The volleyball season for high school girls has just come to a close. But there’s plenty to celebrate. Indoor volleyball, often seen as the unglamorous older cousin of the beach version, has been making a huge comeback.
Indoor volleyball is now among the most popular sports for American teenage girls. The college game has benefited from both these new recruits and from a steady stream of Title IX federal funding. So much so, that the NCAA, whose Women’s Volleyball Championships are taking place in San Antonio later this month (15th-17th December), now has three separate divisional contests to accommodate demand. The final rounds are expected to play to audiences over 15,000 strong.
The U.S. women are now ranked world no.1 by the FIVB the (International Volleyball Federation) and were runners-up in this year’s Women’s Volleyball World Cup. The men went one better taking gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Amateur in the U.S., professional in the rest of the world
Yet despite this American volleyball has been unable to sustain a professional league. By contrast, Europe has pro-leagues in Greece, Spain, Germany and Russia. While in Italy, volleyball is not only professional but rich and extensively covered on TV and in print. The same goes for Japan and China. In Brazil, volleyball is second only to soccer in popularity and income.
At a global level volleyball has made huge strides. This weekend the final round of matches in the Men’s Volleyball World Cup will be played in Japan and shown in over a hundred territories. The tournament is underwritten by a long-term deal with Japanese TV and sponsors.
The U.S. is in Tokyo but the team is unlikely to attract back home a fraction of the attention given to the games in volleyball’s heartlands and in new and enthusiastic converts like Iran – the tournament’s surprise package.
The contrast between America’s college-based game and the world of commercial volleyball is surprising given that volleyball like basketball, its muscular Christian cousin, began life as a project for YMCA physical educators in nineteenth-century Massachusetts.
Created in Massachusetts
Basketball, first codified in 1891 by James Naismith, was designed to provide winter recreation in the organizations’ underused gyms. However, not everyone could cope with the physicality of the game, least of all the slow-moving businessmen that came to William Morgan’s classes in the Western Massachusetts town of Holyoke.
Morgan abandoned dribbling and favored patting as a less strenuous ways of moving the ball around the court. He premiered Mintonette at a YMCA conference in 1895. Fortunately, Professor Alfred. T. Halstead, who was watching the debut, thought the name volleyball better captured the game’s essence.
Over the next 20 years volleyball proved a massive hit, spreading through the YMCAs’ network of gyms and becoming a favorite of the U.S. armed forces. The game was taken up almost as rapidly in the YMCAs of China, Japan, Canada, Cuba, and South America.
Volleyball came to Europe care of the U.S. army who, in addition to their fighting duties in the First World War, distributed 160,000 volleyballs to the public. At the inter-allied games – a huge sporting festival between the teams of allied armies held in Paris in 1919 – the Americans put on volleyball exhibitions in front of large and enthusiastic crowds.
After the army came home, volleyball settled into middle age as a wholesome and minor fixture on college sports programs. William Morgan left the game for a comfortable career with General Electric and America left the running of the game to the rest of the world.
A dark side
In its absence America could be forgiven for thinking that volleyball has made a pact with the dark side. For along with money and popularity has come trouble.
In Greece the ultra groups of organized and sometimes violent fans that formed around soccer teams have transferred their allegiance and behavior to volleyball. Just have a look at what happened on October 29 during this women’s match.
But the real trouble has been with money. The commercial transformation of volleyball was orchestrated by the Mexican Reuben Acosta, the autocratic president of the FIVB for over twenty years. Acosta brought beach volleyball into the fold, changed the rules of both versions of the sport to make them TV-friendly, and insisted on athletes wearing more revealing uniforms.
Acosta also signed big commercial deals with cuts for himself. He treated the federation as a personal fiefdom.
It was the revelations of the Argentinean whistleblower Mario Goijman and an International Olympic Committee (IOC) ethics committee investigation that, in effect, forced Acosta to resign, four years earlier than planned, in 2008.
The Argentinean whistleblower
Goijman, who was president of the Argentinean volleyball federation, went public in 2005 with detailed accusations of corruption, including the FIVB’s failure to pay him large sums of money that he had personally underwritten to put on the 2002 world championships in Argentina.
Acosta didn’t go without a fight. He was acquitted of the charges in a Swiss court while Goijman was drummed out of the sport, engaged in tortuous and expensive litigation and left in very poor health. Despite receiving some of his legal costs from the FIVB, he is now on the verge of bankruptcy.
I spoke to Goijman for Latitude News from Buenos Aires. He told me that next week he will be homeless: there is now an official repossession order on his house.
Despite everything, however, he has been watching the volleyball World Cup in Tokyo this week. “The standard of global volleyball is excellent, the play is so athletic now”, he said. “Look at the gigantic, noisy crowds for the Japanese games especially…but this is only the surface. Look underneath and you will see the game is still rotten”.
Acosta’s Chinese successor, Jizhong Wei, has stopped the practice of officials receiving a commission on the organization’s commercial deals. He has pledged to step down voluntarily in 2012 and said in an interview for the Olympic games magazine, aroundtherings.com, that his goal is to “set up a democratic system and mechanism in order to limit the absolute power of the president.”
Some people in American volleyball wish to see the growing college game underwrite a sustainable professional league. Be careful what you wish for.