Volleyball has been the No. 1 sport in girls participation in the United States for almost a decade.
More than 90,000 fans showed up for an outdoor match in Nebraska's football stadium last summer, and the NCAA semifinal and championship matches set attendance and television viewership records.
The next sign of the sport's evolution in this country was on display Wednesday night when the Atlanta Vibe played the Omaha Supernovas in the debut of the Pro Volleyball Federation.
The PVF is one of three U.S. women's professional leagues now operating or planned for players who previously had no choice but to go overseas to continue their careers. League One Volleyball is on track to launch in November. The five-week Athletes Unlimited league recently wrapped up its third season.
Tori Dixon, the 31-year-old middle blocker for the Supernovas, has played in Azerbaijan, Japan, Italy and China over seven pro seasons. She said there's international buzz about the PVF, and former teammates have asked her to help them get a contract.
"Maybe it's a little less money, but you get to stay home and be comfortable," Dixon said. "Overseas is a grind. It's really, really difficult. I think a lot of top players are choosing to stay home in the States."
Besides Atlanta and Omaha, the PVF has teams in Columbus, Las Vegas, Orlando, San Diego and Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Opening night was everything PVF officials could have wanted. A crowd of 11,624 turned out at the CHI Health Center, and it was treated to a five-set thriller won by the Vibe. Fans were enthusiastic until the end with encouragement from an arena emcee, music between points and high-level play.
"This was breaking ground for a professional volleyball league, and there could have been 800 people and a poorly played match," Omaha coach Shelton Collier said. "It was an incredible match with an incredible crowd, an incredible atmosphere, incredible support staff. Whoever put on this production for the fans, it was amazing. It was epic."
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, Orlando Magic chairman Dan DeVos, three-time Olympic beach volleyball gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings and multi-platinum recording artist Jason Derulo are among PVF team owners.
Big-name investors in League One Volleyball, known as LOVB, include basketball stars Candace Parker, Jayson Tatum and Kevin Durant, tennis icon Billie Jean King, skiing star Lindsey Vonn and entertainers Amy Schumer and Chelsea Handler.
LOVB's franchises are owned by the league and have been announced in Atlanta, Houston, Omaha, Salt Lake City and Madison, Wisconsin.
The Athletes Unlimited league, co-founded by Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros, plays a five-week season at one site with 44 players who rotate weekly among four teams and are paid a minimum of $10,000.
PVF players are under contract for a 24-match regular season and playoffs running through May and are to be paid $60,000 with bonuses for individual and team performance. There also is revenue sharing. The league champion is promised $1 million to divide among players and staff. Housing is provided along with other benefits. Two players on each roster will live year-round in their market and be paid an additional $40,000 as ambassadors for their team.
LOVB has not announced its pay structure or schedule.
It's possible to earn six figures overseas, with the very best players making into the millions. But many more get paid far less, and some don't receive paychecks consistently.
PVF co-founder Dave Whinham said of some 300 American women who played in other countries last year, at least 120 were in PVF training camps this winter.
"That's impactful," Whinham said. "What else is so cool is so many of them have been pros for five, six, seven, eight years. So we’re not walking into the North American professional sports scene as a minor league. We’re rocking it at a very high level."
PVF held its college draft in December and league officials were pleased, if not a bit surprised, 30 of the 35 selected players signed contracts, including No. 1 overall pick Asjia O'Neal of Texas. Including veterans, at least 35 players in the league have been members of national or Olympic teams.
PVF officials said their league's competitive level this season probably won't match that of the top leagues in Europe and Asia, but they predict it will within five years.
Whinham and PVF co-founder Stephen Evans have worked together on several sports and entertainment projects over 25 years and began planning for a women's pro league as the volleyball boom started about 10 years ago.
League administration is headed by CEO Jen Spicher, a longtime business executive and former college player and club coach. Former Florida State coach Cecile Reynaud is vice president of operations and former Texas A&M coach Laurie Corbelli is operations consultant. Four-time U.S. Olympian Logan Tom is director of international development and player strategy.
The start is well-timed. The sport drew global attention in August when the largest documented crowd for a women's sporting event — 92,003 showed up to see perennial college power Nebraska play Omaha at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln. More than 19,000 attended each of the two nights of the NCAA final four in Tampa, Florida. The championship match was televised on ABC for the first time and attracted 1.7 million viewers.
CBS Sports Network will televise at least 10 PVF regular-season matches in addition to the playoffs. The PVF also has streaming agreements with Bally Sports and Stadium.
While the PVF has a more traditional structure, each LOVB team is associated with a junior volleyball club in its market where the pros train alongside club players and join them in other activities.
"Most leagues start kind of top down, if you will," CEO Katlyn Gao said. "They start with pro [team] and then do programs with local youth clubs. What we saw as an opportunity was how vibrant and expansive the network of youth volleyball there already is at the club level, so we've asked these clubs to join us."
The most significant previous attempt to establish a U.S. pro league was Major League Volleyball. MLV came about following a mini volleyball boom after the United States won the silver medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Most players earned $5,000 and had day jobs as coaches or in the 9-to-5 world. The league folded for financial reasons a month into its third season in 1989.
The PVF's Corbelli, one of the '84 Olympians who played in MLV, said she's confident it's the right time for a women's pro league in this country. Athletes Unlimited is in a different orbit with its structure and short season. As for the PVF and LOVB, the questions are whether one or both can survive long-term even if they play different times of year or whether they will merge.
"The hardest part for me is all these volleyball people are a family. We all know each other. There's no animosity. It's just hard because we're going to go head-to-head for players and cities. It's going to have to happen until one league ..." Corbelli said, her voice trailing off.
"As I look ahead," she said, "I don’t know if it can sustain that way. It might. I'm no palm reader, but I just kind of think it would be nice to have one strong, great league. Both of these leagues really want to do it and make it work."
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