Volleyball players and fans in 2010 are familiar with volleyball’s unique positions. We see setters running the offense, ever taller middle hitters blocking like monsters, strong, spry outside hitters pummeling the ball and liberos and defensive specialists diving across the floor for digs. We’re accustomed to seeing both volleyball played at the highest levels both indoors and on the sand. Men and women have equal access to the sport, and both male and female athletes excel at the game.
By 1964, the first time volleyball was played at the Olympic games, volleyball was popular internationally but didn’t offer much in the way of a career for its athletes. There haven’t been many attempts at making indoor 6-on-6 volleyball a professional sport in the United States despite it’s international popularity. For outstanding players who don’t want to play on the beach, the only option has been to travel abroad and play professionally in other countries.
But now the newly-minted Women’s National Volleyball Association (WNVA) is trying to change that, at least for women. The WNVA will have its teams’ home cities chosen through a reality television show (you heard me — reality television), but other than that there isn’t much information currently available as of this writing.
But back to the history. In 1965 the California Beach Volleyball Association (CBVA) was formed, and it’s still one of the primary proving grounds for beach volleyball players who are looking to earn a spot on the more lucrative Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) tour. The AVP was originally founded in 1983 to protect the volleyball players, and it experienced a meteoric rise in popularity during the late 1980’s and 1990’s. Women’s events weren’t always included in the AVP tour, and the Women’s Professional Volleyball Association (WPVA) formed in 1986. Some women’s teams moved between the two tours from time to time, but eventually the women’s portion of the AVP folded in 1995.
The FIVB (Federational Internationale de Volleyball) beach volleyball tours became increasingly well-funded throughout the 90’s, with total season prize money reaching into the millions of dollars. Ironically, just as two-person beach volleyball was becoming increasingly popular (and lucrative) on an international level, both the WPVA and the AVP were having financial problems. The WPVA went under in 1997, never to surface again, and in 1998 the AVP declared chapter 11 bankruptcy. Meanwhile the U.S. men’s teams took home both gold and silver medals in the inaugural beach volleyball appearance at the 1996 Olympic games.
In 1999 a partnership known as Major League Volleyball purchased the AVP out of bankruptcy and funded the 1999 season. The 2000 Olympics saw another U.S. Men’s gold medal, while back in the U.S. the BVA (Beach Volleyball America) has picked up where the WPVA left off, bringing back professional women’s beach volleyball. However after only two seasons the BVA is incorporated back into the AVP, which is bought in 2001 by Agent Leonard Armato and his company Management Plus. The new AVP features both men’s and women’s teams, and the sport has experienced a resurgence since 2001, helped by gold and bronze medal finishes by the women’s beach volleyball teams in 2004 as well as the double gold medals brought home in 2008. For a more detailed time line of beach volleyball moments, check out the Beach Volleyball Database.
Meanwhile, indoor volleyball was having a growth spurt of its own. The 1974 World Championships in Mexico became the first televised volleyball matches (although they were only televised in Japan), in 1975 the USVBA created its first full-time training program for the women’s national team in Pasadena, CA, in 1977 the men’s team got a training program in Dayton, OH and with the passage of Title IX in 1975, women’s college volleyball began to receive the same amount of funding and attention as men’s volleyball.
The U.S. men’s and women’s national teams have had comparable success at the Olympics since indoor volleyball’s debut in 1964. The men’s team has earned four medals total (three gold, one bronze), while the women’s team has won three (two silver, one bronze). The beach total is similar, with the men currently at three gold medals and one silver and the women currently at two gold and one bronze.
Although still extremely popular internationally, indoor volleyball in the U.S. doesn’t offer many opportunities for players after the college level aside from the national team. Many players move to the beach, or if they prefer the indoor game to the beach they have to go abroad. One can hope that with recent Olympic medal going up we’ll see some efforts to keep American players at home.