May 18, 2019

5 Reasons USA Doesn't Have Pro Volleyball

In the Pro Player Timeline: February post, I outlined several volleyball statistics, and we will work from those here.

Some statistics to consider about your purpose in pro sports...
(If you have links to other sport statistics, please comment below and I will include them! This site has info on most sports in the USA.)

For the sport of Women's Volleyball in 2016-2017 (can also see Men's Volleyball at this link), there were over 440,000 girls playing in high school. There were over 21,000 American women playing in around 1,200 teams in the top four levels of college volleyball. These numbers can vary slightly from year to year, but, in general, they will maintain that each team has about 15-18 players and that roughly 5% of USA high school players will continue to play in university.

If we figure even just 20% of these players are graduating seniors, that means at least 4,000 USA volleyball players will no longer have their college teams to play on after each season. I have known many pro players to have careers lasting into their late thirties, but, for the sake of averages and easier math, let's say all of these annually graduating players could physically compete at some level abroad from ages 23 to 33, for 10 years.

That puts the USA volleyball field of able-bodied women players at somewhere around FORTY THOUSAND (40,000). And yet, somehow, we haven't figured out how to have our own league system?! Why not? Keep reading...!

Even more incredible is the number of American women actually playing volleyball overseas. This number is not because of a lack of jobs! Most players who really desire to play overseas find the ways to make it happen and the league in which they fit best.

(If you don't believe me: I'm a 33-year-old, 5'9" with shoes on, white girl who's had two knee surgeries, who played NAIA volleyball with zero team or personal accolades. Wait - does Most Inspirational count?! If I can do it - since 2011! - MOST of you can do it.)

In February of 2019, USA volleyball set a record for the MOST transfers it has EVER had: 440.

This included both women (327) and men (113). These lists are really helpful because you can find players you know and to follow on social media, learn about team names and countries, and notice which places and levels take which kinds of players.

Our players in France. Photo courtesy of William Szatkowski.

If you're already an American female volleyballer abroad, you can gain a lot of confidence and purpose in the fact that you are part of the barely .08% of able-bodied players of your exact age still getting to enjoy the game as a player (and in the .0007% of the girls you played with and against in high school)!!!

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So what are the 5 Main Reasons USA Doesn't Have Pro Volleyball? Because as cool as living overseas is, most of us would have thought it only natural to just play in a home league and stay stateside forever. In fact, most American pro players end their careers while they are still physically healthy and strong because they would rather return home and start their "real lives."

If only there was a way we could continue our volleyball careers while maintaining our normal lives in our home country...oh wait, nearly every other developed country in the world DOES have a tiered system of women's volleyball league levels!

How come the USA can't catch on? Read below!

1) Finances

Professional sports in America have to make a TON OF MONEY in order to be considered successful. Women's volleyball probably will never generate the kind of revenue that the NFL, NBA, MLB, or even the WNBA can. Pro leagues and teams abroad survive on business partner sponsorships and city funding.

In the USA, it's hard enough to find any volleyball on television just because of TV rights and costs, creating an even more difficult market to break into. In addition, financially, the distances to travel in America between teams are really expensive because it's so far. This is already a problem for university programs and their budgets.

2) History 

Somebody can comment below on exactly how many times the USA has attempted to start a pro volleyball league (I believe it's twice...?). They have started it with only four teams in very-far-away-from-each-other places and only top level, for example. This. Will. Never. Work. (Exception: a billionaire dies and leaves all of their money to professional volleyball funding in the USA.)

The reason the pro leagues overseas are functional and sustainable is because they are built from the bottom up. Yes, that means creating leagues and teams for the crappy recreational players who don't know how to rotate or do an attack approach. But, it also means that one good team from each of these groups does rise above and can move up to the next level. This continues until a real professional league is built and there are the best of the best of the best teams playing each other in the top divisions.

The reality is that countries like France and Germany (both having decently strong 1st division leagues) have at least NINE (9) divisions!!! This is a huge and stable foundation for the pro league to be built upon.

3) Player Costs

Youth club volleyball is a highly successful system and business in the United States, even more so now than it was when I was growing up in California. However, youth club volleyball costs a player anywhere from $500 to over $6,000 for the six to seven month season. The less you pay, the more likely you have a volunteer coach, the less gear you get, and you go to fewer tournaments.

Do you know how much the player licenses cost in Europe? If it's close to $150 for the entire ten months of practices and seven months of matches, then it's one of the steeper ones. For top divisions, the licenses are paid by the club, not the player, as well as any international transfer fees.

