, no longer was willing to shoulder the financial burden alone and pulled out his major support” (Merkin).
Though it only lasted one season, the USPV showed signs of a promising long-term model. According to the NY Times, rookie players competing in foreign countries average only $8,000 and only the top players draw in 6 figure salaries (The Associated Press). Low pay playing overseas combined with the stress of adapting to a foreign culture and language ensures that had the U.S. league lasted, it would have no problems convincing U.S. professional players to stay at home. The league also maintained low infrastructure costs as it hosted its games in already existing small arenas such as St. Xavier’s Shannon Center for the Thunder.
Although short-lived, the USPV teaches us that a volleyball league is certainly viable. As stated before, the USPV fell through because of a lack of investors. While it required 40 million dollars in investments, Bill Kennedy was willing to invest 3 million dollars of his own money in the league. The Chairman of East Dundee-based Kennedy Group of Cos. (“which builds residential and retail developments in Illinois, California, and Texas”), Bill Kennedy believes that “Women have not had an equal chance in sports” (Merkin). It sounds overly simple, but for a future league to succeed, I believe it only needs more parents like Kennedy who are willing to invest in the futures of their daughters and of future generations of females.
But why is a league so important? For Kennedy’s daughter, volleyball was an opportunity to develop into a powerful and confident individual. Kennedy recounts that "She was in pretty bad shape as a freshman in high school" and struggling socially. However, with volleyball, Kelly Kennedy grew to be a 6’4” star at her high school in suburban Chicago and went on to become an All-American middle blocker at Wisconsin University (Anderson).
While questions of immediate profitability should not scare away investors, it is important that the league be guaranteed to succeed in the future. In this respect, I shall examine the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) as a case study. I must first explain why the WNBA is a good model to examine.
The WNBA as a Case Study
The similarities between a potential women’s professional volleyball league and the women’s professional basketball fall under four categories: numerous failed attempts, incredible success in international play, the formation of the WNBA as preceded by intercollegiate play, and the existence of professional leagues overseas.
Before the WNBA, there had been numerous failed attempts at establishing professional women’s basketball leagues. The first attempt was in 1978 in the form of the Women’s Basketball League. It quickly folded in 1981. Since then, there has been the Ladies Professional Basketball Association, Women’s American Basketball Association, National Women’s Basketball Association, and many others. All these leagues collapsed within a few years or even days. In 1996, the NBA established the WNBA with eight teams, and it is the only league that still exists today (Lewis).
Even before the formation of the WNBA, U.S. women’s basketball dominated internationally. The U.S. won gold in 1955 at the first Pan-Americans Games to include women’s basketball. The U.S. also took gold in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. As it did with volleyball, the U.S. was able to maintain such success without a professional league through the emergence of good players in intercollegiate competition. In 1972, the year Title IX was enacted, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) held its first national intercollegiate championship in basketball. In 1981, NCAA also announced its women's basketball tournaments (Lewis).
Finally, like current American volleyball players, in the past American women’s basketball players would travel overseas to play in foreign leagues. For example, since its formation in 1958, the Euroleague has been the highest level of professional basketball in Europe for women’s clubs. It is also interesting to note that currently, “slightly more than half of the players in the WNBA spend their “offseason playing basketball” overseas (Barker). These players will do so to supplement their WNBA salaries. “Elite WNBA players can make about 15 times more from their overseas teams than they do from their WNBA teams” (Barker). This shows how hard these female athletes work simply to pursue the careers they love, a fact that is too often overlooked.
In short, we can look to the WNBA as a case study because it faced many of the same circumstances that volleyball in the USA currently faces. To examine the WNBA’s current state, its legitimacy is still plagued by three common critiques:
It appears that Berri’s hope in the WNBA has been reaffirmed by its performance in recent years. Despite the fact that it took 15 years for the WNBA to have a profitable team since its foundation in 1996, by the end of 2013, half of the WNBA teams had turned a profit. So in what areas can USA Volleyball learn from the WNBA? “The growth in the number of profitable teams within the WNBA has been attributed to increases in attendance, sponsorships, and viewership” (Berri). To return to the earlier statistic, although an increase of 121 fans seems small, it is significant because this growth is magnified by parking and concessions revenue. It is also important to note that a volleyball league would not have direct competition like the WNBA. While the WNBA must directly compete with the NBA for viewership, a volleyball league would present a unique product.
As for increases in sponsorships, from 2014 to 2015, the list of WNBA league partners included, “Boost Mobile, Adidas, American Express, Bud Light, Coca Cola, EA Sports, Gatorade, Nike, Procter and Gamble, Samsung, Spalding, and State Farm” (Berri). Furthermore, WNBA recently partnered with ESPN through 2022, and their partnership is valued at “$12 million per year, which is broken down to $1 million per team” (Berri). However, these sponsorships only grow through time. The WNBA is only experiencing these growths after 20 years of establishments. Instead, a much more attainable goal for a new league is to grow social media exposure which will eventually lead to sponsorships. The WNBA has experienced the most success in this aspect. From 2008 to 2015, the number of Twitter users following the WNBA exploded from 14 million to 302 million active users a month.
Fortunately, Jamie Davis recognizes the importance of social media. In his interview on the topic of attracting sponsorships, he promised “We are going to vastly grow our digital presence and ensure that USA Volleyball is prominent in all forms of media. With this approach …we will be able to provide great value to non-tools-of-the-trade sponsors as well as volleyball endemic ones” (Fischer). However, fans are the root of a sports league’s profitability. More important than attracting sponsors, a strong social media presence will expose more and more people to a sports league. In a society with so many different sports leagues a prospective volleyball league must seize every means to gain exposure and attract potential fans.
Now that the popularity of volleyball is growing among our younger generations, it is crucial to continue this momentum by creating a professional indoor women’s volleyball league. Our study of the WNBA shows that the challenges are as expected: attracting fan attendance and becoming profitable. However, everything in this paper indicates that these challenges are conquerable. A women’s volleyball league would fill the current void of female role models and sports icons. This league would create a powerful message that girls are athletes as well. However, for me, this league is so much more. As a volleyball player myself, I have a vested interest in the creation of a volleyball league. I love that this would create an incredible opportunity for female athletes, but on a more basic level, I love that this would be an incredible opportunity for the growth of volleyball in general. We have the popularity. We have the volleyball prowess. We have the vision. We don’t have a league. We just need to take the initiative.
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