So, a non-professional local volleyball player playing in any team from division two (which has about half the team being paid in some form) all the way down to division nine, is spending a maximum $150 plus gasoline costs to play volleyball in an organized team, club, and league, with a real coach, for an entire year. How do they keep it so cheap? The sports programs are funded by the cities and governments - because sports are important! But this also contributes to fostering an environment where anyone can choose to play, instead of eliminating players because of costs or hardship (like having to live over 5,000 miles from your home when you play overseas).

Even if the youth volleyball club system in the USA decided to stretch their programs to include adult teams of various levels, they would no doubt want to charge a similar price tag for what they have the teenagers pay. An Ex-All-American D1 player is not going to want to shell out $4,000 a year after having spent four years on a full ride and maybe even some fully paid seasons abroad!

4) Management

Trying to get ANY gym time in the USA is a nightmare, even for coaches who have their own gyms at their own schools in their own programs! Trying to secure gym time for adult teams means looking only at times after work is over, but also around the already predominate youth programs. Midnight sound good? Aside from the times, we also know that gym time costs money, and this would add to the probably-too-high cost for adult players in a club.

The other management glitch is trying to find coaches and managers and the money to pay them for their work. Most club presidents and managers in Europe do it for fun. In their spare time. In addition to their regular job! This is really crazy to me because my dad was an athletic director and that is absolutely a full-time job. However, the fact that the people in charge aren't taking huge salaries out of the budget is definitely assisting in keeping the costs down.

It would also be tough to find good enough coaches who are willing to leave their current teams in a functioning youth or college system to work on a project like this.

5) Social Expectations

In the USA, it has never proven easy or simple to have balance in men's and women's sports. They had to create an actual law, Title IX, just to help manage the disparity between the funding and fairness.

Europe doesn't have laws about making sports equal for boys and girls. [Insert laughing emoji here.] They just love their hobbies, so they love their sports, and they support them! There is a huge base of actual players supporting all the sports on both the men's and women's sides, in addition to the family members and friends, and local communities.

Europe isn't perfect, by any means, as we all know men's soccer dominates the TV and fan bases. But imagine my American confusion when my +70-year-old French teacher was telling me about how she grew up playing volleyball. She's at least ten years older than my own mother who was in college at the advent of Title IX, and my mom had zero opportunities to play organized sports until the college basketball coach recruited her for the brand new women's basketball team because she was tall enough and fast. Whereas my French teacher just thought everyone started playing volleyball at the same time in history, and probably certainly in the USA where volleyball was invented!

While on the subject of male vs. female sports, why wouldn't there be a men's volleyball league in the USA? That's pretty easy to answer, since men's volleyball is such a smaller sport in America, in addition to men's professional sports being quite inundated with so many popular leagues already. Women's professional volleyball does have a market in America because there aren't any competitors, and we can't even accuse pro volleyball overseas as a competitor when it's only taking around three hundred of our players every season!

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I leave you with a few more statistics to wrap your head around.

First of all, you can know that France and Germany volleyball both have the same, if not sometimes more, men's and women's volleyballs teams. The sport is immensely popular!

In the 2018-2019 season...

France fielded 166 men's teams and 165 women's teams in their top four divisions alone.
French Volleyball Leagues Source

Germany fielded 164 men's teams and 166 women's teams in their top four divisions alone.
German Volleyball Leagues Source

You can safely figure a low average of ten players per team, and you've got at least 1,600 men and 1,600 women playing a decently competitive level of volleyball in each country. There are at least five more divisions, and sometimes even six or seven, depending on the region!

See the German pyramid of levels HERE.

This number is low compared to the 21,000 women's collegiate volleyball players in any given season in the USA, too.

Clearly, these countries -- France with 67 million people and about the size of Texas, and Germany with almost 83 million people and about the size of Montana -- have figured it out. They've been running volleyball leagues for men and women for around a hundred years already.

How the United States of America, with over 327 million people -- and at least 40,000 able-bodied women's volleyball players between just the ages of 23 and 33 -- cannot figure out a way to sustain a world-dominating volleyball league is mind-baffling and tragic. Even just creating ten different state or regional leagues with eight to ten teams each would be a massive achievement and start paving the way toward a real top division. This would still only create eighty to one hundred teams, making spaces for barely 1,000 players, or 2.5% of our basic women's volleyball community!

If I believed my future involved returning to the USA, I would do whatever I could to spearhead this project. But since our goal is to stay in Europe for the remainder of our lives, I can at least offer up these incredible statistics and reasons in the hope that someone else can connect the USA volleyball community that already exists in a way to create what could actually be the best volleyball league in the entire world.

Coming soon...The Pro Player Timeline eBook!!!